Ilya Bolotowsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1907. His family fled Russia during the Russian Revolution, traveling first to Istanbul before settling in New York City in 1923. In 1924 Bolotowsky enrolled at the National Academy of Design, where he studied until 1930. During the next two years he worked in textile design and taught art at settlement houses.
In 1932 Bolotowsky spent ten months in Europe, visiting Italy, Germany, Denmark, England, and France. In Europe Bolotowsky admired the work of the Russian Constructivists, especially Malevich, and the Surrealist abstractions of Joan Miró. Mondrian's Neo-Plastic art was also a profound influence, which became more stated in Bolotowsky's art as the 1940s progressed. The biomorphic forms in Bolotowsky's 1930s work began to fade from the artist's imagery by 1939, giving way to pure geometric subjects.
Ilya Bolotowsky returned to the United States in 1933 and married artist Esphyr Slobodkina. In 1935 Bolotowsky starteda small group of artists called The Ten Whitney Dissenters, which formed against the exclusion of modernism from the Whitney Museum of American Art's early biennials. The group first exhibited in December 1935. In the catalog from a show at Mercury Gallery in 1937 their mission was described as, "a protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting." The group also included: Lou Schanker, Ben-Zion, Marcus Rothkowitz (Mark Rothko), Adolph Gottlieb, Joe Solomon, Nahum Tschacbasov, Lou Harris, and Ralph Rosenborg. In its exhibitions, the group would invite a tenth guest artist to bring the group's number actually to ten. The group also showed at the Montross Gallery and Georgette Passedoit galleries in Manhattan and the Galerie Bonaparte in Paris.
Bolotowsky's involvement in The Ten led to him becoming was one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists, a group that sought to increase public appreciation of abstract art. The group formed late in 1936 and had its first annual exhibition in the Squibb Building in April 1937. Bolotowsky also participated in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. Burgoyne Diller, a fellow member of American Abstract Artists and the head of the New York division of the New York Mural Department of the WPA, encouraged abstract artists like Bolotowsky to join the mural division where Diller was able to assign projects that were open to styles other then the dominant representational art of the American Scene. Under Diller's supervision, the Williamsburg Housing Project in 1937 included four abstract murals created by Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden. The murals are now in The Brooklyn Museum. In 1939 Bolotowsky received a commission to paint a mural for the Hall of Medical Science for the New York World's Fair and in 1941 the WPA/FAP hired Bolotowsky to create a mural for the Day Room of the Hospital for Chronic Diseases on Welfare Island in New York City.
After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Bolotowsky returned to the United States and became a full-time teacher at Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1946 to 1948, acting as head of the art department from 1946 to 1947 when Joseph Albers took the year off. The 1940s saw Bolotowsky's increasing interest in the Neo-Plastic art of his American Abstract Artist colleagues, including Mondrian, Diller and Albert Swinden. Neo-Plasticism was a progressive art that sought ideal order through the use of simple grids and primary colors. Bolotowsky's art of this period combined his earlier interest in the biomorphic forms of Surrealism with the rigid geometry and grid framework of Neo-Plasticism.
His subsequent academic career included teaching positions at the University of Wyoming and Brooklyn College from 1948 to 1957, State Teacher's College, New Paltz, NY from 1957 to 1965 and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater from 1965 to 1971. Bolotowsky's artistic career continued to develop throughout his teaching years, as he began to apply Neo-Plastic principles to three-dimensional columns, his art becoming increasingly unadorned and geometric.
Bolotowsky enjoyed an extensive exhibition schedule throughout his career, participating in such group exhibitions as New Horizons in American Art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 and the second and third exhibitions of the Ten Whitney Dissenters at Georgette Passedoit Gallery in New York in 1936 and 1937. Bolotowsky also had numerous one-man exhibitions, including: J.B. Neumann's New Art Circle, NY in 1946; the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY in 1949; Grace Borgenicht Gallery, regularly from 1954 to 1980; the Parrish Art Museum, South Hampton, NY in 1965; the Wichita Art Museum, Kansas in 1973; and the Washburn Gallery, NY in 1980. An important retrospective on the artist's career was organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1974, which traveled to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Bolotowsky died in 1981 in Manhattan.