Esphyr Slobodkina (American (born in Russia), 1908–2002)
49.5 x 105.4 cm (19 1/2 x 41 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil with mixed media attachments on wood board
The 1940s and 1950s (Gallery 336)
After immigrating to New York City from Russia in 1928, Slobodkina became affiliated with a group of artists pursuing abstraction. She eventually married one of the leaders of the movement, Ilya Bolotowsky, whose painting hangs in the gallery, and was a founding member of American Abstract Artists established in 1937. This work, which was named for her sister, recalls the abstract planar arrangements of opaque color found in synthetic cubism, as well as the constructions of early modern Russian artists she would have seen in her youth.
In this abstract collage, Slobodkina drew upon a unique combination of Russian and American influences to create a lyrical tribute to her older sister Tamara. Born in Russia, both Slobodkina and her sister experienced a childhood shaped in large part by the violent and chaotic Russian Revolution of 1917–20. During this difficult period, the young artist was deeply moved by an exhibition of the work of Ukrainian-born futurist David Burliuk [41.476], and she may also have seen the groundbreaking constructivist assemblages of Russian abstract artists such as Vladimir Tatlin. After immigrating to New York City in 1928, both Slobodkina and her sister Tamara began to study art at the National Academy of Design (Tamara later abandoned painting to study music).
Perhaps recalling the avant-garde art she had seen in Russia, Slobodkina was discouraged by her experiences with that more conservative American school. It was a fellow Russian émigré artist, Ilya Bolotowsky [1980.208], who helped Slobodkina find her way to the mature abstract style of Tamara Abstraction. She later wrote in her autobiography that Bolotowsky “managed to completely revive my interest in painting, restore my confidence in myself, and plant my feet firmly on the way to becoming a competent painter.”  Slobodkina and Bolotowsky were married in 1933 and divorced three years later.
Tamara Abstraction includes such unusual materials as screws, washers, and cork, which the artist applied directly to the wooden support. Slobodkina also scraped away areas of paint to reveal the plain wood beneath, creating a unique, three-dimensional assemblage of shapes. With these innovative elements, Slobodkina refers both to the avant-garde Russian art she saw in her youth and to the collages of fellow early American abstractionists George L. K. Morris [1990.428] and Charles Green Shaw [2008.108]. Yet as a tribute to her sister, with whom she was very close, Slobodkina’s painting is more personal and biographical than much of the abstract work upon which it draws. Perhaps because of that sentimental value, Tamara Abstraction remained in the artist’s personal collection until the end of her life, when the MFA acquired it.
1. Joyce Nakamura, ed., Something About the Author Autobiography Series, vol. 8 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1989), 290.
signed at the lower right: Esphyr Slobodkina
1945, the artist. By 2002, Kraushaar Galleries, Inc., N. Y.; 2002, sold by the Kraushaar Galleries to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 26, 2002)
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund
Reproduced with permission of the Slobodkina Foundation.