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Avital Sagalyn, artist whose first solo show was just months ago, dies at 95

Mrs. Sagalyn said of why she waited until she was 94 for her first art show:  “I wasn’t ready yet.'' She had been making art as long as she can remember, including as a Holocaust refugee.
Mrs. Sagalyn said of why she waited until she was 94 for her first art show: “I wasn’t ready yet.'' She had been making art as long as she can remember, including as a Holocaust refugee.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As an artist whose family fled Europe during World War II, Avital Sagalyn set her sights beyond an existence that could abruptly fall apart.

“I am more interested in the immaterial world than the concrete world because the concrete world can disappear and the immaterial world is something that stays on — the spirit of the immaterial world,” she once said.

During a life lived on three continents, Mrs. Sagalyn ranged just as widely in her art, creating paintings, drawings, sculptures, and textile designs. Last fall, when she was 94, work from her more than 70-year career was featured for the first time in a solo show. Why not sooner? “I wasn’t ready yet,” she told the Globe.

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A month after the exhibition ended, she was diagnosed with cancer. Mrs. Sagalyn was 95 when she died at home in Amherst on May 11.

The exhibition had opened in October in University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In a video interview posted on the museum’s website, she was asked to describe the moment when she knew she was finished with a painting.

“When I feel that I answered what I was looking for,” Mrs. Sagalyn replied. “And I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but when I’m satisfied that I expressed what I wanted to express … then I stop. And then I go on to something else.”

And yet, her attention to every detail was such that if she spotted what she perceived as a flaw, she would want to revisit a painting. She had to be persuaded to not do so with works in the show that dated back decades, said her son, Daniel of Arlington, Va.

“She was a perfectionist in that respect,” he said.

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One of the first women awarded a Fulbright grant to study in France, Mrs. Sagalyn counted Pablo Picasso among her Paris friends.

"The Horror of War,'' a watercolor, was painted in 1941 or 1942, when Mrs. Sagalyn was 16 or 17.
"The Horror of War,'' a watercolor, was painted in 1941 or 1942, when Mrs. Sagalyn was 16 or 17. DANIEL SAGALYN

Along with her sculptures and finely-rendered drawings, she has produced paintings that have been characterized as cubist, abstract, and abstract-expressionist.

“I think the work had an ebb and flow, and maybe that’s why people couldn’t pigeonhole her work in any one category,” said Loretta Yarlow, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art.

“What she could say with a simple line was quite potent,” Yarlow added. “Her abstract works of the ’50s are clearly at a very high level.”

Marjorie Portnow of Easthampton, a friend and artist, said Mrs. Sagalyn might have previously avoided exhibiting her work because “she was more interested in the journey, in the process” — and because, as a mother and spouse, there were many demands on her time.

“She never thought of art as a hobby,” Portnow said. “And she didn’t think of her family as a hobby. Some people can do that. She was a 125-percenter. She thought art was like calling, almost like a sacred calling.”

Avital Rachel Schwartz was born on Jan. 6, 1925, in Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, the daughter of Samuel Schwartz and Suzanne Marshak, who were Jewish emigres from Russia. French, Russian, and Hebrew were spoken at home.

When Mrs. Sagalyn was 2, her family moved to Belgium and lived in Brussels during her early education. When the Nazis invaded the country in 1940, during World War II, the family fled via France and Spain to Portugal, and eventually to New York City.

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Multilingual and influenced by her time living in Europe and the United States, and by her heritage in what are now Russia and Israel, Mrs. Sagalyn “really bridged four cultures,” said her friend Stanley Rabinowitz, a professor emeritus of Russian at Amherst College.

“Avital had several lives,” he added. “For someone who was running a great deal of her life, and was truly displaced, she occupied any space I saw her in very elegantly. She was comfortable wherever she was.”

After her family settled in New York as refugees, Mrs. Sagalyn spent hours at the Museum of Modern Art and took classes there on Saturdays as a high school student. The artist Marc Chagall, visiting her family’s residence, praised her youthful work, and “The Horror of War” — a work from that time that she based on her experiences — was exhibited at the museum.

She graduated from Cooper Union School of Art in 1946, and applied in 1949 for a Fulbright to study in France. “I wish to create works of art,” she began her application.

Among the works exhibited in her solo show was an intricate drawing of a wharf in Provincetown.

“I got a Fulbright because of that drawing,” Mrs. Sagalyn said in the video interview on the university museum’s website.

“I consider this my best drawing. And I did it while I was still at Cooper Union,” she said, adding: “I am very critical of my work, but I think that’s good.”

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Mrs. Sagalyn made a series of sketches of Provincetown in the late 1940s.
Mrs. Sagalyn made a series of sketches of Provincetown in the late 1940s. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

After she returned to the United States, her ambitious work drew praise from artists and gallery owners, even though she declined offers to exhibit.

She met Robert Sagalyn, through one of his sisters. He produced Off-Broadway plays, and they went to the Museum of Modern Art on their first date. They married in 1955.

She taught at MOMA while raising their three children, and the family moved to Amherst in 1967 when her husband returned to run his family’s business, Industrial Buildings Corp., in Chicopee. He died of a heart attack in 1985.

“My mother was an artist in every fiber of her being: in her way of seeing the world, in her way of expressing what she saw, in her temperament,” their daughter Adine, who lives in Saint Mande, France, said in remarks that were part of a memorial service via Zoom that drew scores of family members and friends.

Adine’s sister, Michelle of Southport, Conn., said in her remarks that their mother was “an amalgam of passion and compassion, talent and strength.”

In addition to her three children, Mrs. Sagalyn leaves four grandchildren.

In her eulogy, Anna Hirson-Sagalyn recalled traveling with her grandmother to visit a seaside community in northwestern France, where they devoted daily beach visits to painting: “Long hours of unbroken silence, in full concentration, our love and complicity filling the air with more words than could ever be spoken.”

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In February, after Mrs. Sagalyn’s cancer diagnosis, her son, Daniel, interviewed Hugh Davies, who had been the founding director of what is now the University Museum of Contemporary Art.

Her work in the late 1940s and ’50s “was on a par with a lot of the very best artists making work both in Paris and in New York at that time,” Davies said. “She was breaking new ground.”

He added that looking back at the varying styles in her decades of work creating paintings, drawings, and sculptures, “there is a consistent vision, a consistent sensibility that is very much Avital’s.”

At times, Mrs. Sagalyn revisited an image over and over. To describe the process, she borrowed a metaphor from a friend, the late jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

“I often paint the same subject many times until I reach its essence,” she wrote in an artist’s statement for last fall’s exhibition. “These drawings and paintings are not repetitive, but variations on a theme just as musicians improvise when they play jazz.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.