Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper, c. 1913
Signed in ink lower center
Very similar watercolors are in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Both are the same media and format with Isadora in a red dress as here.
Condition: Very good
Tipped to rag board
22K Gold leaf frame (see photo)
Colors fresh and unfaded
Sheet size: 13 15/16 x 8 1/2 inches
Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965)
By Bill Lasarow
Abraham Walkowitz is one of those shadowy yet familiar figures of American Modernism. He was among the small vanguard of artists who first transplanted the sprig of European Modernism here during the first decade of the 20th Century.
Born in Siberia in 1878, he was brought by his mother to the U.S. around the age of five 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 Julien 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 archetype for the next four decades, even well after her death.
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.
The importance of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Braque on Walkowitz’ approach is clear enough.
The notion that art is a non-verbal language that holds a kinship with music, dance and other similarly non-verbal means of expression may not resonate with possibility anymore. But a century ago it propelled Wassily Kandinsky into the new realms of non-referential abstraction. Walkowitz was among this new generation of true believers in a new visual language that would emerge from the inner life of the artist. Indeed, he did not hesitate to try his hand at the pure abstraction pioneered by Kandinsky.
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 oftentimes 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.
Abraham Walkowitz-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. The works reveal shared convictions toward modernism and breaking links with the past. 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."