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ILYA BOLOTOWSKY

(1907–1981)

American Painter and Sculptor

By Leslie Seibert

Ilya Bolotowsky was an American artist of Russian birth who achieved success as a painter, sculptor, muralist, teacher, and filmmaker. He constantly embraced new trends falling under various styles such as cubism and neo-plasticism.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Ilya Bolotowsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on July 1, 1907. His father was a lawyer in Russia and continued to practice law in the United States until he died in 1957. His mother studied natural sciences but became a self-taught painter. Bolotowsky was home-schooled by a private tutor starting at a fairly early age which helped spark his interest in the arts, allowing him to practice painting and drawing. However, after the Russian Revolution, Bolotowsky and his family fled to Istanbul, where Bolotowsky attended the College of St. Joseph from 1921 until 1923. In 1923 they immigrated to the United States, settling in New York. Bolotowsky soon enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City, attending school from 1923 until 1930 with Ivan Olinsky (1878-1962).

During the 1930s, Bolotowsky became associated with a group called “The Ten,” which included artists Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974), who rebelled against the strictures of the Academy and held independent exhibitions, exploring the use of abstraction for expressive purposes. Bolotowsky explored unusual and abstract art as a young artist, interested in unconventional styles for his time. He began to work as an art teacher and textile designer to afford his interest in painting. In 1930, Bolotowsky had his first independent show at New York’s G.R.D. studios. He soon received a small scholarship which funded his excursion to Europe. In 1932, Bolotowsky traveled throughout Europe for ten months, making brief stops in Italy, Germany, Denmark, England, and Paris. Returning to the United States, Bolotowsky experimented with several different styles, such as constructivism and biomorphic abstraction, focusing on the work of artists like Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) and the work of expressionists. Upon his return from Europe in 1933, Bolotowsky went on an artist retreat to the artist’s colony Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.

After Yaddo, Bolotowsky returned to New York City and toyed with several stylistic approaches, deeply influenced by two artists he experienced while abroad: Spanish artist Joan Miró (1893-1983) and Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Bolotowsky adopted Mondrian’s use of horizontal and vertical geometric pattern and a palette restricted to primary and neutral colors. In 1936 he painted one of the first abstract murals of the Works Progress Administration, the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York. This program aimed to provide work for artists during the Depression and this mural was one of the first abstract murals to be completed under the Federal Art Project. Although Bolotowsky demonstrated clear control of his images, he was less concerned with the method of creation when determining his subject and focused on the importance of how the painting would impact the viewer. In the same year, Bolotowsky acted as one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists Group, an organization of painters who were dedicated to abstraction with the purpose to increase the acceptance and understanding of the style. These artists worked within several abstract styles, including cubism, neo-plasticism and biomorphic expressionism. He also co-founded the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors.

Also during the 1930s, Bolotowsky was married for several years to artist Esphyr Slobodkina (1908 – 2002). She was a versatile painter, sculptor, and illustrator, most widely known for the children’s books that she illustrated and sometimes wrote. Her art displayed elements of cubism, constructivism, and abstract surrealism in clever and vigorous works, very similar to the early work of Bolotowsky.

During the 1940s, Bolotowsky developed his art within the neo-plastic style, completely eliminating his art of biomorphic elements and working solely with horizontal and vertical divisions. During this time, he also experimented with the shape of the canvas, well-known for the diamond, oval and rectangle. After completing the Williamsburg Housing Project in 1939, he began to work on his next project, the New York World’s Fair mural. This mural was located in the Hall of Medical Science, where Louis Scanker (1903-1981) also had a mural. These murals had a combination of biomorphic and geometric shapes. In 1941, he completed another federal arts project in the Hospital of Chronic Disease on Welfare Island. It was the largest abstract mural in the hospital measuring nine or ten feet high by fifty feet.

Around the completion of this mural, World War II was getting bad and Bolotowsky took a test to become a technical translator of Russian for the War Department. Without preliminary training, he became a technical translator and began writing a military dictionary. Bolotowsky was then sent to do liaison work in languages at Nome, Alaska, with the Soviet Air Force.

