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Jacob Semiatin

Masterful watercolors by an important American Abstract Expressionist.

Biography, Jacob Semiatin:


Jacob Moses Semiatin was born in 1915 to Polish Jewish parents Herman (Semiatitzki) Semiatin and Sarah Moidovnik in the Portobello region of Dublin, Ireland. Semiatin's family lived in Little Jerusalem, as it was known, the heart of the Jewish community in Dublin. He emigrated with his family in 1920, aboard the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, landing on Ellis Island. Semiatin eventually settled in Brooklyn, NY.


Both Jacob and his brother Lionel were artistic; Jacob being a visual artist and Lionel a musician and composer. Their father, Herman, was a renowned cantor. Lionel would go on to win many awards for his compositions. After college, Jacob began a more in-depth exploration of watercolor painting. His watercolors of the 1930s-1940s depict scenes of industrial and urban life, as well as bucolic landscapes. I. H. Baur, Curator of Painting at the Brooklyn Museum, encouraged Semiatin to exhibit his paintings in group shows at the museum, which he did on several occasions.


During World War II, Semiatin served his country at various Army Air Force camps in Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas and Florida. While stationed in Arkansas, he painted rural landscape watercolors in the Blytheville and Amorel areas. Some of these paintings would eventually be acquired by local museums, such as the Historic Arkansas Museum and the William J. Clinton Library and Museum, both in Little Rock.


Upon his return to New York after the war, Semiatin's painting style changed into what could be called his semi-abstract period. Angular and geometric lines would be used to create the shapes in his landscapes and portraits. In 1957, Semiatin had a solo exhibition of his paintings at Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York—a gallery that would later introduce artists Mark Rothko and Mark Tobey. This exhibit would mark the end of landscape painting for Semiatin and the beginning of his exploration of abstract art.


Leaving landscape painting behind, Semiatin immersed himself in the art movement of Abstract Expressionism. The New York School, as it came to be known, was comprised of a loose coalition of artists, musicians and writers. Unlike painters of his time, watercolor was Semiatin’s specialty. A difficult medium to control, he proved himself to be a master. He used watercolor's natural properties to his advantage. The appearance of chaos underlies Semiatin’s very orderly composition of swirls, waves and spirals.


Semiatin explained, “The year 1958 marks the first of my completely abstract or non-objective paintings. This was not a sudden impulse. I had been considering such a progression for several years, and the recent semi-abstract paintings had brought me closer to this concept. Once I had ‘Crossed the Rubicon’, however, there was no turning back. I felt that I was at the edge of a new world of discovery. I began a series of watercolor and crayon paintings in 1959, which I worked on into 1960. Movement was at the core of this series, spurred by the spontaneous exuberance of a new-found freedom. That the crayon is visible through the watercolor in these paintings creates a notable color and texture effect.”


Semiatin married Ludmila Rosenfeld in 1954. He also developed a close friendship with James Johnson Sweeney, second director of the Guggenheim Museum (1952-1960). In 1959 he submitted a group of his crayon and watercolor abstracts for Sweeney's review. One of the foremost figures in the art world, Sweeney took a great interest in Semiatin's art and would acquire many of his works throughout the years. In 1962, Semiatin had a one-man show at Gallerie Internationale, which was reviewed by Stuart Preston of the New York Times. Semaitin would continue to exhibit his work, including another one-man show in 1964, also at Galerie Internationale. Another venue for his work was at the very influential Leo Castelli Gallery.


As the mid-'60s approached, the movement of Abstract Expressionism was coming-to-a-close, being replaced by Pop Art, and shortly thereafter, Op Art. Like many abstract painters of his day, Semiatin faced an uncertain future. At this time, he also became dissatisfied with the art politics and quid pro quo attitude of the New York gallery scene and ceased exhibiting his work. Semiatin would continue to explore abstraction throughout his life, learning different techniques and media, including acrylic and collage. Semiatin died in Manhattan in 2003.


Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY

Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, AR

Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin, Ireland

Rick & Sue Miller Collection, Beverly Hills, CA

Ted Turner Collection

William J. Clinton Library and Museum, Little Rock, AR

UNICEF, New York, NY

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