Tag Archives: Peggy Guggenheim

She Transformed the Art World–and No One Knows About Her

Laurie and Debbie say:

Jackson Pollock, Marc Chagall. Names that resonate through the history of modern art: trailblazers, game-changers. Kelly Grovier, writing for the BBC, reveals the little-known story of the woman who not only preceded them, she also inspired at least Pollock. We have evidence.

Janet Sobel was born in Ukraine. She and her mother and siblings came to the United States in 1908, after her father had been killed in an anti-Semitic pogrom. She was 15. By 1938, she was a grandmother, starting to experiment with painting.

She was a natural. Without any instilled deference to rules that mustn’t be broken – and with the fearlessness of someone who had survived the traumas of religious persecution and the hardships of the Great Depression – Sobel unselfconsciously set about inventing art as if entirely from scratch. …

With no inculcated allegiance to any artistic school or prejudice regarding the appropriateness of materials, Sobel began playing both with what a painting can say and how it can say it. Using unconventional implements such as glass eye-droppers to squirt paint and the strong suck of a vacuum to drag wet splatters into thin gossamers that no traditional brush could spin, she assaulted the surface of canvases laid out on the floor, orchestrating a liquid lyricism of spills, splashes and spits the likes of which had never before been seen.

She could have done this in her living room, with herself and her family and friends as audience, but her son Sol (whose temporary interest in painting may have been what got her started) made it his business to get her work into the world,

 reaching out to everyone from Chagall himself to the influential art collector Sidney Janis, who would prove instrumental in establishing the reputations of everyone from Willem de Kooning to Mark Rothko to Pollock.

By 1944, Sobel was well on her way to being a formidable fixture in the New York art scene, debuting that year with a solo show at the Puma Gallery on 57th Street – an exhibition that yielded widespread praise for her works’ “astounding sophistication” and “absolutely unrestricted” imagination.

The legendary Peggy Guggenheim featured her work in a group show and a solo exhibition at Guggenheim’s gallery. And that’s why we know where Jackson Pollock got his ideas:

… the art critic Clement Greenberg admitted to visiting the exhibition with Pollock and that the two “noticed one or two curious paintings shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s by a ‘primitive’ painter, Janet Sobel (who was, and still is, a housewife living in Brooklyn)”. Putting to one side Greenberg’s derisory instinct to belittle the status and achievement of Sobel (“curious”, “primitive”, “housewife”), what he goes on to acknowledge places beyond doubt the enduring significance of the encounter: ‘Pollock (and I myself) admired these pictures rather furtively… The effect – and it was the first really ‘all-over’ one that I had ever seen… – was strangely pleasing. Later on, Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him.”

In 1945, Sobel was using the “drip technique” that Pollock has gotten credit for for almost 80 years — and he started using it in 1947.

So if Sobel was prominent, and getting excellent reviews (if sometimes condescending ones) before anyone else used these techniques, why don’t we know about her. That, sadly, is another very common women’s story:

In 1946, the same year that she opened a solo show at Guggenheim’s Art of the Century gallery, her husband Max, moved the family from Brooklyn to Plainfield, New Jersey, in order to be nearer to his costume jewellery enterprise. Unable to drive, Sobel quickly found herself cut off from the ebb and flow of the art scene in which she had only just become an important player.

Compounding that geographic disadvantage was the decision taken the following year by her biggest advocate, Peggy Guggenheim, to relocate to Europe, closing behind her the doors of the Art of the Century gallery – Sobel’s principal platform. Adding insult to injury, the onset of an allergy to an ingredient in paint forced Sobel to turn instead to media such as crayons that were less conducive to the drip technique, all but forcing her to abandon the innovation entirely. By 1948, Janet Sobel, who would die in obscurity 20 years later, had effectively vanished from the art world.

Now she’s a footnote or — in the case of Grovier’s article — an International Women’s Day special feature. The late Joanna Russ wrote the landmark How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Sobel’s story is a textbook example of how to suppress women’s visual art even — or especially — if it is genuinely transformative and changed the landscape of the art world forever.


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