After serving in World War II, Bolotowsky returned to his family’s apartment in New York City and began painting again, beginning exactly where he left off like there was no time lapse. He met J.B. Neumann, who became a dealer for the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery and set up Bolotowsky’s first real one-man show in 1946 at the New Art Circle. Continuing in the same year, Bolotowsky soon began teaching, starting with a two year appointment at the Black Mountain College from 1946 until 1948. After, Bolotowsky moved to the University of Wyoming, teaching as an associate professor of art until 1957. While in Wyoming he started making experimental films, receiving a grant for filming from the graduate school.

Starting in the 1950s until around 1970, Bolotowsky produced many films, winning first prize for Metanoia at the Midwest Film Festival at the University of Chicago in 1963. Although Bolotowsky produced various films, he still taught at numerous locations throughout the United States. From 1957 to 1965, Bolotowsky was a professor of art at State Teachers’ College in New Paltz, New York and then from 1965 to 1971 he taught at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater. Although committed to his long-term teaching jobs, Bolotowsky was also had short-term and adjunct positions at Brooklyn College (1954-56), Hunter College (1963-64), University of New Mexico (1969), and Queen’s College (1973); officially retiring from teaching in 1976. He returned to New York City and died at the age of 74 in 1981.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

“I want things to be pure and simple.”- Ilya Bolotowsky (1974)

While growing up in Russia, Bolotowsky was able to develop his interest in art through private teaching and tutoring, either from his professional tutor or his mother (a self-taught artist). However, he soon received an education in Istanbul and New York City. His beginning paintings were created through a combination of biomorphic and geometric shapes on the flat picture plane. Consisting of timid arrangements of small rectangles on rectangular and diamond-shaped grounds with muted, mixed colors he employed by combining melancholy minor colors, as well as painting with primary colors. His beginning paintings are typical of many sober, unresolved, but serviceable cubist compositions, based on synthetic cubism and Russian constructivism and suprematism. An example of this early style is Abstraction (1934), an oil on canvas, depicting a combination of biomorphic and geometric shapes in contrasting colors.

Bolotowsky’s style was soon influenced by Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró and their abstract art. Bolotowsky first saw Piet Mondrian’s paintings in 1933 at the Gallatin Collection at New York University. Mondrian’s art fell under the De Stijl style of modernism, a form of nonobjective art that emphasized the need for abstraction and simplification and for clarity, certainty, and order. After this first confrontation with the style of De Stijl, Bolotowsky’s art evolved from his earlier figurative and semi-abstraction to an even more abstract style that he called neo-plasticism.

Over time, Bolotowsky discarded all illusion of space and banished biomorphic forms from his paintings, developing his own style from the true neo-plasticism discipline. He limited the right angle relationships between forms and decided to banish the diagonal because it disturbed the balanced spatial tension and harmony he was aiming to achieve. Bolotowsky explains, “I work in the neo-plastic style because for me it is the most meaningful and exciting direction of art. As a neo-plasticist, I strive after an ideal of harmony… neoplasticism can achieve unequaled tension, equilibrium, and harmony through the relationship of the vertical and horizontal elements” (Utah Museum of Fine Arts). Mondrian’s clear style aided Bolotowsky in achieving balance throughout his paintings by using right angles, eliminating the diagonal, and creating a sense of order (American Art at the Phillips Collection). However, unlike Mondrian, Bolotowsky did not restrict himself to the traditional style of De Stijl, expanding his palette and not restricting it to the primary colors of yellow, red and blue (although he did generally use these colors in the larger areas of his canvas). Bolotowsky preferred to emphasize a variety of colors that were muted, earthy, unorthodox in variety and totally un-European in feeling. Starting around 1947, he also experienced with shaped canvases, starting with a diamond-shape, followed by ovals, tondos (round), ellipse, and odd rectangles. These complicated shapes display the high degree of control Bolotowsky had in his later work.

