Janet Sobel

1893-1969 (Ukraine)

Born in 1893, Janet Sobel is one of the great unsung heroines of 20th century art. Her idiosyncratic and shape-shifting aesthetic was championed by collector Peggy Guggenheim, critic Clement Greenberg and William Rubin, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Sobel’s self-taught practice began in humble circumstances in the late 1930s when, encouraged by her art student son, this Ukrainian immigrant began to sketch memories of her Jewish upbringing in Eastern Europe. These early works, reminiscent of Marc Chagall, delighted friends and family with their swirling faces and bright colouration. 

The work from this period revealed an instinctive certainty of colour, shape and form. It spoke not just of Sobel’s past, but of her identity in the new world. It also brought her to the attention of legendary gallerist and curator Sidney Janis, who included a painting by Sobel in his show American Primitive Paintings at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1943.

Sobel soon evolved a particular form of abstract expressionism, which in turn led to an enthusiastic reception by the great and the good of New York’s art scene.Sobel found herself welcoming critic Clement Greenberg, artists Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock, and even the king of the surrealists, Andr. Breton, to the family home in Brooklyn.

Sobel was exhibited at Norlyst Art Gallery by Max Ernst’s son Jimmy in 1944; and her inclusion in The Women at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery (along with Louise Bourgeois, Irene Rice Pereira and Kay Sage) led to a solo show at the same venue in 1946.

Ad Reinhardt’s insiders’ art map of 1945, How to Look at Modern Art in America, locates Sobel alongside Mark Tobey, Arshile Gorky and Andr. Masson; and it is widely accepted that her invention of so-called drip painting - whereby paint is dribbled and splattered across the canvas - was unashamedly borrowed by Jackson Pollock and revolutionised his trajectory.

Yet Sobel was not cut from the same cloth as her peers. She moved to New Jersey, stopped creating work and slipped out of the spotlight. Despite her stellar ascent, the uninformed denigrated her as a primitive painter, and worse still, a housewife. Even William Rubin’s support and patronage, acquiring paintings for the Museum of Modern Art, were not enough for a society fixated on the art-educated Caucasian male gaze.

Sobel died in 1968; and it would be almost 50 years before her work was again singled out for its influence and innovation. Today her paintings and drawings are highly sought after and regularly included in exhibitions on female art, modernism and twentieth century abstraction, with advocates ranging from Lynne Cooke, chief curator of the National Gallery at the Smithsonian, to Alice Walton, founder of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. 

Janet Sobel: All-Over, The Menil Collection, (Houston) 2024
Janet Sobel, The Gallery of Everything, Nomad (St. Moritz) 2024
Janet Sobel: Wartime, The Ukrainian Museum, (New York) 2023
Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70, Whitechapel Gallery (London) 2023
Women in Abstraction, Le Centre Pompidou, (Paris); Guggenheim Museum, (Bilbao) 2021/22
Janet Sobel: 20th Century Woman, The Gallery of Everything, Frieze Masters, (London) 2021
519: Architecture for Modern Art, MoMA, (New York) 2021
Outliers and American Vanguard Art, National Gallery of Art, (Washington DC); High Museum of Art, (Atlanta); Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (Los Angeles) 2018/19
The Museum of Everything #7, Museum of Old and New Art, (Tasmania) 2017/18
Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, MoMA, (New York) 2017
Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy of Arts, (London); Guggenheim Museum, (Bilbao) 2016/17
The Museum of Everything #6, Kunsthal, (Rotterdam) 2016
In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women in Mexico and the United States, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (Los Angeles) 2012
Approaching Abstraction, American Folk Art Museum, (New York) 2010
Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1946, Jewish Museum, (New York) 2008
Außerhalb, Kunstverein Göttingen e.V., (Göttingen) 2003
Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960, Brooklyn Museum of Art, (New York); San Diego Museum of Art, (San Diego); Walker Art Center, (Minneapolis), 2001
Artist's Choice: Elizabeth Murrary: Modern Women, Museum of Modern Art, (New York) 1995
Art of the Forties, MoMA, (New York) 1991
Selected Works, Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, (New York) 1990
Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions - An Introduction to Small Scale Painterly Abstraction in America, 1940-1965, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick (New Jersey); Whitney Museum of Art at Phillip Morris, (New York); Terra Museum of American Art, (Chicago); Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, (Coral Gables) 1989/90
Peggy Guggenheim's Other Legacy, curated by Melvin P. Lader and Fred Licht, traveling exhibition, Peggy Guggenheim, (Venice); Solomon R. Guggenheim, (New York) 1987/88
American Women Artists Part I: 20th Century Pioneers, Sidney Janis Gallery, (New York) 1984
Recent Acquisitions: Paintings and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, (New York) 1970
Personal Statement: Painting Prophecy, David Porter Gallery, (Washington, DC) 1950
Art of This Century: The Women, Peggy Guggenheim, (New York); David Porter Gallery, (Washington); Mary Baldwin College, (Stanton); Western College, (Oxford); San Francisco Museum of Art, (San Francisco) 1945
Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, (Philadelphia) 1945
Janet Sobel, Art of This Century, (New York) 1946
Summer Art Show, State University of Iowa, (Iowa) 1946
27th Annual; 28th Annual; 29th Annual; 30th Annual; The Brooklyn Museum, (New York) 1943/46
Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, Mortimer Brandt Gallery, (New York) 1944
Janet Sobel, Puma Gallery, (New York) 1944
Abstract and Surrealist Art in the United States, Museum of Modern Art, (San Francisco); Santa Barbara Museum; Seattle Museum of Art; Denver Museum of Art; Cincinnati Art Museum, 1944
Chronicle of Our Elders, Norlyst Art Gallery, (New York) 1944
27-30 Annual, Brooklyn Museum, (New York) 1943/46
American Primitive Painting of Four Centuries, Arts Club of Chicago, (Chicago) 1943

    Exhibition #7, The Museum of Everything, UK, 2018
    Janet Sobel: Primitivist, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist, Gail Levin, Woman's Art Journal 26, no. 1, 2005
    Northwest Mythologies: The Interactions of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson, Tacoma, University of Washington Press, 2003
    Eyesight Alone, Caroline Jones, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003
    Inside Out: Selected Works by Janet Sobel, Janet Sobel and Gail Levin, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York, 2003
    Janet Sobel, American National Biography, Deborah A. Goldberg, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999
    Abstract Expressionism Other Politics, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997
    Art of This Century: The Women, Siobhan M. Conaty, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1997
    Art of the Forties, Riva Castleman, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1991
    Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimension; An Introduction to Small Scale Painterly Abstraction in America, 1940-1965, Jeffrey Wechsler, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, 1989
    Peggy – The Wayward Guggenheim, Jacquelin Bograd Weld, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1986
    Peggy Guggenheim Collection: Venice, Angelica Zander Rudenstein, Abrams, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1985
    Jackson Pollock, Elizabeth Frank, New York, Abbeville Press, 1983
    Out of This Century Confessions of an Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim, New York, Universe Books, 1979
    Originals American Women Artists, Eleanor Munroe, Da Capo Press, New York, 1979
    Confessions of an Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim, Hopewell, Echo Press, 1960
    Art and Culture, Clement Greenberg, Boston, Beacon, 1947
    Modern Art Looks Ahead, Fernando Puma, Beechhurst Press, New York, 1947
    Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, Sidney Janis, Arno Press, New York, 1944
    Janet Sobel, John Dewey, Puma Gallery, New York, 1944
    Paintings by Janet Sobel, Sidney Janis, 1944