Serge Poliakoff was born on 8 January 1900, to a bourgeois family in Moscow. His father bred horses for the Tsar’s cavalry. From a young age he regularly attended church, and the bold colours and contemplative potency of Russian Orthodox icons would fascinate him throughout his life. Poliakoff had his first drawing lessons at the age of fourteen, though his studies at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture were abruptly ended with the Russian Revolution in 1917. He fled to Europe, where he made a living as a nomadic cabaret performer; he would arrive in Paris in 1923, having travelled through Sofia, Belgrade, Vienna, Cologne and Berlin.
Poliakoff decided to commit himself to painting in 1929, when he began studying at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière, Académie Colarossi, and Académie Frochot. At this time, he was producing academic drawings of nudes and still-lifes. Poliakoff had his first group exhibition at the Galerie Drouant, Paris (1931), and first solo exhibition at the Galerie Zak, Paris (1937). In 1935, Poliakoff moved to London, where he took classes at the Slade School of Fine Art and frequented the various museums; he returned to Paris in 1937. Poliakoff began attending the open salons hosted by Robert and Sonia Delaunay in 1938 and 1939, where he would become particularly close with Wassily Kandinsky and cement his interest in colour and abstraction.
By 1945, Poliakoff was painting in an entirely abstract style, which he would exhibit at the Galerie l’Esquisse, Paris, that year. He avoided overly geometric line and form, prioritising the expressive qualities of tonal juxtaposition and the interrelationships of irregular shapes in his compositions. During the late 1940s and 1950s, he exhibited at the Galerie Denise René, Paris, and came to be viewed as part of the ‘new’ École de Paris (‘School of Paris’) alongside Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, and Nicolas de Staël. In 1953, he had his first major solo exhibition in the US at the Circle and Square Gallery, New York, and exhibited regularly throughout Europe during the decade. In the 1960s, he exhibited at the French Pavilion of the XXXI Venice Biennale (1962), had a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1963), showed four works at Documenta III, Kassel (1964), and won the International Award at the Tokyo Biennial (1965). Poliakoff died on the 12 October 1969, in Paris.
Poliakoff’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Kunsthaus Zürich; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée Maillol, Paris; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon; the Tate Collection, London.