Esphyr Slobodkina, Purple Abstraction (1939), oil on canvas, 20″ x 27-3/4″; courtesy D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.
* * *
If you’re under the age of 60, there’s a good chance you’ve come in contact with the work of the abstract painter Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002), but maybe not through her abstract paintings. Slobodkina is the author of Caps for Sale, a picture book detailing the encounter between a peddler selling hats and a group of mischievous monkeys. Considered a classic of children’s literature, Caps for Sale has sold more than two million copies since it was first published in 1938. Slobodkina wrote other children’s books as well and achieved a level of fame as an author that eluded her as a painter. Not that the art went unnoticed—the work is out there, found in the collections of major museums throughout the United States. Kraushaar Galleries Inc. is showing a small but representative selection of Slobodkina’s paintings and works on paper.
Slobodkina, the artist, is worth getting to know, though no one is likely to mistake her for a great painter. Born in Russia, she came to the States in 1928, enrolled at the National Academy of Design and helped found the American Abstract Artists group. Taking as a given the innovations of Cubism, Neo-Plasticism and, to a lesser degree, Surrealism, Slobodkina funneled them through a gentle and idiosyncratic temperament. Modernist purity wasn’t her thing: Slobodkina’s flat, interpenetrating planes and loose-limbed biomorphs engage in whimsically acrobatic scenarios. An erotic undercurrent is there to see in a tactile palette and, especially, the manner in which her cobbled shapes balance and touch, as if they were capable of registering the slightest sensation. Slobodkina’s “journey into abstraction” is more charming than epochal, but that’s not to say you won’t perk up when acquainted with it.
© 2004 Mario Naves
Originally published in the October 25, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.