Born 1894, Ukraine
Died 1968, Plainfield, New Jersey
Janet Sobel, born Jennie Lechovsky, emigrated to the US from Ukraine in 1908 after her father was killed in an anti-Semitic pogrom. She began to paint in 1939, when she was forty-five and living in Brooklyn with her husband, a manufacturer of costume jewelry. Her son brought Sobel’s paintings to the attention of émigré surrealists, including Max Ernst and André Breton, as well as John Dewey and Sidney Janis, who went on to champion her work. And Peggy Guggenheim, who regarded Sobel as among the strongest women artists in the country, featured her in The Women in 1945 and gave her a solo show in 1946.
Initially, Sobel drew freely on the motifs and style of Ukrainian folk art, producing untutored visions that were broadly celebrated under the “primitive” label in the early 1940s. Her turn to automatic techniques and her affinity for naïve figures associated her with European and American surrealists in subsequent years. Using the enamel paint and glass pipettes of her husband’s métier, she began to drip color onto the surfaces of her works in allover patterns, which she then elaborated with obsessive detail. Sobel would later be singled out by the critic Clement Greenberg as a direct influence on Jackson Pollock’s drip painting technique.
Sobel’s Pro and Contra evokes the artist’s childhood memories: a vignette with figures in regional costume framed by cascades of stylized flowers reminiscent of Ukrainian handicraft. With Through the Glass Sobel moved closer to abstraction, retaining an expressive group of filigreed figures painted directly onto a sheet of glass. In Milky Way cloudy patches of color are interlaced with quickly executed loops of paint tapering off into rootlike patterns. The artist’s ornamental sensibility is expressed in a fully abstract manner in this painting.
Sobel’s impressive rise to prominence was followed by an equally swift disappearance from view in 1946, when moving to New Jersey distanced her from the rapidly changing New York art world and she developed an allergy to oil paint. But her influence remained clear in 1968, as curator William Rubin acquired Milky Way for MoMA while planning a Pollock retrospective.
Sobel, Janet, and Gail Levin. Inside Out: Selected Works by Janet Sobel. New York: Gary Snyder Fine Art, 2003.
Zalman, Sandra. “Janet Sobel: Primitive Modern and the Origins of Abstract Expressionism.” Women’s Art Journal (Fall / Winter 2015): 20–30.