David Slivka was born in Chicago Illinois in 1914. He was one of the last remaining members of The First Generation of American Abstract Expressionist Artists. Like them, he sought to incorporate spontaneity in his art. This has been accompanied by freedom to accept or reject the accident which may be the result.
David was the son of Russian immigrants. His father was a grocer who had been trained as a cantor. David lived a nomadic early life; his parents moved from Chicago to Indiana, Florida, then back to Chicago in search of work. They settled in San Francisco when David was sixteen, a senior in high school.
David resolved to be a sculptor at the early age of 10. This was after he won great acclaim at school for a bas-relief of a horse he made at home from left-over wallpaper cleaner. At age13 he won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Saturday afternoon children’s classes, and continued to study there all through high school. His spats-wearing lecturer, Dudley Crafts Watson left a lasting impression. A talk at his high school, followed by David’s visit to the large and impressive studio of Chicago’s famous sculptor, Loredo Taft, left David determined to become a sculptor. In 1931, after David had moved to San Francisco, he finished his senior year in high school and won a scholarship to The California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). David enrolled in art school in 1932. He spent 1 ½ years there, studying with the sculptor, Ralph Stackpole.
In 1933, Stackpole launched David’s professional career, recommending him for a commission on the first Public Works of Art Project ( a precursor of the WPA.), commissions for other stone carvings were to follow. In 1937, he completed the Treasury Department’s Commission for a bas-relief of postal workers on the Berkeley Post Office. The work remains today, the building having obtained landmark status.
In 1939, David worked on 3 sculptures for the San Francisco World’s Fair.
David was trained in traditional media and concepts, focused on the figure and other natural forms. Like other WPA sculptors, he carved realistic stone bas-reliefs representing aspects of community life and aspirations. Despite his later experiments in abstraction and new media, the figure or other natural forms would always emerge in new guises. He never lost his fascination with the drama of the sea, the deep forest, the mountains, deserts, wetlands, shore birds and other natural phenomena.
Like his contemporaries, World War 11 interrupted David’s professional career. In 1941 he worked on Naval vessels as a Ship Fitter, welding huge steel plates together, in San Francisco’s Bethlehem Shipyards. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1942 and worked as Ship’s Carpenter on various cargo vessels and troop ships in the Atlantic and Pacific.
In 1945, after the War, David settled in Manhattan. He studied print making with Stanley William Hayter. Through Hayter, he met and became friends with other artists, including Joan Miro, Jacques Lipchitz, Romare Bearden and Raoul Hague. He married writer and editor Rose Slivka.
David was an early member of The Artists’ Club in Greenwich Village. He also became friendly and exhibited with many artists of the New York School. These included Jackson Pollock, Elaine and Willem deKooning, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Philip Pavia, Herman Cherry, Joan Mitchell and Perle Fine. During summers in East Hampton, David exhibited and socialized with many of the same artists.
In the early post war years, David carved abstract forms in marble. In the 1950s, faced with the impossibility of lugging heavy stone upstairs to a 4th floor studio in a walk-up building, David became fascinated with the lost wax process and bronze casting. He relished the spontaneity and sensuality of bending, pouring and manipulating sheets of hot wax. Freed of the restrictions of working in the classicist style in which he’d been trained, he was carried into a new realm of expressive possibilities.
While focused on sculpture, David was trained in drawing. As a newly employed artist, he drew figures for artist friends who worked on the WPA’s San Francisco Coit Tower fresco murals. Ralph Stackpole, used David as a model and depicts him in two panels, as a chemist and a steel worker, in his large Coit Tower mural, INDUSTRIES OF CALIFORNIA. David later returned the favor and carved his former teacher as one of four postal workers; he depicted Stackpole, bent over, hoisting a sack of mail in his POST OFFICE ACTIVITIES (1937).
In the early 1960s David created a series of rapid ink paintings. They were not intended as plans for his bronze sculptures of this period, but took on a life of their own. In the 1970s, he continued to work in ink. He made a series of large, organic, curvilinear abstract ink drawings. Some of these were sold to the New York Port Authority. Several were destroyed in the Twin Towers bombing on 9/11.
Later economics produced another change in David’s work. In the late 1970s, after finding it too costly to cast in bronze, David began to construct in wood. He worked with cut pieces, scrap, found fragments, tree branches and rope. He developed new concepts that made use of natural color and grain. In later decades he increasingly incorporated stain and applied color.
In 1951, David met the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, during his 2nd U.S. tour. The poet was at the peak of his popularity. But he and David hit it off immediately. They became great friends; they also found they shared the same birthday. They’d both been born on October 26, 1914 (or so they thought). David is credited with introducing Dylan to The White Horse Tavern – a West Village bar which David thought Dylan would find compatible with his need both to drink and to get away from crowds of fans. In 1953, David and Dylan celebrated their 39th mutual birthdays; a scant two weeks later, on November 9, Dylan died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. David was asked to make a death mask before the poet’s body was returned to Wales. He asked sculptor Ibram Lassaw to assist. Several years later, the painter Paul Jenkins arranged for the purchase of a cast of the bronze bust which was then donated by the Welsh actor Richard Burton to the National Museum of Wales. Busts have since been donated to the BBC’s office in Cardiff, England, and to the new Dylan Thomas Center in Swansea, Wales. In this country David’s bust of Dylan Thomas has been given to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois, where David taught for a year, and to the 92nd Street Y in New York City where Dylan Thomas performed his verse play, Under Milkwood, shortly before he died.
David died in NYC on March 28th 2010 at the age of 95.