Jackson Pollock/Janet Sobel


Janet Sobel, Untitled, Oil and enamel on canvas, 1946 -1948, San Diego Museum of Art

I saw my first Janet Sobel painting at the San Diego Museum of Art last month. What is so fascinating is the connection between and Pollock and thus the connection between Pollock and Outsider Art.

Janet Sobel (1894-1968) was a Ukranian immigrant who lived in New Jersey. A mother of five, she began painting in 1937. She somehow found her way to having a show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1945 where Pollock and Greenberg first saw her work. Greenberg recounts the effect the paintings had on Pollock and himself and Pollock “admitting” the paintings had an effect on him.

I’ll say they had an effect. If the importance of her work has appeared at all in the various biographies it has been diminished or brushed off. In reality Pollock’s work is a direct lift of not only Sobel’s drip method, but also the allover composition.

Seeing her painting at San Diego was startling in its similarity to Pollock’s work. I have no idea how to find out which paintings of hers that Pollock saw at Guggenheim’s gallery. But it’s apparent not only the importance of Sobel to Pollock’s work but the importance of Sobel’s work itself.

The almost criminal neglect and dismissal of her work is consistent with what I’ve been describing in the latest posts on the New York School and its management as a form of American propaganda. The Pollock myth cultivated at various levels through the media, gallery and museum systems depended on a mythic construction of him as a lone genius and rebel. The Western images of Pollock were false, since while born in Wyoming he’d never been on a horse and grew up mainly in southern California. The myth of the West is central to American mythology and America needed a Western image to advertise its superior culture in the early stages of the Cold War. Pollock fit the bill perfectly. It was the first instance of the kind of public relations image building of an artist in this country which is now a grotesque commonplace.

The pernicious creation was Brand Pollock, which had little to do with real Pollock and which is what makes most contemporary art so sterile. As with Stella or Frankenthaler, from this point in the 1950s forward all an artist need do was come up with a single “lame gimmick” (Peter Fuller’s phrase) and they were home free for life, endlessly repeating and taking perhaps a couple “innovative” steps. Bigger paint puddles on bigger canvas. Flatly painted pieces of metal in hodge podge arrangements touted as a “new” type of painting space. Hogwash that any painter with the least bit of common sense or trained eye wouldn’t have the slightest use for.

The whole notion of the avant-garde being “new” thusly dovetailed with the sickening market apparatus of Madison Avenue so that art was always bright and shiny and new. New materials, new concepts, new promotional campaigns, new artists…. anything but an art anchored in a tradition with centuries old visual sophistication and hand-eye skill. Dumb meets dumber meets dumbest.

Arthur Danto and Marina Abramovic anyone? Encore presentation:


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9 Responses to Jackson Pollock/Janet Sobel

  1. Everything in America is promotion. Art-no exception. From Pollock’s Powerful Promotors, Guggenheim, & Clement Greenberg, (New York’s most influential art critic) to the staggering amount of work created by Pollock who painted full time, Sobel’s anonimity was sealed. Sobel might have been the “first,” and talented, but Pollock had the power behind him and created in the end, better product with better marketing. Had Sobel opened a gallery in Manhattan (she had the money) and pursued art full time, she probably would have become a major name in art. That she chose to only participate as a part time painter, with only her son as promoter, was her decision. It is more interesting that since the 1980’s, and the rise of the über dealers, Larry Gagosian, Pace Gallery, the Mugrabi Brothers, Jay Jopling etc. that we now have non-artists as the richest artists in history. Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons & Maurizio Cattelan “pay” assistants to create “all” of their art. The new art mafia has paid critics, curators, & museum directors, and now controls every word written about their clients from museum catalogue, auction house brochure, to Museum Showing & Retrospectives. No one has stopped it, and we now have dead animals and dead sharks “posing” as multi-million dollar masterpieces in “The Finest Art Museums in the World.” That the world now celebrates Koons shiney ballon dog sculptures at $25 Million Dollars each, & Hirst’s dead shark in formaldehyde at $8 Million Dollars, shows the brilliance of the Gagosian Cartel’s dominance, turning the world’s “formerly most prestigious” art museums, into “cheap galleries” (with the world’s highest priced art) yet celebrating only these non-artist, “art” clients of the super dealers. Creating over 100 Billion dollars each year in profits, art is now a machine that creates only profits, not art. The small rebel artist is now, again the best. Perhaps Janet Sobel recognized that in the 1940’s when she saw the powerful promotion of Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and all the rest. JACK ARMSTRONG ARTIST L.A.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Jack, I like your use of the term cartel. That’s exactly accurate. I’ll cite the Wiki definition: A cartel is a formal (explicit) “agreement” among competing firms. It is a formal organization of producers and manufacturers that agree to fix prices, marketing, and production.

