New York

Ilya Bolotowsky, Small Biomorph, ca. 1935, oil on board, 12 x 15 1/2".

Ilya Bolotowsky, Small Biomorph, ca. 1935, oil on board, 12 x 15 1/2".

Ilya Bolotowsky

In 1936, the painter Ilya Bolotowsky (1907–1981) cofounded American Abstract Artists, an organization instrumental to the advancement of European abstraction at a time when the form was “met with strong critical resistance” (according to the AAA) in the face of the then-dominant regionalism of artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. The Washburn Gallery’s presentation of Bolotowsky’s work, a selection of eight paintings created between 1935 and 1980, showed us an artist who was a staunch believer in the experimentalism and ideals of modernism, as well as a master of both the geometric and the biomorphic strains of abstraction.

Of the latter in this exhibition were Small Biomorph, ca. 1935; Cobalt Violet, 1938; and Umber, 1938–39. Small Biomorph seemed the most chthonic image of the bunch—something like an Arthur Dove painting that was left out in the rain. Woolly-edged shapes in mostly lugubrious colors—dark green, rust, dirty golds, and a scratchy white, for instance—rest suspended in a blue that is as maudlin as it is regal. Fine examples of geometric abstraction included City Rectangle, 1948; Black Light, 1950; and Architectural Diamond, ca. 1952. As this trio of canvases made clear, Bolotowsky was a devotee of Piet Mondrian. In 1944, he traveled to the modernist’s funeral in New York, all the way from Alaska, where he was working as a translator during World War II. City Rectangle is quite a beauty: a quasi grid with lively patches of color and moments of radiant white, set firmly into a procrustean bed of rigid black lines. This ternion of dynamic paintings owes a debt to the strict verticals and horizontals of Mondrian’s “New York City” compositions, 1942–43, even as they subtly allude to the soberer, airier structures of the Dutch painter’s “Tableau” series, 1914–15. Yet Bolotowsky’s paintings are so much more exuberant, color-saturated, and expressive than Mondrian’s ever were, despite the latter’s avidity for dancing and jazz. Bolotowsky blatantly complicates and dramatizes Mondrian’s formalistic precepts, overdoing them in order to show their limitations. He is triumphantly grand, whereas Mondrian is discreetly beautiful.

Bolotowsky was a member of the Ten Whitney Dissenters, a coterie of artists who in 1938 exhibited at New York’s Mercury Galleries to “protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal [representational, descriptive] painting.” It is noteworthy that the Ten—Bolotowsky, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris, Yankel Kufeld, Ralph Rosenborg, Markus Rothkowitz (aka Mark Rothko), Lou Schanker, Joseph Solman, Nahum Tschacbasov, and Ben-Zion—were mostly Jewish artists. I imagine that Bolotowsky’s Judiasm may explain, at least in part, his preference for abstraction over representation. The Jewish God is unrepresentable; indeed, his name cannot be spoken, suggesting that he has no name, just as he has no body—he is pure creative spirit. When Moses, in the Book of Exodus, asked who the entity was, God simply replied, “I am who I am.” This is what the abstract work of art says: It has no identity other than itself and references no reality beyond its own. This point is also made by Ad Reinhardt’s concept of art-as-art (Reinhardt, who was also Jewish, belonged to the AAA, too). It’s not difficult to fathom that the relationship between Bolotowsky’s early biomorphic (or “naturalistic”) images and later geometric (or “transcendental”) works is indebted to the Kabbalistic distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds—the spiritual being a contraction or condensation of the physical. Nonetheless, Bolotowsky’s paintings confirm Robert Motherwell’s view that “abstract art is a form of mysticism.”