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March 20, 2014
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Significant Careers of Determined Artists: Janet Sobel

Sobel

Which artist began experimenting with drip painting first: Janet Sobel or Jackson Pollock?

Janet Sobel exhibited drip painting works in 1944, roughly three years before Jackson Pollock.

In 1894, Janet Sobel, then Jennie Lechovsky, was born in the Ukraine. It was a period of great religious persecution in Eastern Europe, and as a Jewish family, the Lechovskys faced many difficulties. After Sobel’s father, Bernard Lechovsky, was killed during a pogrom, she and her family made their way to Ellis Island hoping to escape violence. Once in the United States, Sobel was reunited with fellow immigrant and childhood companion Max Sobel. They married when Sobel was just seventeen, and went on to have four children.

Janet Sobel "Hiroshima," ca. 1948,  Oil on canvas

Janet Sobel
“Hiroshima,” ca. 1948,
Oil on canvas

Sobel was a grandmother living in Brooklyn when she began painting in 1939. Recognizing his mother’s talent, Sobel’s son encouraged her artistic development and shared her work with his art teachers and colleagues. As an unschooled woman artist, Sobel was not taken seriously by many art critics, but she persevered.  Over the next few years, her style evolved from a primitive look with recognizable figures to a more abstract style wherein paint was poured, dripped, and blown to create colorful shapes and patterns.

Beginning in 1944, Sobel’s work was featured in a series of New York’s leading galleries. Art critic Clement Greenburg and artist Jackson Pollock encountered Janet Sobel’s paintings for the first time while they were exhibited in Peggy Guggenheim’s 1945 exhibition The Women. Clement later wrote an essay titled “American-Type Painting” in which he described Sobel’s work stating: “Pollock (and I myself) admired these paintings rather furtively … Pollock had admitted that these pictures had made an impact on him.” In 1947, Pollock produced his first “all over” drip painting—a style for which he eventually became famous.

Janet Sobel Untitled, ca. 1944, Gouache and crayon on paper

Janet Sobel
Untitled, ca. 1944, Gouache and crayon on paper

“Sobel clearly had a moment and really broke through in ways that other artists hadn’t yet done,” said Don Bacigalupi, Crystal Bridges’ President.  “Pollock gets all the glory, and Pollock was a great painter, there’s no question, but if his greatness is partially dependent on his breakthrough with drip painting, well, he didn’t do it alone, and he didn’t necessarily get there first.”

Unfortunately, Sobel did not receive recognition for this influence for many years. After moving to upstate New York in 1946, she began producing fewer and fewer works until her career as an artist faded away. Only in the past twenty years or so has her body of work begun to garner the attention of the art world again, including, of course, Crystal Bridges. The museum holds six of Sobel’s abstract works, as well as one of her more representational works, in our permanent collection.

Janet Sobel Untitled, ca. 1946-1948 Oil and enamel on board

Janet Sobel
Untitled, ca. 1946-1948
Oil and enamel on board

While her stint in the art world may have been short-lived and seemingly inconsequential at the time, Sobel likely had a significant impact on the evolution of abstract art in the United States. Perhaps exhibiting Sobel’s work in Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection galleries will make it possible for her to inspire future generations of artists as well.

Like Janet Sobel’s work? Try it yourself! On Saturday, March 22 and Friday, March 28, drop in anytime between noon and 3 p.m. for a free, guided “string painting” studio session. Materials are provided, and all ages are welcome! Check out a full schedule of drop-in Spring Break activities online.

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