    In America, this started with the collusion between Greenberg, MoMA, CIA/State Department/connected patron money back in the 1950s. That New York Art world of that period was so small that it was quite easy to create the marketing language (Greenberg’s Art for Art’s sake), the unwitting producers (Ab Ex painters initially, then POP-OP/Concept and so on). Then POP-OP period just recycles endlessly because it’s lowest common denominator work that lowest common denominator people flock to.

    When you lower standards to that point it’s all over. Western painting was driven by painters committed to studying the Old Masters, learning from them, and using what they’d learned for their own expressive purposes. That includes the Modern masters like Cezanne, Soutine, de Kooning, Gorky, Pollock, Grosz, Balthus, and so on. After Greenberg the assumption has been that if your work might be related to any kind of Old Master painting, or even painters like Manet or Lautrec, then you’re working in a retrograde manner. Greenberg’s theories systematically defined art that deals with illusion, narrative, social content, etc. as “low” art. His definition of high art stands completely opposed in every significant principle to every high standard that fine art of the past embodied and had accomplished.

    What has followed from Greenberg’s theories is a load of rubbish. American art is almost invariably a large pile of art talk bullshit and empty hype since the 1950s as it relied on the same kind of hubristic notions of American exceptionalism that have likewise driven the country into its current state of delusional grandiosity.

    But while things look as dark as they’ve ever looked, this is actually the point at which a thorough rejection of what is currently fashionable can be shoved off the cliff into the void where it belongs.

    • jagemstar@gmail.com says:

      Thanks! I am currently pitching an International Art TV Show Concept, “American Art Star” UK Art Star, Mexican Art Star etc. that has the potential to change the world of high end dealers controlling the market. A million $ first prize, and a Museum Exhibition for the top 3 artists etc. With no dealers as judges/ only artists, collectors, Museum Directors. And the public voting as is done on American Idol type shows.

      Just taking dead animals out of art museums is not the end goal, but a hell of a start, to reclaim public museums for artists, in place of dealer controlled “galleries”! J.A. 2013

      Happy to be interviewed by trueoutsider!

  3. trueoutsider says:

    Jack, sorry for the slow response to your comment. I’m buried under a ton of manure — even more than the usual amount. But I’ve briefly dug my way out and back to the surface.

    Anyway, good luck with it. Television, publicity, million dollar prizes… none of them are my bag or in my area of interest…. other than to try to dissect the corruption at the center of the entire mess.

    My sense of things is that today’s artists, collectors, Museum Directors and the voting public will be all too happy to keep dead animals in the art museums, as they’re the ones who put them there in the first place. I imagine they’d like to move on to having people fucking the dead animals… or perhaps having the dead animals animated so that they can fuck Marina Abramovic.

    Then Arthur Danto might manage an even bigger orgiastic moment than the one Marina has already given him. Perhaps if he doubles his dose of viagra he might even have an erection to go along with it.


  4. trueoutsider says:

    PS:… had to add this, Jack, as I just ran across it and it reinforces my remark to you yesterday.


    The Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern was the most popular solo exhibition in Tate history… That’s the entire point of Hirst, Emin, et al. This is precisely the kind of art that the public wants to see. Try watching some television and you’ll get the idea.

    Charles Saatchi, being Maggie Thatcher’s public relations manager, knows exactly what appeals to the lowest taste and he has a fantastic eye for picking the kind of artists who supply it. It’s also why we have great cinematic geniuses like John Waters writing for ArtForum and curating shows at the Walker Art Center, although I have to say that his later movies don’t quite measure up to the standards of the dogshit-eating transvestite and (literally) talking asshole in Pink Flamingoes. One of Waters’ brilliant curatorial gems is pairing a de Kooning woman painting with Jess von der Ahe’s portrayal of Ludwig II painted with her own menstrual blood.

