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.
1880 - 1965
Abraham Walkowitz was born in the Siberian city of Tyumen in 1880. At age eleven, Walkowitz immigrated to the United States with his widowed mother and siblings, possibly as a result of the persecution of Russian Jews at the time. Walkowitz displayed early talent as a draftsman and in 1898, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City. While in New York City, Walkowitz taught at the Educational Alliance, while exhibiting at the Art Culture League. In 1906, Walkowitz travelled to Paris to attend the Académie Julian, a school that was popular with American artists at the time. While in Paris, Walkowitz witnessed a performance by American modern dancer Isadora Duncan, whose free-form style of dance would serve as an artistic inspiration for him, and for many other artists, for years to come. Walkowitz also became familiar with the work of the European avant garde while in Paris, including Pablo Picasso and Vasily Kandinsky. Upon his return to New York City in 1907, Walkowitz supported himself as a lettering artist, until 1912 when he joined the American modernist group of Alfred Stieglitz, otherwise known as the Stieglitz Circle. Walkowitz exhibited with the group in Stieglitz’ 291 gallery, and in the following year, Walkowitz’ work was included in the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913. The Armory Show was a pivotal event for both American artists and public audiences of the 20th century, as it introduced many of them to the avant garde work being created by Europeans, and caused considerable controversy in the cities it traveled to. After 1913, Walkowitz’ work was also included in other important exhibitions, such as the 1916 Forum Exhibition of Modern Painters at the Anderson Galleries in New York City. In 1939, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a major retrospective of Walkowitz’ work, including his paintings, drawings, and prints. Additionally, the Brooklyn Museum also organized a traveling exhibition that consisted of portraits and sculptures of Walkowitz that he himself had convinced 100 of his contemporaries to create. Walkowitz remained active well into the 1960s, long after his eyesight had begun to fail. The American Academy of Arts and Letters presented Walkowitz with its Marjorie Peabody Waite Award for distinguished older artists in 1962. He died at the age of 85 in 1965.