Continuing to change in style, Bolotowsky was influenced by the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950s. His colors became tuned up and saturated and his shapes became larger and fewer. His paintings stand out with moreclashes in colors and resolutions of bright rectangular shapes. Bolotowsky’s sophisticated geometric abstractions were based on a balance between linear spatial divisions and striking color tonalities. His paintings are said to have a “particular aliveness that distinguishes art from decoration” (Herrera). An example of these later images is Large Cobalt Diamond (1957). It has fewer and larger colors and shapes, and the edge of the canvas balances the linear movements of the image.

In 1961, Bolotowsky began applying his favored primary colors to column-like three dimensional forms. The painted imagery on the surface of these columns and sculpture reflect his paintings. These three-dimensional sculptures allowed Bolotowsky to create an “ideal, balanced harmony” through the interaction of building blocks: line, color, and plane (Biographical Resource Center). His paintings within the 1970s use primary colors mixed with black and white, emphasizing the vivid contrasts between colors. He uses geometric shapes that are more rigid with straight edges, becoming more like decorative art (Raynor). In addition to painting, Bolotowsky created films and plays. He expressed various kinds of subjective and emotional issue within them, which he consciously eliminated from his neo-plastic pictorial images.

III. CHRONOLOGY

  • 1907 Born on July 1 in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • 1921-23 Attends the College of St. Joseph, Istanbul
  • 1923 Immigrates to United States (New York City, NY)
  • 1923-30 Attends the National Academy of Design in New York City, NY
  • 1929 Becomes an official American citizen
  • 1930 Becomes a member of The Ten
  • 1930 First independent exhibition at New York’s G.R.D. Studios, NY
  • 1932 Travels to Europe (10 months)
  • 1933 Marries Esphyr Slobodkina
  • 1933 Goes to Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York
  • 1936 Paints the Williamsburg Housing Project Mural, Brooklyn, New York
  • 1936 Creates the American Abstract Artists Group
  • 1939 Creates New York World’s Fair mural located in the Hall of Medical Science
  • 1941 Completes a mural in the Hospital of Chronic Disease on Welfare Island
  • 1941 Becomes a technical translator for World War II
  • 1946 Independent exhibition at the New Art Circle
  • 1946-48 Teaches at Black Mountain College
  • 1948-57 Associate professor at University of Wyoming
  • 1954-56 Teaches at Brooklyn College
  • 1957-65 Professor of art at State Teachers’ College in New Paltz, NY
  • 1963 Wins first prize at Midwest Film Festival at the University of Chicago for Metanoia
  • 1963-63 Teaches at Hunter College
  • 1965-71 Teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater
  • 1969 Teaches at the University of New Mexico
  • 1973 Teaches at Queen’s College
  • 1976 Retires from teaching
  • 1981 Dies at the age of 74
  • IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
  • Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
  • Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama
  • Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
  • Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia
  • Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
  • Guggenheim Museum, New York
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • University of Iowa Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • Lyman Alyn Museum, New London, Connecticut
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • Michener Art Museum, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
  • University of Minnesota, Duluth, Minnesota
  • Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.
  • New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, New Jersey
  • University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Edward Root Collection, Utica, New York
  • Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
  • Salt Lake City Art Center, Salk Lake City, Utah
  • San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
  • Sheldon Memorial Museum, Norwich, Connecticut
  • Slater Memorial Museum, Norwich, Connecticut
  • Societe Anonyme Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  • The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
  • Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
  • Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana
  • Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Whitney Museum, New York
  • Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • Solo-Exhibitions:
  • 1930 G.R.D. Studios New York
  • 1946 New Art Circle, J.B. Neumann, New York
  • 1947 The Pinacotheca, New York
  • 1949 Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York
  • 1950 The Rose Fried Gallery (The Pinacotheca), New York
  • 1952 New Art Circle, J.B. Neumann, New York
