Magazine article Artforum International

Janet Sobel: Gary Snyder Fine Art. (Reviews: New York)

Magazine article Artforum International

Janet Sobel: Gary Snyder Fine Art. (Reviews: New York)

Article excerpt

Janet Sobel probably never read Clement Greenberg's glancing tribute to her in his revised 1955 essay "'American-Type' Painting," but the passage has become an obligatory pit stop in discussions of her puzzling, newly resuscitated career. Back in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery, Greenberg recalls, "Pollock (and I myself) admired [Sobel's] pictures rather furtively.... The effect, and it was the first really 'all-over' one that I had ever seen.., was strangely pleasing." You'd think the implication that Sobel had some role in Pollock's development would have guaranteed her a steady measure of attention. Instead, the hedged tone (and perhaps also the description of Sobel as a "housewife living in Brooklyn") may have had the opposite effect. Sobel didn't show again during her lifetime. A few scholars have written about her pioneering drip abstractions (beginning with William Rubin in these pages in 1967), and a few canvases have appeared in revisionist surveys, but this was the first exhib ition devoted to Sobel since her second show at Art of This Century fifty-six years ago.

Sobel's long eclipse, like her brief fame, was partly a matter of circumstance. Born in Ukraine, she moved to the United States as a teenager, married, had five kids, and in 1937, already in her forties, impulsively took up painting. As her style grew increasingly nonobjective, Sobel earned a bemused local notoriety: CRITICS ACCLAIM BORO GRANDMOTHER AS TOP FLIGHT SURREALIST PAINTER read one Brooklyn headline in 1945. Clippings show a small, genial, heavyset woman, the archetypal nana: When Max Ernst and Andre Breton showed up at her house in Brighton Beach, you don't need to be told that she served them gefilte fish and chicken soup.

Soon after her second solo show, illness and allergies forced Sobel to give up oil paints--and the drip-based style that had intrigued Pollock. She continued to make images until her death in 1968, apparently without any effort to exhibit them. The result is a curious legacy: a vast hoard of pictures, mostly undated, with little information on their author's subjects or motives.

Understandably, the gallery has chosen to focus on the period from 1941 to 1948, bracketing Sobel's foray into pure abstraction. …

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