When Boris Anisfeld died in New London, Connecticut, on December 4, 1973, he was remembered by many generations of students of the Art Institute of Chicago, including Jack Beal, Leon Golub, Red Grooms, Caspar Henselman, Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg, LeRoy Neiman, and others. A passionate teacher, Anisfeld most of all impressed his students by his total commitment to being an artist. Painting defined his life and his persona. He never ceased to paint from his youth in Bessarabia, to his student years in St. Petersburg, and during his career as a set designer and a teacher in America.
Ten years after his death, the public
became re-acquainted with his early work from Russia, when it was exhibited
at Shepherd Gallery in the Fall of 1984. Boris Anisfeld's daughter,
the late Mrs. Otis Chatfield-Taylor, nÈe Morella Borisovna Anisfeld,
was an untiring champion of this exhibition of her father's early work.
It was followed by exhibitions in Toronto (1989), St. Petersburg (1994)
and New York (2004). Now it is the grandson's turn to guard the estate
of Boris Anisfeld and to present his grandfather's work to a younger
generation. We are very pleased to continue working with the family
in the present exhibition. The following remarks have been written by
Charles Chatfield Taylor.
Boris Anisfeld is a lively presence in
the contemporary arts, both as a painter and as a theatre designer.
While still in Russia, he worked with the director Vsevolod Meyerhold,
the impresario Sergej Diaghilev and the choreographers Michel Fokine
and Mikhail Mordkin. By 1910 he had established an international reputation
for his theatre work. His career as a painter took him to Paris at the
young age of twenty-seven. He was made a sociÈtaire of the Salon d'Automne
in 1906, and he exhibited along with Larianov, Gontcharova, Serov, Vrubel
and others. From then on, he could support a prosperous life style with
the sale of his paintings. He was a member of Mir Iskusstva (World of
Art) in St. Petersburg, and exhibited with them regularly from 1910
to 1917. He also participated in exhibitions of Soyuz (Union of Russian
Artists) and the Venok (Wreath) group.
Prior to his departure from Russia in
late 1917, Anisfeld had made contact with Christian Brinton, the enthusiastic
promoter of modern art in America. Brinton arranged a touring exhibition
of Anisfeld's paintings, beginning at the Brooklyn Museum in 1918. Thus
Anisfeld had the great luck to be well received in the New World. He
also had an agent, the flamboyant Max Rabinov (known as the "impresario
who looks like an impresario"), and within weeks of his arrival
in New York he began working on set designs for the Metropolitan Opera.
This allowed Anisfeld and his family to live comfortably in New York,
while his paintings continued to find eager buyers. By the end of the
1920's the demand for his work began to falter, and Anisfeld accepted
the timely offer of a teaching position at the Art Institute of Chicago.
He remained there until he retired in 1958. This security at the Art
Institute allowed him to continue to paint without any concern for the
market, and some of his more interesting creations date from his time
Anisfeld took his painting very seriously,
whereas his efforts for the theatre were not of great satisfaction to
him. When asked by a reporter if he took pleasure in designing and painting
sets, he snapped back: "I am an artist, not a scene painter."
His daughter once said that although he worked hard on his theatre productions
and enjoyed the final results, he thought of it as something less than
serious, "like playing with toy soldiers." It was not art,
as far as he was concerned. It was something he did to support his family.
The painting of watercolors, on the other
hand, was something worthy of a true artist. Anisfeld regularly contributed
to the watercolor exhibitions of the Chicago Art Institute between 1922
and 1950. The exhibition of 1932 included twenty-eight of his watercolors.
He would, I think, have been gratified to know that a retrospective
exhibition is dedicated to his works on paper. Nothing like this was
ever arranged during his lifetime.
The works in this exhibition cover the
whole span of Anisfeld's creative life until the 1950's, ranging from
a politically motivated drawing and other early works executed in Russia,
to Spanish-themed pieces of the teens and twenties, to landscapes from
Colorado and New Mexico of the thirties and forties, to fanciful nudes
of all decades.
Anisfeld's interest in watercolors dates
back to his years as a student at the Odessa Drawing School (1895-1900).
During the summer, he would pack up a paint box and a bedroll, don a
large floppy sun hat, and head out in the countryside of Bessarabia
and Kherson Province, painting and sketching along the way. Sadly, none
of the watercolors from this time survive.
