Overlooked No More: Janet Sobel, whose art influenced Jackson Pollock

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The T...


This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The Times.

When Janet Sobel created one of the most recognizable art styles, drip painting, on scraps of paper, boxes and backs of envelopes, she was 45, had never taken a single art class and didn’t even have its own supplies.

Rather than using a brush, she would throw paint on a surface or use objects like glass pipettes to control the pigment as it fell. Sometimes she would use a vacuum cleaner to move the paint. The result was an integral composition unrelated to conceptions of form and form.

Although art historians say his spontaneous way of painting is characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, it was another artist known for drip painting who rose to prominence as the founder of the movement: Jackson Pollock.

“No one would dare to paint drip like Pollock” Gary Snyder, an art dealer and Sobel expert, said over the phone, “and the craziest thing is, Sobel did it before him.”

Partly because of his use of drip paint, Pollock is recognized as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Not many people know that he was influenced by Sobel after seeing his work in an exhibition.

And yet, said Snyder, “Sobel is a footnote in Pollock’s story.”

Sobel was born Jennie Olechovsky on May 31, 1893 in Ekaterinoslav, about 300 miles south of Kiev, Ukraine. Her father, Baruch Olechovsky, was a farmer who was killed in a Russian pogrom against the Jews when Jennie was young. Her mother, Fannie Kinchuk, was a midwife. Jennie was 14 when she immigrated to the United States with her mother and siblings, changing her name to Janet upon arriving at Ellis Island and settling in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.

Her granddaughter Ashley Shapiro said Janet wanted to be an actress but never learned to read or write English. When she was 16 she got married Max Sobel, who had also immigrated from Ukraine. The couple had five children.

How exactly Sobel entered the art world is a bit of folklore. One story goes that Sobel’s son Sol was an art student who in the late 1930s threatened to quit his studies at the League of Art Students, a nonprofit school in Manhattan that counts Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mark Rothko among its alumni.

According to historians and family members, Sobel criticized one of Sol’s paintings, prompting him to throw down his brush and tell him to take up painting instead. By this time she had already experimented with painting on any surface she could find – mail, dry cleaners, even her granddaughter’s childhood drawings. She used paintbrushes as well as a range of materials like enamel paint and glass pipettes that she got from her husband, a costume jewelry maker.

She “was overflowing with a flow of creativity that couldn’t be stopped,” her granddaughter said over the phone.

Sol was impressed with what his mother created, despite her artistic inexperience. In a 2005 article, “Janet Sobel: primitivist, surrealist and abstract expressionist, ” Gail Levin, an art professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, wrote that Sol had sent letters presenting Sobel’s work to prominent artists and philosophers including Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, John Dewey and Sidney Janis.

His work has been well received. “Janet Sobel will probably end up being known as one of the most important surrealist artists in this country,” Janis wrote in 1946 in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Art collector Peggy Guggenheim included Sobel’s work in a 1945 group show titled “The Women” in her Manhattan Art of This Century gallery. And in 1946, Guggenheim offered him a solo exhibition in his gallery. In a letter, Guggenheim called Sobel “the best female painter”.

The Guggenheim shows drew even more attention to Sobel. The art critic Clement Greenberg, as well as Pollock himself, have seen his work.

“Pollock (and I) admired these images quite sneakily,” Greenberg wrote in his essay. “American type paint” (1955), adding: “Later, Pollock admitted that these images marked him.

Sobel’s most distinguished painting, “Milky Way” (1945), which is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was made a year before Jackson Pollock’s first drip painting, “Free form,” who is also at MoMA.

But Sobel’s fame did not last long. The news media often called her a Grandmother and housewife first, then as an artist, said Sandra zalman, associate professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Houston.

“Sobel didn’t fit into the categories the art world conceived of of her,” Zalman said in a telephone interview. “She attracted attention because she was a foreigner, but then she is quickly forgotten because she is a foreigner.”

Pollock, for example, was the quintessential American artist. Dressed all in black, he was squatting or standing on a canvas while athletically throwing paint, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Sobel, meanwhile, was lying face down on her apartment floor, high heels and low, passively watching the paint fall onto her canvas with the bristles of a brush.

“It’s not easy to paint,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. ” It’s very tiring. But it’s something you have to do if you feel like it.

Some art critics have called his creations “untrained” or “primitive.” Sobel’s skills, Zalman said, were no threat to Pollock; his influence was only a place for his fame.

Sobel then moved with her family to Plainfield, NJ, away from the glitzy New York art world she had influenced, contributing to her quick disappearance from the public eye. There, she looked after the housework while her husband opened a new factory.

She died at age 75 on November 11, 1968.

“This notion of disappearance is so strange, because it entered the art world with such force,” said Snyder, the art dealer.

He estimates that Sobel made over 1,000 works, many of which belong to members of his family. Over the years his work has been featured in select galleries, but his name rarely appears outside the world of scholarly art.

“She deserves to be mentioned,” Zalman said. “The fact that she could even play in this field with these men was a major accomplishment.”

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