Born in Siberia in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Esphyr Slobodkina's family settled in Harbin, Manchuria. In 1928, Slobodkina immigrated to New York City and enrolled at the National Academy of Design the following year. In 1931, through a peer, she became acquainted with Ilya Bolotowsky. The two shared an interest in the theoretical aspects of modern art-form, color, and composition. Slobodkina also formed relationships with Gertrude Greene, Byron Browne, and Giorgio Cavallon, and became immersed in city's avant-garde scene. In the early 1930s, Slobodkina and Bolotowsky were invited to the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, and there the former began experimenting with abstraction. The two married in 1933, and Slobodkina produced her first Cubist work in 1934.
In 1936, Slobodkina separated from Bolotowsky. Around this time, her family moved to New York city; alongside her mother, Slobodkina opened a dress shop and served as a textile designer and manufacturer. She joined the Works Progress Administration and became active in the Artists' Union, for which she began to design paper collage posters and in the process further develop her brand of abstraction. By 1936, she was a fully-fledged abstractionist, her works reflecting her experience in collage by way of their flat, layered compositional arrangements. In addition to her paintings, Slobodkina worked on Surrealist-inspired sculptures composed of wood, wire, and found objects. In 1937 she became a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, and would later become president.
That same year, Slobodkina met famous children's book author Margaret Wise Brown and was inspired to try her hand at illustration. She illustrated Brown's The Little Fireman as well as her own Caps for Sale (1938), which went on to become a beloved piece of children's literature and was even adapted into a musical. Throughout the '40s and '50s, Slobodkina participated in a series of notable exhibitions, including "Eight by Eight: Abstract Painting since 1940" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1945) and the Whitney Museum of American Art annuals (through the 1950s).
In the 1980s, Slobodkina was ‘rediscovered’ as a pioneer of American abstract art. In 1980, her paintings from the 1930s and 1940s were featured in an exhibition at the Sid Deutsch Gallery in New York, and they were exhibited sequentially in 1982, 1985, and 1988. In 1983, two of her works were exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg, and they later traveled to the Whitney in 1984, and her work gained widespread public attention.
Private Collection, Prague