A number of works in this exhibition can be connected to other adventurous moments in Anisfeld's life.
In the summer of 1913, he traveled around Spain, painting and sketching, while the family stayed in the French resort town of Hendaye on the Spanish border. The inspiration he derived from his time in Spain was to last his lifetime, and is clearly reflected in several watercolors in this exhibition.
In the summer of 1928, Anisfeld left his family in New York and traveled by car around the American South West, visiting Santa Fe, Taos, and Southern Colorado. A number of landscapes in this exhibition reflect his impressions of native Americans, desert heat, and rock formations.
Also included are a number of watercolor studies for large paintings. Some of these paintings have survived, others have disappeared, but might one day surface again, owing to the growing interest in Anisfeld. In each case, the studies are finished works in their own right.
Some of the early watercolors such as
Seascape in Capri, Rachel, and The Flight of Lot are well documented
and have long exhibition histories. The bulk of the present collection,
however, has never been seen by the public. Indeed, most of these gouaches
have not seen the light of day since they were removed from Anisfeld's
studio after the artist's death, and put into deep storage by his daughter.
The fresh colors of many of these pieces can be attributed to my mother's
care. Once stored, no light touched them for forty years.
Anisfeld's use of watercolor changed
over time. The earlier works, made in Russia, were undertaken with a
great deal of under-drawing, the kind of planning also associated with
the artist's paintings. Works executed in America, on the other hand,
tend to be more spontaneous and free flowing. The artist was rapidly
putting down what was right in front of him in the open air, or what
had suddenly appeared to his imagination, taking full advantage of the
fluidity and speed inherent in watercolor. He was being playful, and
perhaps painted for his own pure pleasure. I can imagine him sitting
in his studio going over these intensely realized past moments, as one
would look at photographs.
It seems surprising that most of the present watercolors are signed. This is easily explained: Anisfeld's daughter, my mother, concerned about her father's advancing age, made a great effort to persuade her father to sign as many of his works as possible. This was probably in the mid- to late fifties, when my grandfather was well over seventy. Her act of daughterly persuasion was not completely successful, but a large number of works did get signed, including many in this exhibition. The similarity and the medium of some of these signatures indicate that they were done in one batch at a time. Perhaps, Anisfeld was not entirely pleased to be compelled to do this, but his daughter was relentless.
Her relentlessness, unfortunately, was not accompanied by much organizational ability. Like many Russians, my mother had a great reverence for paperwork, which translated into a compulsion for making lists of her father's work. The problem lies in the lack of categorization in these lists, the changing of titles and reference numbers, the mistakes of naming some works, and the fact that list followed list without corrections or updates. While there are many lists, there are also many contradictions.
For this exhibition I have used the inventory list compiled shortly after Anisfeld's death in 1973, because it is the most comprehensive, and it was done at a time when the entire collection was most intact, and my mother's memory was still strong. In some cases I have been able to cross-reference entries on the 1973 list with information from other, less reliable inventory lists.
With exception of Rachel (1916), Lot's Flight (1916), and The Sea (1931) none of the watercolors are dated. Some studies, such as Indian Madonna and Spanish Madonna can be dated from the finished paintings. Others can be dated by the likeness of subject, style or technique. Most difficult to date are the watercolors from Colorado and New Mexico, which could have been done at any time between 1928, when Anisfeld first visited Taos, and the early 1960's, when the aging artist stopped spending his summers in Central City, Colorado. One work which exemplifies these difficulties is Northern Lake, a title I chose because it clearly does not depict a location in Colorado, as indicated in my mother's inventory. It is much more likely a view of a lake in the woods of Minnesota, where Anisfeld had a small cottage as a convenient retreat from Chicago.
In the end, I relied on my general familiarity with my grandfather's work. Since taking over the collection and the family archives following my mother's death in 1999, I have had ample time to study it in all its complexity. I hope to be able to make considered judgments about dating, provenance, and the history of the works. The family archives have been helpful to a point. However, Anisfeld was an artist and expressed himself visually. He did not leave much of a written record. Most of the people who knew him are long dead, or very old, and their memories tend to be selective or overly worshipful.
The present exhibition of works on paper should help to fill a gap in the history of Anisfeld's úuvre. One does this very carefully, for the gaps are part of the history.