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“American Abstract Artists – Historical Outline” was published in Slobodkina, Esphyr. American Abstract Artists: Its Publications, Catalogs and Membership. Great Neck, NY: Urquhart-Slobodkina, 1979.
Esphyr Slobodkina was a founding member of American Abstract Artists. She served as president from 1963 to 1965, participated in three print portfolios and was an active member throughout her life.
AAA Historical Outline by Esphyr Slobodkina
“Our purpose is to unite abstract artists residing in the United States, to bring before the public their individual works, and in every possible way foster public appreciation for this direction in painting and sculpture. We believe that a new art form has been established which is definite enough in character to demand this united effort. This art is to be distinguished from those efforts characterized by expressionism, realistic representation, surrealism, etc.”
—Preface, 1938 catalog, American Abstract Artists (Second Annual Exhibition)
What were the circumstances under which this unique organization sprang up and rapidly took root? What were the sources which contributed to its development?
The year was 1936. The place—New York City. The period—economic depression, and practically total isolation of the general public from all contact with the current advanced aesthetic trends.
Not since the famous 1913 Armory Show, at which some examples of post-Impressionism and Cubism had been shown, did the American dealers and public museums present the public with anything more contemporary than the American Impressionists, Expressionists, and semi-Cubists. And when, finally, in 1936, the Museum of Modern Art did offer its public an exhibition of cubist and abstract art, only European artists were included. The abstract artists did exist in America, but the contact with his public was all but entirely denied him.
It was to face these problems that a group of painters and sculptors working, in varying degrees, in the non-objective form of art, began to meet at Lassaw’s studio. These meetings were limited to the most militant few. Theoretical and practical sides of artists’ problems came in for a considerable amout of heated discusision. So much so that the news of a new and exciting prospect of forming a nucleus of an “art movement” spread rapidly, and other painters and sculptors working in non-objective or near non-objective form began to join the informal meetings.
One thing became abundantly clear: there were non-objective painters and sculptors in the U.S. and they were getting very tired of being ignored by the very institutions which were supposed to be dedicated to the showing of works by modern American artists. The meetings became noisy, spirited and, gradually, crowded. Lassaw’s studio became too small to accommodate the growing numbers of the militants, and the headquarters were moved to an elegantly converted studio loft and, later, to a still more commodious studio.
The membership continued to grow, healthy, vigorous discussions continued to thrive, and plans for the future of the group were laid. On April 3, 1937 the first exhibition of American Abstract Artists opened at the Squibb Gallery, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. While the reception by the press was far from favorable, the enormous attendance of over 1500 visitors during the exhibition period showed the genuine interest this unconventional art movement could count upon.
Greatly encouraged by the success of this first exhibition and by the rapid growth of its membership, the group began planning further activities. The year 1938 saw an exhibition and lecture at Columbia University, Second Annual Exhibition at the Art Students’ League Building and the publication of the first catalog.
The second exhibition drew tremendous attention, beginning with the AAA flag waving above the entrance to the gallery and ending with the realization by the critics of the fact that modern art was invading the very inner sanctum of the traditional art. Critical opinion was about equally divided between scathing denunciations and benign curiosity.
Two additional New York shows were held in 1938, one at the Contemporary Arts Center and the other at the Municipal Art Gallery.
The year 1940 was a stormy one. All the major museums and most of the art critics continued hostile to the now thriving American Abstract Artists. An active protest culminated in the forms of a picket line in front of the Museum of Modern Art. A brochure, containing examples of obtuse and often contradictory comments of the leading art critics, was distributed at the Fourth Annual Exhibition.
The end of the war brought back prosperity and, with it, a certain amount of material success to some of the members of the group. Though quite a number of original members left, new and younger forces joined the group.
During the years, American Abstract Artists has participated in many foreign exhibitions and, in turn, has been host to foreign artists as well as many notable non-member Americans. The latest of its five published volumes is entitled “The World of Abstract Art.”