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Abraham Walkowitz (March 28, 1878 - January 27, 1965) was an American painter grouped in with early American Modernists working in the Modernist style.
Birth and education
Walkowitz was born in Siberia and emigrated with his mother to the United States in his early childhood. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City and the Academie Julian in Paris under Jean-Paul Laurence. Walkowitz and his contemporaries later gravitated around photographer Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery, originally titled the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, where the forerunners of modern art in America gathered and where many European artists were first exhibited in the United States. During the 291 years, Walkowitz worked closely with Stieglitz as well as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin (often referred to as "The Stieglitz Quartet").
Early Career and Training
Walkowitz was drawn to art from childhood. In a 1958 oral interview with Abram Lerner, he recalled: "When I was a kid, about five years old, I used to draw with chalk, all over the floors and everything... I suppose it's in me. I remember myself as a little boy, of three or four, taking chalk and made drawings." In early adulthood, he worked as a sign painter and began making sketches of immigrants in New York's Jewish ghetto where he lived with his mother. He continued to pursue his formal training, and with funds from a friend traveled to Europe in 1906 to attend the Academie Julian. Through introductions made by Max Weber, it was here that he met Isadora Duncan in Auguste Rodin's studio, the modern American dancer whom had captured the attention of the avant-garde. Walkowitz went on to produce more than 5,000 drawings of Duncan.
Walkowitz' approach to art during these years stemmed from European modernist
ideas of abstraction, which were slowly infiltrating the American art psyche at
the turn of the century. Like so many artists of the time, Walkowitz was
profoundly influenced by the 1907 memorial exhibition of Cezanne's work in Paris
at the Salon d'Automne. Artist Alfred Werner recalled that Walkowitz found
Cezanne's pictures to be "simple and intensely human experiences." Working
alongside other Stieglitz-supported American modernists, Walkowitz refined his
style as an artist and produced various abstract works.
Group of artists in 1912, L to R : Paul Haviland, Abraham Walkowitz, Katharine N. Rhoades, Stieglitz's wife Emily, Agnes Ernst (Mrs. Eugene Meyer), Alfred Stieglitz, J.B. Kerfoot, John Marin
Although Walkowitz drew influences from modern European masters, he was cautious not to be imitative. Artist and critic Oscar Bluemner recognized this quality in Walkowitz’s work, citing the differences between the highly influential writings of Kandinsky and Walkowitz' style. He wrote: "Walkowitz is impelled by the ‘inner necessity’: Kandinsky, however, like the other radicals, appears not to proceed gradually and inwardly, but with a mind made up to commit an intellectual feat—which is not art."
Walkowitz first exhibited at the 291 in 1911 after being introduced to Stieglitz through Hartley, and stayed with the gallery until 1917. During the 291 years, the climate for modern art in America was harsh. Until the pivotal Armory Show of 1913 had occurred which Walkowitz was involved with and exhibited in, modern artists importing radical ideas from Europe were received with hostile criticism and a lack of patronage.
Isadora Duncan Drawings
In 1927, Isadora Duncan echoed the lines of Walt Whitman in her essay I See America Dancing, writing, "When I read this poem of Whitman’s I Hear America Singing I, too, had a Vision: the Vision of America dancing a dance that would be the worthy expression of the song Walt heard when he heard America singing." Duncan was the quintessence of modernism, shedding the rigid shackles of the balletic form and exploring movement through a combination of classical sculpture and her own inner sources. She described this search: "I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the body’s movement." For Duncan, dance was a distinctly personal expression of beauty through movement, and she maintained that the ability to produce such movement was inherently contained within the body.
Abraham Walkowitz was one of many artists captivated by this new form of movement. The Duncan drawings can be interpreted as representations of Walkowitz’s loftiest goals. Composing thousands of these drawings would prove to be one of the most effective outlets for his artistic agenda due to the similarities between the artistic ideals and preferred aesthetic shared by Walkowitz and Duncan. He was also able to draw from the same subject repeatedly and extract a different experience with each observation. Sculptors most readily recognized this trait in Duncan; there was a particular quality of her dance which appeared readily artistic, yet not static. Dance critic Walter Terry described it in 1963 as, "Although her dance inarguably sprang from her inner sources and resources of motor power and emotional drive, the overt aspects of her dance were clearly colored by Greek art and the sculptor’s concept of the body in arrested gesture promising further action. These influences may be seen clearly in photographs of her and in the art works she inspired."
