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Janet Sobel

Ukrainian American, 20th century.
Born 1893 (née Jenny Lechovsky), Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine; died 1968.


By most accounts, Janet Sobel first began experimenting with art materials around 1939. One story has it that she began to draw on top of some of the drawings that her son Sol brought home from his art classes at the Educational Alliance. Another is that Sol, while still in high school, had won a scholarship to the Art Students League, which, against his mother's wishes, he sought to give up. When she tried to convince him to continue, he reportedly exclaimed: "If you are so interested in art, why don't you paint?" Whichever version is accurate, both agree that Sol provided his mother with paint brushes and materials. In an interview in 1962, Sobel told an interviewer "... she heard a voice tell her she must paint. So she started oil painting as easily as most women would toss off a pan of muffins."

Through her son Sol's efforts, Sobel's work was admired by Sidney Janis, John Dewey and others, and from 1943 through 1946, Janet Sobel became a powerful presence in the New York art world. She exhibited in the 27th Annual at the Brooklyn Museum in 1943 (she would also exhibit there in 1944 and 1945). Sidney Janis proclaims that Sobel "is no longer primitive," that "her paintings are filled with unconscious surrealist phantasy," and includes her in the important Abstract and Surrealist Painting in America exhibition that travels throughout the country in 1944. That same year would see Janet Sobel's first one person show at Puma Gallery, run by the surrealist Ferdinand Puma, who, in his 1947 book on Surrealism places Sobel "among the newcomers" along with Matta, Gorky, Tobey, Hoffman and Pollock, among others. 

Of particular interest is Sobel's drip technique, or "white writing," a term that was used to describe Mark Tobey's work. The reviewer for Art Digest pointed out the "recurring leti motif of near Persian richness of color and inventive design" and commented: "Some of the earlier all-over patterns suggest tapestry weaving. In later canvassed, where the artist has used her own version of 'white writing,' you may have to look sharply to see the forms and faces that emerge double image-wise in jewel toned duco, from behind an intricate curtain of cobwebby white lace."

- Courtesy of Gary Snyder Fine Art


Selected Solo Exhibitions

2010, Janet Sobel: Drip Paintings and Selected Works on Paper, Gary Snyder/Project Space, New York

2005, Janet Sobel, D.C. Moore, New York

2002, Janet Sobel: Selected Works from the Artist's Estate, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York

1962, Janet Sobel Paintings and Drawings, Swain's Art Store, Plainfield (New Jersey)

1944, Janet Sobel, Puma Gallery, New York

Selected Group Exhibitions

2012, In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women in Mexico and the United States, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

2010, Approaching Abstraction, American Folk Art Museum, New York

2009, Beyond the Canon, Robert Miller Gallery, New York

2008, Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976, Jewish Museum, New York

2008, Suitcase Paintings: Small Scale Abstract Expressionism, Baruch College, New York

2006, Pre-Post: American Abstraction, Greenberg Van Doren, New York

2002, Faces Come Out in the Rain, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York

2001, Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960, traveling exhibition, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; 2002, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego; 2002, Walker Art Center, Minneappolis

2001, American Modernism: 1930s & 1940s Abstraction, David Findlay Jr. Inc, New York

2001, Ukraine Roots, American Visions, Residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Kiev

1995, Artist's Choice: Elizabeth Murrary: Modern Women, Museum of Modern Art, New York

1990, Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions - An Introduction to Small Scale Painterly Abstraction in America, 1940-1965, traveling exhibition, 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

1987, Peggy Guggenheim's Other Legacy, curated by Melvin P. Lader and Fred Licht, traveling exhibition, Peggy Guggenheim, Venice; Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York

1984, American Women Artists Part I: 20th Century Pioneers, Sidney Janis Gallery, New York

1970, Recent Acquisitions: Paintings and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York

1945, Personal Statement: Painting Prophecy, David Porter Gallery, Washington, D.C.

1945, The 140th Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

1945, Art of This Century, Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, New York

1944, Abstract and Surrealist Art in the United States, curated by Sidney Janis, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Selected Bibliography

Levin, Gail, "Janet Sobel: Primitivist, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist," Woman's Art Journal 26, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2005.

Sobel, Janet and Gail Levin, Inside Out: Selected Works by Janet Sobel, Gary Snyder Fine Art, New York, 2003.

Smith, Roberta, "Art in Review: Janet Sobel," New York Times, February 15, 2002.

Goldberg, Deborah A., "Janet Sobel," American National Biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

Conaty, Siobhan M., Art of This Century: The Women, exhibition catalogue, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1997.

Wechsler, Jeffrey, Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimension; An Introduction to Small Scale Painterly Abstraction in America1940-1965, exhibition catalogue, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, 1989.

Guggenheim, Peggy, Out of This Century" Confessions of an Art Addict, forward by Gore Vidal, introduction by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Universe Books, New York, 1979.

Art of This Century, exhibition catalogue with preface by Sidney Janis, Peggy Guggenheim Gallery, New York, 1946.

Janet Sobel, exhibition cataloge with essay by John Dewey, Puma Gallery, New York.

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