Art on her own terms: Holyoke gallery showcases work of the late Avital Sagalyn of Amherst

  • Avital Sagalyn is seen with her oil painting “Black, White and Brown Still Life” at a Fulbright artists exhibition at the British Embassy in Paris in 1950. CONTRIBUTED/Daniel Sagalyn

  • Sagalyn drawing a crab in Casey Key, Florida, in the 1970s. Photo by and courtesy of Daniel Sagalyn

  • Fulbright artists in Paris at the opening of their exhibition at the British Embassy, June 1950. Avital Sagalyn is in the first row, second from left. Photo courtesy of Daniel Sagalyn

  • Sagalyn with her “Black, White and Brown Still Life” at her solo exhibit at UMass Amherst in October 2019. BEN BARNHART/COURTESY OF DANIEL SAGALYN

  • Elaine Grossman talks about a series of line drawings done of a pitcher, center, in the 1950s by her late mother-in-law, Avital Sagalyn of Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Dead Bird,” a series of pencil on rice paper drawings from the 1990s by the late Avital Sagalyn, on exhibit at PULP Gallery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Seagulls,” graphite on paper, by the late Avital Sagalyn of Amherst. It’s not dated, but notes say “after cataract surgery.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Mosque in Jaffa, Israel No. 2” (top) and “Mosque in Israel,” both India ink on paper drawings from the late 1950s. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniel Sagalyn talks about his late mother, the artist Avital Sagalyn of Amherst, and a show of her work at PULP Gallery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING


  •  “Dead Bird No. 2,”, pencil on rice paper, 1990s, by the late Avital Sagalyn of Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Untitled, steel, 9” x 7 1/4” x 4,” mid-1940s, by the late Avital Sagalyn of Amherst. Primarily a painter, Sagalyn also did textile design and sculpture. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING


  • “Eglise de la Madeleine Tower,” oil on canvas, 1973, by the late Avital Sagalyn of Amherst. The artist first made her mark as an abstract expressionist in the late 1940s and early 1950s. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sagalyn’s “Provincetown Boats No. 5,” India ink on paper, 1945, at PULP Gallery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Provincetown Boats No. 4,” India ink on paper, 1945, from an exhibit of work by the late Avital Sagalyn of Amherst at PULP Gallery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniel Sagalyn talks about his late mother, the artist Avital Sagalyn of Amherst, and a show of her work at PULP gallery in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dean Brown, director of PULP gallery in Holyoke, discovered the work of the late Avital Sagalyn a few years ago. He calls it “extraordinary.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sagalyn painted created this oil painting circa 1950 when she lived in a Paris apartment that was full of mannequins and had three-way mirrored walls. Photo by Daniel Sagalyn

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 03, 2021

She had to flee from the Nazis when she was just 15. She won a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in France at a time when few women were recognized with that award. She befriended Pablo Picasso, and her work won praise from several other prominent artists in the late 1940s and early 1950s; she had offers from galleries in New York City to exhibit her paintings and drawings.

But the late Avital Sagalyn was also a woman making art at a time when much of the field was dominated by men — and she was determined not to make compromises in her work to try and overcome those kinds of institutional barriers to commercial success.

For other reasons as well, Sagalyn, who died last May, did not have her first solo exhibit until just two years ago, when she was 94. But the work of the Amherst artist is getting a renewed look at PULP Gallery in Holyoke, which has just opened a retrospective exhibit, “Ligne In,” that focuses on a range of drawings — graphite, marker, pen and ink — from over a half-century of her career.

Dean Brown, director of PULP, says he met Sagalyn a few years ago when she came to his gallery’s exhibit of work by painter Nathan Margalit. Then, when Sagalyn’s solo exhibit was held — at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall of 2019 — Brown became increasingly intrigued with her art and her story.

He got in touch with Sagalyn and her family, visited her in her Amherst home, and arranged to store some of her works on paper at PULP, with the aim of holding a future exhibition.

“Her work is extraordinary,” Brown said during a recent interview at PULP. “The variety of her art, the quality of her line work … she was a real talent who could stand with her peers.”

Sagalyn was born Avital Rachel Schwartz in Israel in 1925 but grew up primarily in Belgium; she came to New York with her Russian-Jewish family in 1941 after they fled the German invasion o f Western Europe in 1940. Sagalyn later won a scholarship to Cooper Union School of Art in New York and  also studied at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) before winning her Fulbright in 1949.