In each drawing, a new observation is recorded from the same subject. In the Foreword to A Demonstration of Objective, Abstract, and Non-Objective Art, Walkowitz wrote in 1913, "I do not avoid objectivity nor seek subjectivity, but try to find an equivalent for whatever is the effect of my relation to a thing, or to a part of a thing, or to an afterthought of it. I am seeking to attune my art to what I feel to be the keynote of an experience." The relaxed fluidity of his action drawings represent Duncan as subject, but ultimately reconceive the unbound movement of her dance and translates the ideas into line and shape, ending with a completely new composition.
His interest in recording the "keynote" of experience rather than producing an objective representation of a subject is central to the composition of the Duncan drawings. The fluidity of the lines function simultaneously as recognizable shapes of the human body, but also trace the pathways of the dancer’s movements. Duncan herself wrote in 1920, "...there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul." Placed into a different context, this passage could function as a description of Walkowitz’s art; it is in fact taken from her essay The Philosopher’s Stone of Dancing wherein she discusses techniques to most effectively express the purest form of movement.
Walkowitz’s dedication to Duncan as a subject extended well past her untimely death in 1927. His body of work is a testament to Duncan’s art and their shared convictions toward modernism and the liberty to express oneself in a personal, spiritual fashion, breaking links with the past which demanded technical standards and formal convention. In 1958, Walkowitz told Lerner, "She Duncan had no laws. She did not dance according to the rules. She created. Her body was music. It was a body electric, like Walt Whitman. His body electrics. One of our greatest men, America's greatest, is Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass is to me the Bible."
Significance in Art History
While never attaining the same level of fame as his contemporaries, Walkowitz' close relationship with the 291 Gallery and Alfred Steiglitz placed him at the center of the modernist movement. His early abstract cityscapes and collection of over 5,000 drawings of Isadora Duncan also remain significant art historical records.
^ Lerner, Abram, and Bartlett Cowdrey. "Oral History Interview With Abraham Walkowitz." 8 Dec. & 22 Dec. 1958. Smithsonian Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/walkow58.htm
^ Alfred Werner, "Abraham Walkowitz Rediscovered," American Artist (August 1979): 54-59, 82-83.
^ Oscar Bluemner, "Walkowitz," 1933, reprinted in A Demonstration of Objective, Abstract, and Non-Objective Art, 4.
^ a b Sheldon Cheney, The Art of the Dance: Isadora Duncan, (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1969), 47.
^ Isadora Duncan, My Life (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1927), 75.
^ Walter Terry, Isadora Duncan: Her Life, Her Art, Her Legacy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963), 115.
^ Abraham Walkowitz, "Foreword," 1913, reprinted in A Demonstration of Objective, Abstract, and Non-Objective Art, 2.
^ "Oral History Interview."
Abraham Walkowitz's Drwaings of Isadora
Isadora Duncan Study, n.d.
Pen and Ink Figural Studies
Five Abstractions of Isadora Duncan
Early Pastels (Circa 1912-1917)
Linear Abstractions (Circa 1912-1936)
The Isadorables (Circa 1936)
A selection of Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965) watercolors of the famed American dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927) will be on view at Zabriskie Gallery from July 25 through September 10, 2005. Walkowitz met Isadora Duncan in the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s studio during a trip to France in 1906. After their introduction, Walkowitz watched her nature-inspired dance at a private salon, which significantly influenced the artist and led him to create numerous renderings of her. As few documentary photographs exist of Duncan, Walkowitz’s drawings are considered the most comprehensive record that capture her essential dance movements and style. These works were executed from memory and are principally in watercolor, others are in ink or pastel. The installation creates a cinema-like animation of the dancer’s free-form choreography.
About Duncan, Walkowitz recalled “She was a Muse. She had no laws. She didn’t dance according to rules. She created. She was like music. When she moved it was like the sound of violins, she was the Walt Whitman of women.” Utilizing minimal line, the artist evokes the energy of the dancer and records her expressive body gestures. Walkowitz captured the natural contour lines of her dance in quick studies which were used to produce much more dynamic and less studied poses.
Dancing bare-feet free with fluid action, Duncan is credited with initiating modern dance. Known for her costumes, bare feet and loose hair, Duncan allowed dancing to celebrate the simplicity and aesthetic of the ancient world of Athens. Duncan’s unusual tunics and scarves, which she fashioned herself and wore as typical dress, were based on the classical Greek sculpture and artwork that she had seen in the Louvre and the British Museum.
The kinetic action of Duncan’s dance is mirrored in Walkowitz’s geometric abstractions and cityscapes for which is widely known. A group of these works are also on view. Here the dancing lines and symphonic titles mirror Duncan’s flowing movements.