  • 1954 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1956 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1958 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1959 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1960 State University College, New Paltz, New York
  • 1961 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1963 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1964 Art Depot Gallery, La Grangeville, New York
  • 1965 Parish Art Museum, South Hampton, New York
  • 1966 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1966 East Hampton Gallery, New York
  • 1967 Gorham State College Art Gallery, New York
  • 1968 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1968 George Gershwin College, Stony Brook, New York
  • 1970 Painting and Columns, University Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (toured the United States)
  • 1970 Art Harris Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1971 London Arts Gallery
  • 1972 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1972 David Barnett Gallery, Milwaukee
  • 1973 Recent Serigraphs, Wichita Art Museum, Kansas
  • 1974 Guggenheim Museum, New York (retrospective; traveled to the National Collection, Washington, D.C.)
  • 1976 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1978 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1978 Fort Wayne Art Gallery, New York
  • 1980 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
  • 1980 Ilya Bolotowsky, WPA Murals: Paintings from 1935 – 1945, Washburn Gallery, New York
  • 1981 Salt Lake Art Center, Utah
  • 1982 Yares Gallery, Scottsdale, Arizona
  • 1983 Bolotowsky and His Circle, Grey Art Gallery, New York University
  • 1984 Washburn Gallery, New York
  • 1984 II Punto Blu Gallery, Southampton, New York
  • 1984 River Gallery, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York
  • 1984 Pembroke Gallery, Houston, Texas
  • 1987 Washburn Gallery, New York
  • Group Exhibitions:
  • 1942 2nd Annual Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, Wildenstein Galleries, New York (and annually in New York until 1971)
  • 1946 10th Annual Exhibition, American Abstract Artists, American-British Center, New York until 1972
  • 1950 Whitney Annual, Whitney Museum, New York (regularly until 1972)
  • 1971 The Non-Objective World, Galerie Jean Chauvelin, Paris (toured Europe)
  • 1972 Geometric Abstraction – 1930s, Zabriskie Gallery, New York (toured the United States)
  • 1972 Post-Mondrian Abstraction in America, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
  • 1978 Painting and Sculpture Today, Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • 1979 Recent Acquisitions, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • 1994 The Edge, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 1995 Artists of the Fifties, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 1997 Artists of the Fifties, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 1997 Special Collection, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 1997 Collector’s Choice, Center for the Arts, Vero Beach, Florida
  • 1998 Artists of the 1950’s, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 1999 The Abstract Expressionist Tradition, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • 2000-01 Credo of the Fifties, Anita Shapolsky Gallery, New York
  • Murals:
  • 1936 Williamsburg Housing Project, New York
  • 1939 Hall of Medical Science, World’s Fair, New York
  • 1946 Phillips Steel Co., Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
  • 1963 Cinema 1, New York
  • 1968 Southampton College, New York
  • 1973 North Central Bronx Hospital, New York
  • 1978 Social Securities Service Building, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1979 Port Authority Ship Terminal, New York
  • 1981 Houston Intercontinental Airport, Terminal C, Houston Texas
  • VI. MEMBERSHIPS

  • American Abstract Artists (co-founder, charter member, president)
  • Audubon Society
  • Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors (co-founder, charter member, vice-president)
  • Fine Arts Federation, New York (board of directors)
  • National Society of Mural Painters
  • Woodstock Artists Association
  • VII. AWARDS

  • 1925, 1926 First prize for drawing and Hallgarten prize for painting, National Academy of Design, New York
  • 1929-30 Scholarship, Tiffany Foundation, New York
  • 1933 Fellowship, Yaddo Foundation, Saratoga Springs, New York
  • 1941 Grant, Museum of Non-Objective Painting, New York
  • 1953-54 Grant for Experimental Film Work, University of Wyoming Graduate School, Laramie
  • 1959 First prize for painting, Sharon Creative Arts Foundation, Connecticut
  • 1963 First prize for Metanoia, Midwest Film Festival, University of Chicago
  • 1971 Abstract painting prize, National Institute of Arts and Letters
  • 1973 Guggenheim Foundation Grant
  • VIII. FILMS


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