Who Was Janet Sobel, the Ukrainian-Born Abstract Artist Who Created Drip Paintings Years Before Jackson Pollock?


Decades in advance of Jackson Pollock was immortalized in the webpages of Existence magazine—cigarette dangling from his mouth, flinging paint throughout a canvas on his studio floor—Janet Sobel created her very own exclusive drip paintings. A Ukrainian immigrant and mom of five, Sobel lay down in her Brighton Beach apartment, even now wearing her significant heels and stockings, even though paint spilled lazily from her brush on to a canvas beneath her. 

A 1949 image by the photographer Ben Schnall captures Sobel in just this type of inventive minute, her encounter patient and observant, a ideal foil to Pollock’s tumultuous power. Schnall snapped the graphic, in accordance to some accounts, for inclusion in a Existence journal article about Sobel that under no circumstances materialized. Its incredibly existence, having said that, hints at the stature Sobel had attained in the 1940s, just a handful of years soon after she experienced commenced portray.  

As opposed to Pollock, right now Sobel’s name and perform are largely unfamiliar outside of the art historical circles that celebrate her.  But she appears to be little by little returning to the narrative of American Modern-day art. Lately, the Museum of Modern-day Artwork in New York unveiled a gallery rehanging of operate by Ukrainian-born artists, including Sobel, whose ​​1945 drip canvas Milky Way appears together with items by Louise Nevelson, Kazimir Malevich, and Sonia Delaunay. Sobel’s art has, in recent many years, been showcased in blockbuster exhibitions this sort of as “Women in Abstraction” at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris very last calendar year, as effectively as in “Abstract Expressionism” at the Royal Academy, London, again in 2016. 

Janet Sobel, Untitled (JS-068) (c. 1946-48). Courtesy of Gary Snyder Fine Art MT

Janet Sobel, Untitled (JS-068) (c. 1946-48). Courtesy of Gary Snyder Great Artwork MT

Sobel’s everyday living story is like one thing out of a novel. She was born Jennie Lechovsky in 1893, to a Jewish relatives living close to Ekaterinoslav (now DniproUkraine). Her childhood was marked by turmoil and tragedy. Her father, Bernard Lechovsky, was killed in a pogrom when she was really youthful. In 1908, her mother, Fanny Kahn Lechovsky, a midwife, emigrated with Sobol and her two siblings to the U.S, settling in New York.

In her adopted country, Jennie became Janet, and by the age of 16, she experienced married Max Sobel, a Ukrainian-born goldsmith with a costume jewelry enterprise. The pair would have 5 small children more than the years. Though Sobel had little formal education and learning, she was culturally minded and was supportive of her children’s pursuits in art, new music, and literature.

When she did start out experimenting with art-making—well into her 40s—Sobel was hugely motivated by the ability of songs. Stories vary a little bit, but Sobel’s start off as an artist came at the urging of her son Sol. However in high school, he had gained a scholarship to the Art Learners League but thought of providing up artwork, considerably to his mother’s dismay. Pissed off, he mentioned that she might consider making art if she was so invested in it. When she did, Sol was surprised by her skills. 

Her early works, dating to the late 1930s, harken to a self-taught primitivism reminiscent of the two Jean Dubuffet and the magical charm of Marc Chagall’s visions, but usually marked by Ukrainian folkloric touchpoints.

Sol became her biggest advocate, reaching out to artists like Max Ernst and his son Jimmy, and André Breton, about her functions. The famed vendor Sidney Janis became an avid supporter, exhibiting her paintings in the 1943 exhibition “American Primitive Portray of Four Centuries” at the Arts Club of Chicago, the place she was revealed together with other self-taught artists including Horace Pippin and Grandma Moses. 

From this nascent fashion, Sobel moved towards her have distinctive amorphic Surrealism. These photographs catapulted her into limited-lived stardom. In 1944, she was provided in a Surrealist group exhibition at Norlyst Art Gallery in New York, curated by Eleanor Lust and Jimmy Ernst, as effectively as an exhibition at Puma Gallery. A critic wrote at the time that “Mrs. Sobel is a center-aged girl who only lately took up her brushes. The benefits are relatively amazing. This is not standard primitivism in any perception of the term.”

