Esphyr Slobodkina was born in Siberia in 1908. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, her family fled to Vladivostok before settling in Harbin, Manchuria. In 1928 Slobodkina immigrated to New York City. She enrolled in the National Academy of Design the following year primarily to meet the requirements of her student visa. It was through a fellow student at the Academy that Slobodkina met her future husband Ilya Bolotowsky, the student's brother. A progressive thinker who had yet to experiment with abstraction in his own painting, Bolotowsky introduced Slobodkina to modern theories of art, particularly in relation to form, color and composition. Associations with Balcomb and Gertrude Greene, Byron Browne and Giorgio Cavallon further exposed Slobodkina to the ideas of these pioneer abstract artists and sparked a personal interest in the movement.
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An invitation to the Yaddo artist colony brought Slobodkina and Bolotowsky to Saratoga Springs, New York in the early 1930s. It was during this visit that Slobodkina began tentative experimentation with abstraction, leading to her first Cubist-inspired work in 1934. Around this time Slobodkina's family moved to New York City, which temporarily sidelined her artistic progression as she was under great financial pressure to help support them. Alongside her mother, Slobodkina opened a dress shop, where she both designed and made the clothing. She also worked at a number of textile design firms throughout these years.
In 1935 Slobodkina separated from Ilya Bolotowsky and joined the Works Progress Administration. She also became very active in the Artists' Union, designing posters for them in paper collage. It was through the collage medium that she was able to develop her abstract style. By 1936 she had fully embraced abstraction as a means of artistic expression and her paintings reflected her interest in collage with their flat, layered forms and carefully constructed arrangements. In the mid-1930s Slobodkina created several Surrealist-inspired sculptures made of wood, wire, and found objects, in addition to her paintings. In 1937 she became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists and went on to be the group's president in later years.
Upon meeting Margaret Wise Brown, the children's books author, in 1937, Slobodkina was inspired to try her hand at book illustration. She provided the illustrations for Brown's The Little Fireman before writing and illustrating her own books, most notably Caps for Sale, published in 1938. In the early 1940s Slobodkina found a patron in A. E. Gallatin who purchased two of her works for his Museum of Living Art. Slobodkina was asked to participate in the important exhibition Eight by Eight: Abstract Painting Since 1940 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1945 which also featured Charles Green Shaw, George L.K. Morris, A.E. Gallatin, Suzy Frelinghuysen, Ilya Bolotowsky, Alice Trumbull Mason, and Ad Reinhardt. She was a regular exhibitor in the Whitney Museum of American Art's annuals through the 1950s. In 1957 Slobodkina was invited back to Yaddo and in 1958 she took her first of two trips to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Slobodkina's successes as an artist continued until her death in 2002.