Disorder and early success marked artist Avital Sagalyn’s young life. She fled Belgium in 1940 as a Jewish teenager, making a harrowing journey through three countries as the Nazis advanced. Yet within a few years in New York, she won a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Paris before becoming a fellow at a prestigious artists’ colony. In her work, she captured permutations of light but shunned the commercial spotlight.
Now, in her 90s (she doesn’t like to share her exact age), her work is the subject of a solo show, her first ever, at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“The director of the museum discovered that I’m a good painter,” Sagalyn said with a smile, in soft, French-accented English on a recent weekday morning. As her sparrow frame alighted on the edge of a loveseat at her Amherst home, she conveyed that the show is a chance to visit the road not taken.
“It was my mistake because I could’ve shown when I was young, in my 20s,” she said, her large sable eyes brightening at the memory. Prominent galleries in New York were interested, she said. Art critics encouraged her. But she declined. “I felt it wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t ready yet, which was ridiculous because they thought it was good.”
It took a lifetime to convince her otherwise.
The museum director, Loretta Yarlow, said the reasons for mounting a solo show for an unknown artist were based on the merit of Sagalyn’s work, its ability to hold its place among the European painters of the time, and Sagalyn’s willingness to experiment with various forms.
“The work does shine,” Yarlow said. “Here she is, right in Amherst. It was a golden opportunity for us.”
The show is focused almost exclusively on Sagalyn’s work in the 1940s and ’50s, when her paintings, drawings, sculptures, and textile designs marked her as a Cubist-Abstract artist. Her work focuses on the essence of an image, deeply influenced by memories of war, the melancholy of loss, or the ephemeral nature of life. The show’s most visceral painting, “The Horror of War,” hung briefly for a student exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art when Sagalyn was just a teenager. Its depiction includes recollections of her exodus: fallen soldiers, fire, and a looming, grotesque black bird.
Even in more placid days — like her summers in Provincetown — Sagalyn’s work is piquant, with renderings of spiky piers, fishing boats, and spiny fish. Among the influences she cites is the English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Her fascination with the transformative nature of light is evident in almost every work, from the opaque white cloaking of mosques in Israel and the muted veils of light that fall on the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
“I spent hours, day after day, at Notre-Dame,” Sagalyn said as she stood before several works depicting the Paris landmark. “It was like a magnet because it was embraced by the two arms of the Seine on its little island.”
Sagalyn was born Avital Rachel Schwartz to Russian Jewish émigrés in Belgium. Her maternal great-uncle was Samuil Marshak, the Russian children’s author and translator. Her father trained as a lawyer and her mother immersed Sagalyn and her older brother in culture. One of her most sensuous pieces, “Man Playing Cello,” a mahogany sculpture in which the human figure and musical instrument are one, speaks to the memory of her mother.
“She loved humanity,” Sagalyn said, her voice quavering. “I think my mother influenced me more than anybody else, her kindness, her love of music and art.”
In 1940, the reverie was violently disrupted. Sagalyn’s father announced in May that they must leave Brussels just in advance of the Germans. “I remember my mother watering the plants,” Sagalyn said. “She thought it would all be over soon.”
The exodus would take them on trains, in the back of trucks, to nights on park benches and — briefly, wondrously — to a glittering seaside hotel on France’s Basque coast as they threaded their way toward Portugal. The terrifying time was stippled with the ordinary and the joyous. Sagalyn recalled Nazi fighter planes buzzing their caravan and weeping French villagers, dressed in black, arms laden with flowers. Yet there were kindnesses, too: bread and wine offered by strangers, art classes in a Portuguese museum. They spent nine anxious months in Lisbon, waiting to sail to America in 1941.
Settled with her family in New York, Sagalyn was accepted to study studio art at The Cooper Union. Works in the show that depict Boothbay Harbor and Provincetown reflect memories of her travels with a close friend, the Hawaiian artist Reuben Tam. She received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1949 to study painting in Paris. Meyer Schapiro, the renowned art historian, and Charles Sterling, a Louvre curator, wrote her letters of recommendation, she said. It was in Paris where she recalled being introduced to Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso. Picasso later invited her and a friend to visit his pottery studio at Vallauris, she said.
Several canvases in the UMass Amherst show feature sun-struck stone buildings in Gordes, a medieval French village east of Avignon, where Sagalyn found tumbledown houses sprouting fig and olive trees. She remembered spending a summer there soaking in the wild, abandoned spaces, thanks to an invitation (via a cousin) from Marc Chagall, who had a studio there. The strong light of southern France reduced her palette to the white of the houses, the black of the shadows, and the blue of the sky.
“I was so struck by the beauty,” she said, “It was so peaceful but so rich in imagery.”
After Paris, she was accepted in 1952 as a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. Then came the domestic phase of her life. In 1955, she married Robert Sagalyn, a theatrical producer who helped launch the International Center for Photography. Three years later, the first of their three children was born and she continued to teach art at MoMA. She painted and drew, especially during summers on a farm in the Berkshires, owned by her in-laws. She left New York City for Amherst in 1968, following a new job for her husband. In the ’70s, she served on a committee to select the first director of the UMass museum.
Sagalyn demurred from the suggestion that her muse was interrupted by parenting, saying only that she sometimes found it difficult to work in time slots prescribed by her children’s schedule. Her husband, who died in 1985, was a constant support, she said.
Her UMass show, “A Life of Exploration,” is the museum’s first to be entirely curated by students. Nicholas Fernacz and Natalie Richards are scheduled to graduate from UMass next year and Elizabeth Filshtinsky graduated last spring.
Sagalyn’s recollections of meeting artists such as Picasso and Brancusi bespeaks a more intimate creative scene. The world of artists was quite small in the 1940s and early ’50s, according to Mary Gabriel, author of “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art.”
“You could walk into someone’s studio back then, something that is impossible to imagine today,” said Gabriel, who has never met Sagalyn.
Reached by phone at her home in Ireland, Gabriel said she wasn’t surprised to hear about Sagalyn’s strong sense of humility.
“It’s hard for us today, when the goal is to show, sell, and have your name out there, to understand that for them, the goal was really to create the best work,” Gabriel said. “It was a really pure and wonderful time, a romantic time.”
AVITAL SAGALYN: A LIFE OF EXPLORATION
At the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst, 151 Presidents Drive, Amherst, through Dec. 8. 413 545-3672, fac.umass.edu
Stacey Stowe is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.