Peggy Guggenheim also took a liking to her paintings, including Sobel in the 1945 exhibition “The Women”, at her Artwork of This Century gallery, along with the likes of Louise Bourgeois and Kay Sage. The adhering to 12 months, in 1946, Guggenheim gave Sobel the only solo present of her lifetime. “Janet Sobel in all probability will be at some point acknowledged as the most vital Surrealist painter in this state,” the dealer Sidney Janis wrote in the course of this interval. He also discovered her change towards the gestural freedom of her new drip paintings, declaring: “More and a lot more her work is provided about to independence and imaginative participate in. Her autodidactic methods in which automatism and prospect successfully predominate, are improvised according to internal demands.”

Her methods have been something but traditional. Sobel was recognized to have employed glass eye droppers to splatter her paints, and at periods used the suction of her individual vacuum to pull paint across the canvases laid out on the ground of her Brighton Seashore home.

Pollock was common with Sobel’s function, owning seen her paintings while going to an exhibition with critic Clement Greenberg in 1944, possible her clearly show at Puma Gallery, a room run by the surrealist Ferdinand Puma. 

Greenberg would publish of the come upon: “Back in 1944, [Pollock] experienced seen a single or two curious paintings revealed at Peggy Guggenheim’s by a ‘primitive’ painter, Janet Sobel (who was, and nonetheless is, a housewife dwelling in Brooklyn). Pollock (and I myself) admired these pictures fairly furtively—the effect—and it was the 1st truly “all-over” a person that I had ever noticed, because Tobey’s clearly show arrived months later—was unusually pleasing. Later on on, Pollock admitted that these photographs experienced made an impression on him.”

But irrespective of that important acknowledgment, Sobel was soon neglected by the New York art scene. In 1946, She would transfer to Plainfield, New Jersey, where she was successfully reduce off from her contacts in New York. She would keep on to paint into the 1960s and exhibit her is effective regionally. 

Her unexpected obscurity was also the consequence of the vital consternation that followed Sobel.

“Sobel’s work did not suit simply into any of the classes of the burgeoning 1940s New York artwork world or alternately it slid into much too numerous of those groups. Sobel was component folk artist, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist, but critics observed it easiest to simply call her a “primitive.” Greenberg’s endorsement features ambivalently it lends credence to Sobel’s aesthetic accomplishments but properly sequesters her do the job,” wrote art historian and professor Sandra Zalman in an essay on Sobel’s perform. 

Supplier Gary Synder has been an advocate of Sobel’s work for decades, very first looking at it in the exhibition “Summary Expressionism: Other Dimensions” at the Zimmerli Artwork Museum of Rutgers University in 1989. “What struck me was the quality of the operate, which was equivalent to that of Pollock, and of the exact same era,” explained Synder, who arranged a pivotal exhibition of Sobel’s perform in 2002, the initially solo clearly show of her operate considering the fact that her exhibition at Guggenheim’s exhibition in 1946.  

Synder feels that, for several, Sobel just didn’t match with the narrative remaining crafted up all-around the New York Faculty of painters so she was composed out of its origin story. “Those a long time, the name of New York School of Abstract Expressionism was burgeoning with these lousy boys of Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. Janet Sobel didn’t in shape into that fantasy of highly effective hard-ingesting painters of huge paintings. The attention went in other places.” 

At the extremely end of her lifestyle, in 1966, the artwork historian William Rubin, then a curator at the Museum of Fashionable Artwork, would check out a bedridden Sobel even though exploring the work of Jackson Pollock. Rubin would there find two all-over abstractions by the artist to be brought into MoMA’s collection, a person of which, Milky Way, is at the moment on see at the museum.  

Beginning in the late 1980s, there has been a steady reappraisal of Sobel’s operate, significantly in the past 15 many years. Nonetheless, individuals conversations have mostly centered on her drip paintings and their partnership to Pollock. Currently, Sobel’s oeuvre feels prescient and important for explanations well beyond exhausted conversations about the origins of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, the folkloric qualities of her earliest paintings and her deep involvement in an American Surrealist design and style led mostly by girls experience significantly related to greater questions about the telling of art background. She stays quite singular in that regard. 

“She’s a really unusual self-taught artist in that unlike most self-taught artists, her function progressed above time, like additional Modern-day artists,” reported Synder. “She moves from a primitivism to a Surrealism, to a drip-type of Summary Expressionism all within about 10 several years, which is really phenomenal growth.”

Synder states he is notably encouraged by her earliest figurative performs, which wrestle with cosmic issues of fantastic and evil, war and peace. “These images are notably poignant given the war in Ukraine,” Syndersaid. “Sobel’s get the job done dealt with topics of wartime and evil and childhood concern of a violent globe, which she herself knowledgeable. She touches on these inner thoughts in these a strong way that feel alive in our instant and time.”

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