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 Abraham Walkowitz  (1878 - 1965)

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Lived/Active: New York / Russian Federation      Known for: mod figure-genre, town-landscape

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Abraham Walkowitz
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is by Dr. Theodore W. Eversole:

Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965 ) is perhaps best known for his watercolor studies of Isadora Duncan and the dance.  However, Walkowitz laid claim to being the first to exhibit truly Modernist paintings in the United States.  After 1909, he became an intimate of Alfred Stieglitz' 291 Gallery, and whilst there became a participant in the debate over Modern Art in America. Walkowitz was an outspoken proponent of the continuous experimentation in the arts, which was his definition of Modernism.  As an artist, Walkowitz embodied the changing role of the Modernist painter in the United States, as Modernism moved from avant-garde protest against established modes to become an accepted style and tradition.

Abraham Walkowitz, was a Russian born, turn-of-the century immigrant to the United States, who grew up in New York's Lower East Side.  He first studied art at the Educational Alliance, the Cooper Union, and the National Academy of Design.  In 1906, he journeyed to Europe where he studied at the Academie Julian in Paris.  Upon his return to the United States in 1907, he became a fully-fledged convert to Modernism, and his first exhibit, at the Haas Gallery in that year, brought him a measure of notoriety as well as the attention of Stieglitz and other pioneers of Non-Objective art.

In subsequent years, he became one of the most exhibited painters shown at the 291 Gallery, a fact which was also reflected in the pages of Stieglitz' polemical journal of Modernism, Camera Work.

As a result of this early attention, by the time of the Armory Show of 1913 to which Walkowitz contributed several paintings, his work was widely known to both fellow Modernists as well as their opponents. Walkowitz was clearly part of the new vocabulary of American art and criticism.

During the 1920s and 1930s, as the first generation Modernists lost their revolutionary cast, and as American Realism gained in favor, Walkowitz continued his experiments with form and line, especially in his series of Duncan studies.  Although his paintings received less critical attention than they once had, Walkowitz was clearly one of the grand old folk of American Modernism. During the Depression, Walkowitz was politically active on behalf of unemployed artists supporting various New Deal initiatives in the Arts.

In the 1940s Walkowitz gained national attention when he explored the varieties of the Modernist vision in the form of an exhibit of 100 portraits of Walkowitz by 100 artists.  The result was widely discussed and was featured in Life Magazine in 1944.

In 1945, Walkowitz travelled to Kansas where he painted landscapes made up largely of strip mines and barns.  This was to be his last venture in active painting for, by 1946, the glaucoma which was to lead to his eventual blindness began to impair his vision and limit his ability to work.  Walkowitz then turned to the preparation of a series of volumes of his drawings, designed to illustrate the development of Modernism in the Twentieth Century, and in so doing, established his role as a pioneer American Modernist.


About Primary Sources from Dr. Eversole:

The Archives of American Art, Washington Center, 8th and F Streets, Washington, D.C. 20560, has been a most helpful depository for research materials in the field of modern American Art. Besides maintaining the Abraham Walkowitz papers, the Archives also freely lent to the author a variety of other collateral source material such as: the Max Weber papers, the Whitney Museum files, the Downtown Gallery Papers, and a complete transcript of the December 1958 Interview with Abraham Walkowitz conducted by Abram Lerner and Bartlett Cowdrey in New York.

Another center for Walkowitz source material was the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Here was preserved the Alfred Stieglitz Archive, which contained the StieglitzWalkowitz correspondence, in addition to the Carl Van Vechten Abraham Walkowitz correspondence. Both Donald Gallup, one time Curator of the Collection of American Literature, and Miss Georgia O'Keeffe deserved special thanks for allowing me to have access to this material. The Abraham Walkowitz artist's file at the New York City Public Library also contained useful information.

However, one of the most intriguing aspects of this study was the author's chance to create his own file of primary materials on Walkowitz. This includes correspondence and recollections from artists, friends, family, gallery associates and others. In other words, a file was created of all those Walkowitz acquaintances who answered my research inquiries. This research file is now part of the Theodore W. Eversole Collection at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Also of importance was the collection of assorted taped oral interviews with some especially knowledgeable people; this was clearly the case with the interviews with Dr. Rosa Prigosen, Walkowitz' niece and benefactor, and Ms. Virginia Zabriskie, of the Zabriskie Gallery, The Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, New York, New York, who remains a major handler of Walkowitz' work. Further, Virginia Zabriskie established, in 1993, a significant archive for Walkowitz study at the University Gallery, University of Delaware, through a gift of over 1500 drawings and objects, including 400 drawings of Isadora Duncan.



