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‘Committed to her vision’: Russian artist Esphyr Slobodinka very hard to categorize

“Self-Portrait,” 1928, watercolor, 11 x 9 inches by Esphyr Slobodkina. (Courtesy of LewAllen Galleries)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Esphyr Slobodkina’s work hung in the first modern art museum in the U.S. next to pieces by Pablo Picasso, Juan Miró, Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian.

She was the only woman and the only American included in collector A.E. Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art located at New York University, a forerunner of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe is showcasing her work in “The Many Worlds of Esphyr Slobodkina” through May 15.

The title is apt. The Russian-born artist was not easy to categorize or pinpoint. Slobodkina changed styles as often as she switched mediums. Viewers can spot echoes of Picasso, the Swiss expressionist/surrealist Paul Klee, Cubism and even representationalism in her work. Her choice of mediums included oil, watercolor, found objects, collage, wood and fabric.

During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Slobodkina emigrated with her family to Harbin, Manchuria (China), where she studied art and architecture. She left for the United States in 1928, enrolling at New York’s National Academy of Design.

In the early 20th century, while various modernist threads progressed in Europe, the sentiment in America (and particularly among art critics) viewed modernism with derision, instead favoring contemporary American trends in regionalist or social realist art. Ignoring that atmosphere, in 1936, Slobodkina co-founded the American Abstract Artists, a group that met and exhibited together at noncommercial galleries and museums in New York.

Slobodkina’s mother worked as a seamstress, an occupation that would surface in her daughter’s work.

“She designs her own clothes, she made her own clothes, she designed her own fabric,” Santa Fe art historian Justin Ferate said.

“For Slobodkina, the ideas were always fresh. It also makes her very hard to categorize. She was constantly going back and forth in her toy box.

“Most artists reach a point where they have a style,” Ferate continued. “With Slobodkina, there is no repeating anything because she’s always dabbling.” The artist worked at a New Jersey fabric plant, the home of the design industry.

“She also uses the fabric as part of her artwork,” Ferate said.

1960’s “Spanned” reveals both her architectural and fiber influences.

“She attached the fabric to the canvas,” Ferate said. “There’s also some painting and some appliqué. The idea of journeys is often present in her work.”

In 1933’s “Cornelia Street Bedroom,” Slobodkina finds the essence of an object – a chair, a table, a lamp – through bright spheres of color and form.

“None of this is meant to be literal,” Ferate said. “It’s meant to be looking at the world in a different way.”

In the late 1930s, Slobodkina began to write and illustrate her own children’s books. Among her 24 published works, “Caps for Sale” (1940) is considered a children’s classic; it has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Slobodkina’s “Self Portrait,” a 1928 watercolor, shows the influence of German Expressionism when that country was about to be overrun by Hitler. The painted smudges comprising her facial outline resemble charcoal.

“There’s a wonderful looseness to this piece,” Ferate said. “She’s actually capturing her personality better than a photograph; she’s looking at you quite candidly.”

Her “Fairytale Without Words,” 1960s, is a mixed-media piece featuring costume jewelry and abalone on fabric.

The lines could be rivers or roads dappled with clusters of animals. In Jewish culture, it could be the way to the Garden of Eden, Ferate said. The piece also reflects the long-held Russian and Jewish traditions of storytelling.

“They’re meant to be the magic of a fairy tale,” he added.

Having had work exhibited internationally at such institutions as the Galeria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, among others, and with work now in the permanent collections of such major museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Slobodkina is acknowledged today as a ground-breaking innovator of American abstract art – one who was resolutely committed to her own personal vision.

“What makes her important is that she had a distinctive vision,” Ferate said.

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