Years before Jackson Pollock was immortalized in the pages of Life magazine — cigarette hanging from her mouth, throwing paint onto a canvas on her studio floor — Janet Sobel has created her own unique drip paints. A Ukrainian immigrant and mother of five, Sobel lay back in her Brighton Beach apartment, still wearing her high heels and stockings, as paint lazily flowed from her brush onto a canvas below her.
A 1949 photo by photographer Ben Schnall captures Sobel in this kind of creative moment, his patient, observant face a perfect foil to Pollock’s boisterous energy. Schnall snapped the image, by some accounts, to include it in a Life magazine article about Sobel that never materialized. Its very existence, however, alludes to the stature Sobel had gained in the 1940s, just a few years after he began painting.
Unlike Pollock, Sobel’s name and work are today largely unknown outside of the art historical circles that celebrate her. But she seems to be slowly returning to the narrative of modern American art. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York unveiled a gallery rehanging works by Ukrainian-born artists, including Sobel, whose 1945 drip canvas Milky Way appears alongside plays by Louise Nevelson, Kazimir Malevitch and Sonia Delaunay. Sobel’s art has in recent years been featured in successful exhibitions such as “Women in Abstraction” at the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris last year, as well as in “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy in London, in 2016.
Sobel’s life story sounds like something out of a novel. She was born Jennie Lechovsky in 1893, to a Jewish family living near Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro, Ukraine). His childhood was marked by turmoil and tragedy. Her father, Bernard Lechovsky, was killed in a pogrom when she was very young. In 1908, his mother, Fanny Kahn Lechovsky, a midwife, emigrated with Sobol and his two siblings to the United States, settling in New York.
In her adopted country, Jennie became Janet, and by the age of 16 she had married Max Sobel, a Ukrainian-born goldsmith with a costume jewelry business. The couple will have five children over the years. Although Sobel had little formal education, she was culturally conscious and supportive of her children’s interests in art, music, and literature.
When she began to experiment with artistic creation – well into her 40s – Sobel was strongly influenced by the power of music. Stories vary slightly, but Sobel’s debut as an artist came at the request of his son Sol. Still in high school, he had won a scholarship to the Art Students League but was considering quitting art, much to his mother’s dismay. Frustrated, he said she might try making art if she was so invested in it. When she did, Sol marveled at her skills.
His first works, dating from the late 1930s, reveal a self-taught primitivism reminiscent of both Jean Dubuffet and the magical charm of Marc Chagall’s visions, but always marked by Ukrainian folkloric touches.
Sol became his biggest advocate, speaking to artists like Max Ernst and his son Jimmy, and André Breton, about his works. Noted dealer Sidney Janis became a strong supporter, exhibiting his paintings in the 1943 “American Primitive Painting of Four Centuries” exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago, where it was shown alongside other self-taught artists, including Horace Pippin and Grandma Moses.
From this nascent style, Sobel evolved into his own distinct amorphous surrealism. These images catapulted her into short-lived stardom. In 1944 she was included in a Surrealist group exhibition at the Norlyst Art Gallery in New York, curated by Eleanor Lust and Jimmy Ernst, as well as an exhibition at the Puma Gallery. A reviewer wrote at the time that “Mrs. Sobel is a middle-aged woman who has only recently picked up her brushes. The results are quite extraordinary. This is not conventional primitivism in any sense of the word.
Peggy Guggenheim also took a liking to her paintings, including Sobel in the 1945 “The Women” exhibition, at her Art of This Century gallery, alongside Louise Bourgeois and Kay Sage. The following year, in 1946, Guggenheim offered Sobel the only personal exhibition of his life. “Janet Sobel will probably come to be known as the most important Surrealist painter in this country,” wrote the dealer Sidney Janis at this time. He also noticed his shift towards gestural freedom in his new drip paintings: “More and more his work is about freedom and imaginative play. His autodidactic techniques, where automatism and chance actually predominate, are improvised according to internal requirements.
His methods were anything but conventional. Sobel was known for using glass droppers to splatter her paints and sometimes used the suction of her own vacuum cleaner to draw paint onto the canvases laid out on the floor of her Brighton Beach home.
Pollock was familiar with Sobel’s work, having seen his paintings while visiting an exhibition with critic Clement Greenberg in 1944, likely his exhibition at Puma Gallery, a space run by surrealist Ferdinand Puma.
Greenberg would write about the encounter: “In 1944, [Pollock] had noticed a curious painting or two on display at Peggy Guggenheim’s by a “primitive” painter, Janet Sobel (who was, and still is, a housewife living in Brooklyn). Pollock (and I) admired these images rather stealthily – the effect – and it was the first truly “all-over” I had ever seen, since Tobey’s show came months later – was oddly pleasant. Later, Pollock admitted that these photos marked him.
But despite this critical recognition, Sobel was quickly forgotten by the New York art scene. In 1946 she moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, where she was effectively cut off from her contacts in New York. She would continue to paint in the 1960s and exhibit her works locally.
Its sudden obscurity was also the result of the critical consternation that followed Sobel.
“Sobel’s work did not fit easily into any of the categories of the burgeoning New York art world of the 1940s or, alternatively, it slipped into too many of these categories. Sobel was part folk artist, part surrealist, and part abstract expressionist, but critics have found it easier to label her as “primitive.” Greenberg’s endorsement works ambivalently, it gives credence to Sobel’s aesthetic achievements but securely sequesters his work,” art historian and professor Sandra Zalman wrote in an essay on Sobel’s work.
Dealer Gary Synder has been an advocate of Sobel’s work for decades, seeing him for the first time in the exhibition”Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions” at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in 1989. “What struck me was the quality of the work, which was equal to that of Pollock, and of the same era,” said Synder, who curated a landmark exhibition of Sobel’s work in 2002, the first personal exhibition of his work since his exhibition. at the Guggenheim exhibition in 1946.
Synder feels that, for many, Sobel simply did not fit the narrative built around the New York School of Painters, so she was left out of her origin story. “In those years, the reputation of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism was booming with those bad boys of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Janet Sobel did not fit into this myth of powerful painters and drinkers of great paintings. Attention has gone elsewhere.
At the very end of her life, in 1966, art historian William Rubin, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, visited the bedridden Sobel while researching the work of Jackson Pollock. Rubin would select two integral abstractions by the artist to integrate them into the MoMA collection, one of which, Milky Wayis currently on display at the museum.
Beginning in the late 1980s, there has been constant reassessment of Sobel’s work, particularly over the past 15 years. Yet these conversations have largely focused on his drip paintings and their relationship with Pollock. Today, Sobel’s work seems prescient and important for reasons far beyond exhausted conversations about the origins of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, the folkloric qualities of her early paintings and her deep involvement in an American Surrealist style led largely by women feel particularly relevant to broader questions about the storytelling of art history. She remains quite unique in this respect.
“She’s a very unusual self-taught artist in that, unlike most self-taught artists, his work evolved over time, like most modern artists,” Synder said. “She goes from a primitivism to a surrealism, to a drip style of abstract expressionism, all in about 10 years, which is quite a phenomenal growth.”
Synder says he is particularly inspired by his early figurative works, which wrestle with cosmic questions of good and evil, war and peace. “These images are particularly poignant given the war in Ukraine,” Syndersid said. “Sobel’s work dealt with subjects of war and evil and childhood fear of a violent world, which she herself experienced. She addresses these feelings in such a powerful way that they feel alive in our moment and times.
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