Her early paintings embraced a mix of cubism, abstraction and modernism, and some were shown in Paris in a group exhibition of Fulbright scholars. She also sculpted and did textile design.

Sagalyn’s son, Daniel, and daughter-in-law, Elaine Grossman, in recent years put together a detailed website on Sagalyn’s work and also used some contacts at UMass to help arrange her solo show at the University Museum of Contemporary Art. In an introduction to a catalog for that exhibit, Loretta Yarlow, UMCA’s director, wrote that she was impressed with Sagalyn’s “incredibly distinctive style” and the fact that she “kept her own vocabulary.”

Yet, Yarlow also noted, the exhibit raised a number of “what-if” questions about Sagalyn’s career and life.

“What if she had pursued opportunities offered to her in New York in the early years? What if the famed artists who became her friends in New York and Paris had been able to promote her career?”

Daniel Sagalyn and Grossman, who came by PULP Galley to see the exhibit, both say Sagalyn was comfortable with her decision not to pursue a commercial career as an artist and to work on her own terms. Daniel Sagalyn notes that his mother was also something of a perfectionist who could be tough on herself and her art.

“We sometimes had to discourage her from going back and redoing work from years earlier,” he said. And that tough self-scrutiny may well have been a factor, he says, in his mother’s decision not to pursue a commercial career as an artist.

In one of a number of interviews about her work on her website, Sagalyn talks about her earlier career, saying she had not wanted to feel pressured to meet a deadline to exhibit her work. “If someone thinks the painting is beautiful, and the agent would say, ‘Oh, just leave it like that,’ I would say ‘No, I’m not going to leave it because I don’t think it’s good enough, I don’t think it’s finished.’”

Coming to Amherst

With a laugh, Daniel Sagalyn says he and his wife also had to work hard in more recent years to persuade his mother to allow her work to be shown on the website — and to be exhibited at UMass.

In addition, Sagalyn, after teaching children’s art classes at MOMA, married in 1955, and she and her late husband, Robert Sagalyn, would go on to have three children, including Daniel, who notes that becoming a parent cut into his mother’s time and energy for painting as the years went by. The family moved to Amherst from New York in 1968.

Yet Grossman notes that her mother-in-law continued to bring a real intensity to her work even as she practiced it in private.

“She would be totally immersed in her subject matter,” Grossman said. “She had no hesitation in drawing the same object over and over to get the look that she desired. She loved the process of discovery and of creativity.”

Daniel Sagalyn — he and his wife are journalists who now live in Virginia — remembers that during a visit to Amherst perhaps five years ago, he came upon his mother standing in front of her stove late one morning. On top of the stove was a turnip; Avital, sketchpad in hand, was busy drawing it.

“I asked her why she was drawing it there and not sitting down somewhere, being more comfortable,” said Daniel. “And she said, ‘I like the light here.’”

The exhibit at PULP, which runs through June 13, showcases the attention to detail Sagalyn brought to those drawings. There are a number of studies of seashells and of crabs from the 1970s, for instance, and of boats in Provincetown harbor from the mid-1940s. A study of shoreline rocks in Maine from the late 1940s, meantime, offers a more Cubist approach to the subject.

Then there are a series of loose-limbed, playful ink sketches of a white jug that Sagalyn did in the early 1950s when she was a member of an artists’ residency, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Drawings of mosques in Israel, and buildings from the medieval village of Gordes in southern France, by contrast, show a more abstract style.

Daniel Sagalyn and Elaine Grossman are looking at possible future exhibits of Avital’s work, including those that could focus on specific themes and stylistic trends. As they see it, it would seem of interest to profile an artist who Hugh Davies, a former director of UMCA and of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, calls “on a par with a lot of the very best artists making work both in Paris and in New York” in the late 1940s and 1950s.

In one of the interviews on her website, Sagalyn hints at the barriers to women in the art world at that time, saying she didn’t want to “have to flirt” with art critics as some female artists felt they needed to do. For Brown, that raises another “what-if” question about the artist: What might she have accomplished if she’d been a man?

“What if she hadn’t been raising a family, if she’d been able to devote all her time to art?” he said. “What if she had that freedom of movement like a male artist and had been able to just say, ‘This is what I do’?’”

Avital Sagalyn’s website is avitalsagalyn.com. The website for PULP gallery is pulpholyoke.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.