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: