Editor’s Note: Untold Art History investigates lesser-known stories in art, spotlighting unsung and pioneering artists you should know, as well as uncovering new insights into influential artworks that radically shift our understanding of them.

CNN  — 

In the latter years of World War II, the New York art scene started coalescing around a group of artists including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, visionaries who would develop a daring new movement known as abstract expressionism, which shifted the art world away from surrealism and its capital in Paris.

But some years before these artists became known for splashing paint and swinging their brushes wildly across their studios, Janet Sobel was carefully dripping paint onto her canvases in an all too similar manner. Working on the floor of her family’s crowded apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, she created intricate swirls that were equal parts intention and chance, blowing through glass pipettes or using her vacuum cleaner to push pigment across the canvas, adding sand for a gritty texture.

“When I want to say something, I put it down on paper — with paint,” she told The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1946, a time when critics were remarking on her inventiveness and comparing her to the surrealists. “It is not easy to paint. It is very strenuous,” she added. “But it’s something you’ve got to do if you have the urge.”

"Heavenly Sympathy," an abstract piece Sobel painted circa 1947, featuring near endless swirls of figures and faces, overlaid one over the other in swarming layers of paint.

Sobel’s rise in the New York art scene was speedy — and short-lived. She only started painting in the late 1930s, according to some accounts, encouraged to take it up by her son, Sol Sobel, who was studying at the Art Students League. By 1943, the renowned collector and gallerist Sidney Janis had included her work in the exhibition “American Primitive Painting of Four Centuries” at the Arts Club of Chicago. Three years later, Janis later wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s article that, “Janet Sobel will probably eventually be known as one of the important surrealist artists in this country.”

The next year, Sobel had her first solo show at New York’s Puma Gallery, where the legendary art critic Clement Greenberg visited — with Pollock. In an update to his essay “American-Type Painting,” Greenberg wrote that they “admired these pictures rather furtively,” adding: “Later on, Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him.”

Today, however, it is Pollock who is primarily remembered as the inventor of this style of drip painting; Sobel’s genius has been largely buried in the margins. That narrative has been challenged recently, as institutions from the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have sought to reposition Sobel as an important figure in modern art. Now, “Janet Sobel: All-Over,” an exhibition on view at the Menil Collection in Houston — and the first major museum survey dedicated to Sobel’s career — aims to cement her place in art history.

An untitled Sobel work, featuring totemic figured rendered in crayon and gouache on drawing pad paper.

The artist’s grandson Len Sobel — whose donation of five works to the Menil in 2020, spurred the museum to stage their exhibition, which includes around 30 paintings and drawings in total — sees obvious signs of misogyny and patriarchal snobbery. As the media of the day was quick to remind audiences, as if she were some kind of anomaly, Sobel was a housewife who had never studied art before picking up a paintbrush in her 40s.

Her work was often referred to as a “primitive” or untrained; critics at the time saw pure abstraction as the more intellectual evolution of art, and often took a dismissive view of the figurative elements in much of Sobel’s art, which drew on her personal experiences. Her compositions often featured hidden faces — Sobel, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant whose family fled antisemitic persecution, would identify certain figures as loved ones who were scattered or lost, like her father Baruch, who was killed in a Russian pogrom.

That emotional connection is what makes her art resonate today. Her works came out of “the horrors that she saw and the struggles that she had to survive,” Len Sobel said in a phone interview with CNN. “What I love about grandma’s art was that she took the chaos around her, and she put a human face on it.”

Reclaiming her legacy

Despite her critics, Sobel found important patronage with the influential collector Peggy Guggenheim.

Guggenheim included her in the important group show “The Women” in 1945, showing her work alongside contributions including Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, Leonora Carrington and others. She also gained institutional recognition with her inclusion in the Brooklyn Museum’s annual juried exhibition three years in a row, from 1943 to 1945, and the acquisition of her work by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

But Sobel’s descent came nearly as quickly as her rise. One factor that has been commonly cited was Sobel’s move to the suburbs of New Jersey — physically a few miles across the Hudson River but socially leagues away from the highly competitive New York scene — with her family in 1947, just as her art was gaining critical attention. But the Menil show’s curator, Natalie Dupêcher, said a more important factor was the sudden loss of Guggenheim as her patron.

The same year Sobel moved, Guggenheim closed her Manhattan gallery and soon relocated permanently to Venice. “So she lost the person who had become by then far and away the most important champion of her art,” Dupêcher noted in a phone call with CNN.

On top of all this, Sobel developed an allergy to the industrial paints and enamels she used in her most admired paintings, which she sourced from her husband Max’s costume jewelry-making business. (Years later, the lot that held the family factory in Perth Amboy was named a Superfund site by the EPA.) She largely drew with crayon and pencils later on in her life, producing works which did not make as big of a critical impact as her paintings.

Sobel's dazzlingly frenetic work "Milky Way," painted in 1945.

Sobel’s health further deteriorated after a heart attack and several ministrokes in the 1960s, Len Sobel said. By the time MoMA curator William Rubin visited her at home in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1968, seeking to meet the artist who had influenced Pollock, she was bedridden. She died that same year, aged 75. Soon after, Rubin acquired her empyrean work “Milky Way” for MoMA from her family. “Milky Way,” a teeming nebula of color and shade, has hung in the museum’s permanent galleries on and off over the decades — most recently in an exhibition of work by artists from what is now Ukraine, in response to Russia’s invasion of the country. It is now on loan to the Menil.

Another untitled abstract by Sobel — which Rubin acquired for his own collection, but later donated to MoMA — has been reunited in the show with three similarly sized paintings from separate museum collections: those of the San Diego Museum of Art, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Menil, thanks to Len Sobel’s gift. With their melting pools of vibrant colors, deeply layered levels of texture and sometimes calligraphic line-work, the pieces show how much experimentation Sobel applied to her art.

“They’re visually arresting,” Dupêcher said. “But I’m also very interested in what they might be able to tell us about Sobel’s working process. There’s a lot to still learn.”

An untitled Sobel work, circa 1946.
An untitled Sobel work, circa 1946-1948.

What the exhibition demonstrates above all is how innovative Sobel was, in both her media and methods of application. In addition to painting on conventional art boards and canvas, as well as more unexpected surfaces like glass, “she also made drawings on the backs of envelopes and shopping lists and book covers and seashells and ceramic tiles,” Dupêcher said. “She was absolutely voracious with her choice of materials and overflowing with this creativity and urge to make art.”

Len Sobel remembers his grandmother decorating a whole picnic table and benches with beads and fake gems from the family business, where she also helped design jewelry. “She was not just this little housewife… she was making the best life she could for herself, and her family,” he said. “The point is, she was a homemaker and an artist.”

This is the legacy he hopes his grandmother is recognized for after this show: a painter with an expansive view of life, who depicted both its good and bad parts, made the most of the resources she had, and always hoped for a more peaceful future — as depicted perhaps in the sea of euphoric faces floating across her painting “Heavenly Symphony,” which is also on view at the Menil.

Dupêcher would like for the exhibition to not only spur more interest and research into Sobel’s groundbreaking work, but to permanently fix her place in the canon. “I would love it if this was a moment where she really claims the spot that she had 80 years ago as a major modernist,” the curator said, “a major contributor to abstraction in mid-century America.”