Walkowitz, who studied at the Cooper Union, the Educational Alliance in New York City and the National Academy of Design, was affiliated with the Stieglitz circle and the 291 gallery. Zabriskie Gallery represents the Abraham Walkowitz estate.
The Isadora Duncan Dance School opened in 1903 in Grunewald, Germany. Eighteen to twenty girls, ages four to ten, were boarded and educated free of charge. In order to provide the tuition for the girls, it was necessary for Isadora to tour extensively. In her absence, Isadora's sister Elizabeth was the director of the school; however, it was Isadora, who provided the artistic vision for the venture. Because of continuing financial difficulties, and Elizabeth's desire to assume a more significant position in the school, the Grunewald experiment closed in 1908. Elizabeth opened her own school in Darmstadt, with the majority of the pupils leaving with her. Six of the girls, who had become the principal dancers of the Grunewald school, remained with Isadora and were given the title: "Isadorables." They were Anna Denzler, Maria-Theresa Kruger, Irma Erich-Grimme, Elizabeth (Lisa) Milker, Margot (Gretel) Jehl, and Erica Lohmann. In 1919, Isadora legally adopted the six girls, and of these, Irma, Lisa and Anna permanently assumed the name Duncan.
Most of Walkowitz's drawings are quick, minimal pencil sketches, but there are approximately fifty-one pastels of Isadora Duncan in the University Gallery collection. These works are fairly large, approximately 14 x 20 inches and are on colored construction paper. Though varying in quality of execution, these works are among some of Walkowitz's most successful approaches to the subject. They embody two characteristic elements of Isadora and her dance: a strong sense of presence and elegance in drawing. They confront the viewer with the power of the dancer. It was probably a pastel rendering such as this that Isadora saw at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery in 1916, which allegedly caused her to say: "Walkowitz, you have written my biography in lines without words."
In Walkowitz's depiction, he shows in successive registers the Isadorables, and as the root and progenitor, Isadora is shown in the bottom row. Around the border of the composition, Walkowitz has lettered names of modern dancers, composers, and choreographers. It appears that this collage is a "family tree" of modern dance, and in it the ink drawings capture the persona of each dancer in dynamic abstract fashion without straying into generic formulas.
Isadora Duncan embodied the ideals of the modernists and expressed through her technique ideas regarding artistic freedom, and direct, personal reaction to sensation. Her dance echoed Walkowitz's ideas regarding artistic purpose and pure, spontaneous response. Walkowitz not only drew Isadora Duncan; he drew the movement of the dance. The pen and ink figural drawings from the early twentieth century show a lightness and deftness of handling, with an emphasis on sweeping gesture. By the 1930s, Walkowitz was experiencing failing eyesight from the complications of glaucoma. In the figures of Isadora, the dynamic movement and monumentality of the figure is still present, but the ink lines are thicker and more heavy-handed.
During the 1930s, Walkowitz participated in the WPA program in New York, and in 1935, he entered a competition for a New York post office mural commission. The theme was Justice. Apparently, Walkowitz's inspiration came from his Muse, Isadora Duncan. In her, he found the symbol he sought for Justice. In these preliminary drawings for his entry, Walkowitz depicts a court scene framing the central Isadora figure. In these drawings, he struggles with the concept of Justice. In a letter to his friend, Louis Schapiro, Walkowitz confides that he does not wish to confine his expression, but wants to show that since injustice affects everyone, therefore, the quest for justice is universal. Standing as an allegory above the masses, the monumentality of Isadora is a theme, which he continued to repeat in other sketches and even in a memorial painting he did of her in 1937. Although Walkowitz did not receive the commission, his view of Isadora as symbol continued to be reinforced in his later works.
Early Pencil, Crayon, and Watercolors
Examples of early naturalistic renderings of Isadora in pencil, crayon, and watercolor, date from 1906 until approximately 1911 or 1912. Walkowitz's rendering of Isadora owed much to the example of Parisian sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin commonly employed dancers to move about his studio, and he rapidly sketched contour drawings of the women (and occasionally men) in pencil. These quick studies were used collectively by him to produce sculptural models that were much more dynamic than studied poses. It was also in Rodin's studio where Walkowitz first saw Isadora Duncan dance. In his watercolors and drawings of Isadora, Walkowitz captures her movement through energized line or agitated brushwork. To be sure, the dancer's action is frozen, but the overriding quality of these studies is that of expression and dynamic movement in lines, which are both calligraphic and descriptive.