This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An early modernist painter known for abstract figurative works, especially in watercolor, Abraham Walkowitz was born in Siberia where his father, a lay rabbi and cantor, died while ministering in China to Jewish soldiers who had been conscripted into the Russian army.

Fearful of persecution and the possibility of her son being drafted into the Czar's army when he came of age, Walkowitz's mother decided to emigrate with her children to the United States.  En route across Europe, one of her three daughters died.  The remaining family traveled steerage for twenty days across the Atlantic, finally settling in the Jewish ghetto of New York City where mother and son worked long hours at a newspaper stand to support the family.

As a youth, Walkowitz studied the violin and drew continuously in chalk on any surface he could find.  His formal art training began at age fourteen at the Artist's Institute and continued at the National Academy of Design.  His studies in life drawing, etching and painting, with concurrent study of anatomy at a Fifth Avenue hospital, resulted in precise, detailed renderings.

He made drawings of ghetto life which were published in local newspapers. To earn money for a trip to Europe, Walkowitz taught art classes and painted signs.  When his figurative work was criticized as being too subjective and realistic at a juried Academy exhibition, he perceived the criticism as narrow-minded and became all the more open to the avant-garde ideas he encountered in Europe.

Walkowitz began to use watercolor early in his career, gradually moving from dark, subdued colors and realistic depictions, to fresher, lighter colors following the techniques of the Impressionists. According to biographer William Innes Homer, "Although [Walkowitz] eventually shifted from a figurative style to abstraction, his fine, inventive sense of color prevailed in both modes of painting, and indeed found its freest, most intuitive expression in the medium of watercolor."

Another biographer, Martica Sawin, observed that while Walkowitz regarded his work prior to 1920 as the most significant period of his art, he continued to paint prolifically into the 1940s when his eyesight began to fail.

He was honored in 1963, three years before his death, by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an award annually given to a distinguished elderly artist.  An account by Kent Smith of the event describes Walkowitz as a small, silky-haired blind man honored by a crowd that "rose to its feet and applauded in thunderous ovation for twenty minutes as the frail figure beamed in obvious delight . . ."

Sources include:
Abraham Walkowitz, Figuration 1895-1945 by Kent Smith

Abraham Walkowitz by William Innes Homer

Abraham Walkowitz, 1878-1965 by Martica Sawin

Abraham Walkowitz and the Struggle for an American Modernism, Ph.D., 1976. Doctoral dissertation by Theodore Eversole at the University of Cincinnati.


Biography from Mark Borghi Fine Art Inc - New York:
Born in Siberia in 1878, Walkowitz was brought at about age five by his mother to the U.S. following his father's death. Settling into the Jewish ghetto of New York City, Walkowitz drew prodigiously as a child, and attended the Artists Institute and the National Academy of Design as a student. When his natural tendency towards experimentation was criticized, instead of giving in he opened up to the fresh influence of the budding European avant-garde.

Saving his money, in 1906 he joined the small flow of American expatriate artists following Alfred Maurer's lead to Paris. There he attended the Academie Julian and soaked up the newly emerging innovations of Cubism, Fauvism, and the movement towards abstraction. Perhaps of greatest consequence to the artist, he first met the dancer Isadora Duncan during this stay. He ultimately made more drawings of her than I have hairs on my head, by his own account, recalling her figure as his archtype for the next four decades, even well after her death.

A selection of these Duncan drawings play a central part in the present exhibition.These drawings, at times highlighted with a wash of color that defines Duncan's dress, resemble the movement studies now familiar to any art student. Line is used to react to a model in motion--feeling out the look of the figure replaces the careful observation that goes into extended posing.

Walkowitz' movement studies, however, arose out of a spirit of innovation rather than an art school environment. He was developing a felt sensibility, an intuitively expressive set of marks. While Walkowitz never developed an art that was sufficiently commanding or original to place him at the front rank of American Modernism, his place immediately behind was well earned. It is difficult to appreciate the level of inner certainty Walkowitz and other members of the nascent avant-garde clearly possessed--from the time of his first exhibition in 1908 he had to learn to accept ridicule.

As a member of Alfred Steiglitz' inner circle and a regular exhibitor at his renowned 291 Gallery until it closed in 1917, and as an active participant in the keystone Armory Show of 1913, Walkowitz quite knowingly accepted that often times large numbers of visitors would attend his shows and those of his close colleagues not to admire but to laugh at what they saw.

After the First World War the artist continued to work prolifically, though within parameters already set before the War, until the late 1940s, when his eyesight failed. In 1963, two years before his death, the blind artist was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to some degree bearing out his own description of the career of an artist: first jeers, then sneers, and finally cheers

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Abraham Walkowitz is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
New York Armory Show of 1913
Fauves/Fauvism



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