David Slivka’s Mod Decade

Synthesized geometric abstraction with Minimalism and even a hint of the graphic quality of Pop
Left, David Slivka’s daughter Charlotte Slivka, below, and his granddaughter Lily Slivka at the Kathryn Markel Gallery in Bridgehampton Friday night. Right,the artist with his bas-relief sculpture in Berkeley, Calif.

Sometimes a crisis is an opportunity. His family’s need to clear out a storage unit has brought some dormant but wonderfully vibrant David Slivka ink paintings on paper back into the light and onto the walls of Bridgehampton’s Kathryn Markel Gallery through the help of Coco Myers.

History is not always kind to sculptors. Even those who achieved financial and critical success in their lifetimes can be forgotten at the time of their death or beyond. That didn’t happen to David Slivka, who died in 2010 at the age of 95, his daughter, Charlotte Slivka, said — at least not right away.

Ms. Slivka said her father had some peaks and valleys in his market but was doing well a few years before he died, with an exhibition of his work in Chicago and a number of shows, including at the David Findlay Jr. Gallery in Manhattan and at Butler Fine Art in East Hampton after that. He also gained some notoriety from his obituary in The New York Times, which noted his death mask cast of the head of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet in exile in New York City, known for his love of the bottle as well as his love of words and who was a good friend of Mr. Slivka’s.

After her father died, Ms. Slivka and her stepmother, Joan Ullman Schwartz, “decided to co-care his work, managing it together” out of a storage unit in Southampton. “Joan and I worked together, selling pieces, with the sales helping to pay for the storage and to maintain the estate.”

A few years later, interest in his art dried up. “It was inexplicable,” Ms. Slivka said. “There was so much history in those pieces. To suddenly have people say, ‘Nope, not worth anything,’ how does that happen?”

It soon became clear that the expenses of keeping the work in storage were unsustainable. “We couldn’t afford it anymore — my daughter is going to college. We came to a point where we had to get the work out of there.”

They were in the process of moving — donating sculptures and dividing up the ink works between them — when Ms. Schwartz, who was friends with Ms. Myers’s mother, Astrid Myers Rosset, mentioned that Ms. Myers was an art dealer. “She brought her to the storage unit on the very last day,” Ms. Slivka said. There was a large stack of drawings, and Ms. Myers spent two hours going through it. 

Ms. Myers said she was immediately taken with the work and how fresh, vibrant, and energetic it was. A good number of pieces were from the 1960s and seemed to respond to the work of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline. Even more, from the 1970s, synthesized geometric abstraction with Minimalism and even a hint of the graphic quality of Pop. She walked away with a sizable fraction, which became the basis for the current show.

Ms. Myers said the drawings and a wax sculpture on view at Markel were well received, with the sculpture purchased on the night of the opening and some repeat visitors over the weekend deciding which ink drawing to purchase. “People were wowed,” she said. “The work had an unexpectedly powerful connection with so many people who came.”

“There are tons more,” Ms. Slivka said. “My father was prolific and worked every day. . . . He was thinking all the time about the work: what he wanted to do and things he wanted to try.” There were certain periods of his art making when he was trying out something and he would do it again and again.

Looking at the work now on view, it is hard to reconcile that he was considered part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Further, he was an early visitor to East Hampton at the same time that Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner were checking out the area and staying with Slivka’s friends Stanley William Hayter and his wife, Helen Phillips, in Amagansett, as noted in Gail Levin’s biography of Lee Krasner. Prior to that he participated in the Works Progress Administration, with a bas-relief sculpture to his credit on the exterior of a Berkeley, Calif., post office.

Mr. Slivka’s second wife, Rose Slivka, Charlotte Slivka’s mother, helped him market his sculptures while they were married. The editor in chief and a writer for Craft Horizons magazine, she eventually became an art critic for The Star, writing until a year before her death in 2004 at the age of 85.

Although his later sculpture was inspired by the folk art of Africa and the Pacific Northwest and Pacific islands, a small abstract marble piece that looked “very egg-like,” which he made in the 1950s and called “Maternity,” attracted the attention of Marilyn Monroe, according to Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. When Monroe was married to Arthur Miller, the couple divided their time between the city and Amagansett in the late 1950s. Mr. Slivka’s work was being shown at the time at the Signa Gallery, a space on Main Street in East Hampton opened by Alfonso Ossorio, Elizabeth Parker, and John Little to show abstract art. 

“It was a foot high, round, with an egg-like form towards the middle,” Ms. Harrison said. The story was that Monroe was pregnant. “She was excited to buy it, but then lost the baby.”

David Slivka’s family has donated two sculptures to Stony Brook University and his tools to its sculpture department for the art students to use. They have also developed a friendship with Dan Richholt, a lecturer in the sculpture department who is completing an unfinished cast of one of Slivka’s works.

Ms. Slivka said she spent a lot of time with her father growing up, even after her parents’ marriage broke up around 1970. When he wasn’t teaching her and her brother Marc (who died in 1982) to body surf and bait a hook to fish at Louse Point, he was taking her to museums and galleries. 

They would look at canoes and monumental carvings at the Met, and, she said, he loved early European Modernism, particularly Matisse and Cezanne. He spent a vacation in France sketching Mont Ste.-Victoire and painting it repeatedly back in his studio. “It was a huge series, with sketches on site and then painted on large paper. That would happen, something would take hold of him, and he would do it again and again. Like his paintings of Louse Point — I was practically raised there; it was a favorite place of mine, my mother, him. In his memory and his imagination he never stopped seeing that view.”

Six untitled ink drawings from Mr. Slivka’s 1970s period.
The Slivka works on paper at the storage site.