Artist Spotlight // Avital Sagalyn

VIDA has some great news to share: The University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA) has announced it will stage a major art exhibition of the paintings, drawings and sculpture of one of our VIDA designers: Avital Sagalyn. What’s more, the retrospective of this artist’s stunning masterworks – to be held in Amherst, Massachusetts, starting in October 2019 – will actually feature two mid-century textile designs now available on Avital’s VIDA designer page: “Still Life” and “Abstract Nest.”

Still Life by Avital Sagalyn

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. This month, VIDA recognizes the power of art in leading to self-discovery, and its role in strengthening a community. Avital has been a practicing artist for more than seven decades and worked among iconic artists whose works are held in museums worldwide. Despite early anticipation that Avital would become among the greatest painters of her time, she opted to keep her portfolio largely private. Only now, with the museum show and her collaboration with VIDA, is Avital finally sharing her extraordinary art with the public.

A World War II refugee from Western Europe, Avital suspects her flight from conflict at a young age “probably lent my paintings and drawings an aspect of impermanence, a sense that reality is fluid and can change at any moment.”

That sense frequently draws her toward abstraction. “Through abstraction,” she says, “a subject that catches my imagination can be pared down to its most fundamental sensory and emotional layers.” Avital’s use of various techniques – fluid line in some and cubist elements in others – lends her work a complex, geometric abstract aesthetic.

Avital Sagalyn, painting in the 1950s at a family farm in Otis, Mass., with her niece.  (Photograph by Robert Sagalyn, copyright Daniel Sagalyn)

Having lived on three different continents, Avital was exposed to art history and some of the world’s finest museums from an early age. She went on to study painting at the Museum of Modern Art in high school and The Cooper Union for college. As one of the first female Fulbright Scholars to study painting in Paris in the early 1950s, and later working as an artist during the “New York School” movement, Avital has used abstract expressionism to explore her subject matter, seeking to pare down to what she calls its “core essence.” To capture the revelatory nature of her original inspiration, Avital defies artificial constraints and embraces improvisation.

Today, Avital’s works at times accentuate the ephemeral quality of life itself. Her pieces and fascinating story are an inspiration to those who have been touched by her and her art.

“Mannequin and Three-Legged Table at 3 Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, Paris”  by Avital Sagalyn of the interior of her Paris apartment, which doubled as a couture atelier, while she studied art as a Fulbright scholar 1949 -1950.   
(Photograph and copyright by Daniel Sagalyn.)

VIDA is honored to feature Avital and her journey as the voice of our blog today. Avital’s VIDA designer page is a collaborative Sagalyn family effort, integrating the artist’s original textile designs with product innovation by her son and daughter-in-law. We’re so grateful to Avital, a lifelong painter on the brink of achieving global recognition, for sitting down with us to discuss her artistic evolution.

Welcome, Avital.

Q: First, tell us — How did interacting with other prominent artists influence your work, and how has your practice changed over time?

A: I was influenced greatly by Reuben Tam, a native Hawaiian painter and poet who I met while studying at Cooper Union. Like him, I felt the atmosphere was something fascinating. It was nebulous, ethereal, like waves hitting against the rocks.

I was [also] deeply impressed by how Pablo Picasso immediately treated me warmly and with respect as a fellow artist, despite my young age and being a rare female painter among mostly men at that time.

I’ve long admired how his work evolved dramatically from realism to cubism and ultimately to abstraction. I have taken his example as inspiration to speak through my works in whatever vernacular seems most suited to my subject matter and my own interpretive voice.

Abstract Nest by Avital Sagalyn

Q: That’s fascinating! Despite producing daring and beautiful art, you chose to keep your pieces largely private until now. Why?

A: Early in my career, I did not want to or feel ready to enter the world of working with art dealers and galleries. I sought to avoid any possibility that commercialization would affect the quality of my work. As a curated retrospective of my paintings, drawings, sculptures and other art pieces, this [UMCA] museum exhibition will allow me to show my works publicly, without a marketing element.

For my textile designs, VIDA as an online retailer allows me to share my textile designs publicly on my own terms.

Fiori by Avital Sagalyn

Q: We’re glad VIDA provides you with another platform to create art. What do you most enjoy about being a part of VIDA?

A: It is beyond thrilling to see my mid-century textile designs, which I created after graduating from art school, come to life in the form of luxurious silk scarves, sleek glass trays, and other beautiful products.

I think now my time has come. With VIDA’s facilitation, making my textile designs “wearable” opens a new form of creative expression for me.

Q: We hear you are doing something very special with the proceeds from sales of your midcentury wearable art available on VIDA.  Can you tell us more about it?

A: My Fall 2019 solo retrospective exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art will require the professional restoration and framing of dozens of my decades-old paintings and drawings.  I’m thrilled that VIDA has designated me as an Artist Ambassador, and all proceeds generated from sales of my VIDA wearable art through this LINK will be applied to vital preservation of these otherwise-deteriorating artworks.  My family has also set a $30,000 GoFundMe goal for this restoration and framing campaign, and we are enormously grateful for contributions of any amount at all.

Kasbah by Avital Sagalyn

Q: With all your beautiful designs on the site, how did you select the items being exhibited this show, called “Avital Sagalyn: A Life of Exploration”?

A: I did not select the artworks being shown. The retrospective exhibition was organized by the art history faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a learning opportunity for three student curators. Together, the professors and the three curators selected more than 50 of my paintings, drawings, and sculptures for this exhibition. Among the artworks they curated were two textile designs that I created after Cooper Union. Both of the two designs in the museum show are available on multiple products on my VIDA designer page.  

Q: Which two textile designs will the museum exhibit? How would you describe the motifs, and what was your inspiration for each design?

A: One of the designs that the museum will exhibit this fall is an abstract ink piece that I painted with black India ink on white paper. My inspiration for that piece was that I simply wanted to see how the brush strokes looked.

The other is a still life with a repeat pattern, in what I feel are beautiful hues of aqua, Aegean blue and white. This is also a form of abstraction, but viewers may see in this design my original inspiration of a tabletop with a vase and bowl of fruit. I approached this motif with textiles in mind, in a way so that it could be reproduced on fabric.

“Lignes” by Avital Sagalyn

Q: And lastly, can you tell us how does it feel to have your textile designs on display for the first time in a curated museum art show?

A: Frankly I was surprised that two of my textile designs were among the works that the curators for the museum show selected for exhibition! I think of my mid-century textile design work a bit differently from my approach to creating pieces of art on canvas or on paper.

But I am flattered that the art historians, young curators and museum leaders involved in planning the exhibition see in my textile designs a creative relationship with my other artworks. It will be interesting to me to see how the museum presents my artworks thematically in this first major retrospective of my career; it is their prerogative as independent curators of my artwork.

Docheio by Avital Sagalyn

Pictured at top: Artist Avital Sagalyn at her apartment in Paris in 1950.  (Photograph by Carl Nesjar, copyright Daniel Sagalyn.)