William (“Bill”) Chaiken, one of the last of the first-generation abstract expressionists, died on November 13, 2021, at the age of 100. Bill was a prolific artist known for his abstract figurative paintings and admired for his improvisatory style, technical mastery, and emotional depth.
Bill was born in Russia in 1921 and emigrated with his family to Winnipeg in 1926 to escape the pogroms. His father, Zalman Chaiken, came to be celebrated in the community as a Yiddish poet (https://ia802704.us.archive.org/20/items/nybc204675/nybc204675.pdf).
Entering grade school at the age of five, unable to speak English, Bill charmed his classmates with his drawings, confirming his early devotion to art.
From 1937 to 1940 Bill attended the Winnipeg School of Art, where he studied under George Overton of the British Royal Academy and L.L. Fitzgerald.
From 1941 to 1945, he served in the Canadian army.
After the war, Bill moved to New York City and attended the Art Students League under the Veteran’s Rehabilitation Act, studying with Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil. He associated with the abstract artists of the New York School. In time, he found that he was not satisfied with pure abstraction, feeling that it lacked “empathy,” and he began to incorporate figures and landscapes into his paintings.His work quickly gained recognition and was displayed in many exhibitions, including six Whitney annual shows (1949 -1956).
In 1959, Bill became a member of United Scenic Artists, a union of freelance designers and painters for theater, film, and television. He painted sets for the Metropolitan Opera, The New York City Ballet, The New York City Opera, The American Ballet Theater, Radio City Music Hall, and Disneyland, as well as for television and Broadway plays and musicals. He also painted the sets and artwork for feature films under the directors Sidney Lumet, John Huston, Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, John Schlesinger, Bob Fosse, Francis Ford Coppola, and many others. Bill claimed that his work as a scenic artist warmed him up for his own painting, which continued unabated. Some of the dramatic effects of the stage found their way into his paintings, as did early memories of Russia and visions of the wide-open skies over Winnipeg.
In 2009 Bill was devastated by the loss of his beloved wife Elke (née Neuhaus). He feared that he would never be able to paint again, but after a period of illness he returned to his studio, located at his home in the Ramapo Mountains in Hillburn, New York.
Bill continued painting in his own home beyond the age of 100. Two months before his 101th birthday, after moving to an assisted living facility, he took to his bed and died peacefully within a week.
Bill retained his connection with Winnipeg, visiting frequently while his parents were alive. Between visits, his mother kept him supplied with packages of smoked goldeyes.
Bill’s paintings are represented in the Whitney Museum of American Art and in private collections worldwide.
He is survived by his daughters, Ilya Chaiken and MarthaLeah Chaiken, and his granddaughter Zora Sicher.
A sampling of his paintings can be seen, and the family contacted, on his website: https://www.williamchaiken.com/