  5. There is also a huge silent majority around the world that loves imaginative art, (currently NOT Found at the major museum level) that “will support “new extremely talented artists they discover through a TV show, and the results could be dramatic. Marketing at the museum level is only as good as the AD campaign. People still want to be entertained and attend bad movies and bad exhibitions looking for something great, which follows my philosophy, provide something bold, brave, new and extraordinary, and those numbers will make the “Hirst non-art show” @ the Tate Modern seem feeble. ART can change people’s perception of how they view the world. The ability to Transcend this last “brief” phase of nothing art, is one hit TV show away. TRUE ART + ARTISTS DESERVE BETTER! JACK ARMSTRONG Artist. 2013

  6. Paul Rumsey says:

    Hi Bart, I thought you would like this article…. more on art and marketing…



  7. trueoutsider says:

    Well, Jack. Good luck with it. I certainly wish you all the best. It would be nice if you could feature some artists who know how to draw at a basic academic level. Of course, that would probably rule out the vast majority of contestants.

    The article Paul just sent a link to bears out what I’m saying. As it indicates, faux-naive, faux-primitivism and faux-outsider art is all the rage… For the same reason Duchampian art and Factory Art, Photographic Art, neo-Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Geo, Body Art, Performance Art, Video Art, etc have been all the rage for decades: One doesn’t need the slightest hand skill to be an overnight artist. There is no skill level of any kind required. Yes, students go to art school to learn how to become artists, all right. Bullshit artists.

    Without hand skills linked to an active intelligence all we’re getting is the sickening spectacle of art circling the toilet bowl in a seemingly endless long flush.

    Imagine that in the world of music you had musicians who didn’t know how to tune or play their instruments. Or in literature you had writers lacking basic grammatical knowledge. So how is it that in the visual arts you have artists who don’t know how to draw?

    Maybe the pitch for your TV show could emphasize that there might actually be some basic standards that should apply to people hoping to make a significant contribution to the visual arts. And that the first one would be achieving a mastery of the art of drawing. Just a thought.

  8. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks for that piece, Paul. I liked the succinct comment from someone, “The pot calling the kettle black.”

    The writer decries the charlatanism of the pseudo-outsider artist faking her biography. Is that woman somehow worse than the pseudo-outsiders and faux-naive artists who pick up their fashion styles when they’re in art school? Who is more pathetic? The genuine faker or the art school faker that picks up an outsider style knowing that it’s the fashion vogue of the moment?

    Is the writer talking about the art anymore than the women that are talking about Currin’s love life? Or the artist reporting the story who’s making the imitation Dorothea Rockburne paintings before she switches to something derived from whoever the artist was that did the Radiohead album cover? Does that women even know she’s making imitation Dorothea Rockburne paintings?

    To borrow from John Kennedy Toole, it’s a Confederacy of Dunces. Collectors have no idea what they’re buying because they have no deep knowledge of art. They can buy great art of the past at bargain basement prices compared to what the Ponzi-scheme present offers. But they have no interest whatsoever in art of the past. They want to be in on the ground floor of the next Jackson Pollock. And nobody inside the fiction of an art world is going to blow the whistle.

    Art simply ceases to exist as a viable language once it’s void of human content or connection to lived reality. That divorce happened when Greenbergian formalism/art for art’s sake took hold as the central ideology for making art.

    Take Christopher Wool as a single example. He goes from words stenciled across a canvas to aimless abstractions. Either style can be mastered in a day. Neither has any content whatsoever other than to illustrate Post-Modern theory, which is already being illustrated ad infinitum.

    Any artist working from their own imagination using traditional working methods, say someone on order of an Edward Hopper or Ivan Albright, is by definition viewed as irrelevant, quaint, or delusional, i.e., doing something outside the realm of what is considered art.

    It’s my belief that someone working in that manner is the only person making art at this point. And everyone working within the guidelines of Post-Modernist theory is irrelevant, quaint and delusional.

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