The Forgotten Female Artist: Janet Sobel’s Struggle within the Abstract Expressionist Movement
In every modern art history class students learn about abstract expressionism by studying the major artists involved in the movement. They are usually as follows: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Phillip Guston and Clyfford Still. What do all of these artists have in common? They are all men (and white, but that’s a whole other article!).
Throughout the history of art, women artists have been grossly overlooked. Was the proportion to male artists to women artists so imbalanced that there were simply no art by women to discuss or hang in galleries and museums? The answer of course is no, women artists have always been present, producing impressive art just as their male counterparts. It is far past time that these women be included in the conversation of art history.
Janet Sobel, an artist working in New York during the 1940s, is one of the overlooked and talented artists who was left out of art historical discourse. One of the most well-known facts about Sobel is her influence on Jackson Pollock. Sobel may have even been making full canvas drip paintings before Pollock did his. It is well recorded that Pollock saw Sobel’s work and remarked that it influenced him greatly. What little scholarship produced on Sobel thus far has focused so much on this single aspect of Sobel’s biography that the rest of her career has been overlooked. By focusing on the similarities between Sobel and Pollock, their differences have been ignored. These differences set Sobel apart as a truly unique, self-taught artist in her own right.
Sobel started painting at the age of forty-three, already a mother of five grown children, some of which had children of their own. She had absolutely no artistic training and began painting by experimenting with her son’s art supplies. Thanks to the initial promotion of her son, Sol Sobel, her art soon caught the attention of artists, critics and other important figures in the art world, at which point her career rapidly advanced. However, this burst of popularity only lasted from about 1943 to 1947. In 1946, Sobel and her family moved from New York to New Jersey and the buzz from the art scene about her work began to fade due to this more remote location. In addition to her removal from the New York art scene, her gender within the context of abstract expressionist artistic ideology also played a part in her exclusion from this mainstream movement of the 1940s and 50s.
Sobel’s move from figurative to abstract art followed that of many other abstract expressionists at the time. These artists expressed the same ideas in their abstract works as they did in their earlier figural works, but in a more universal way. Sobel was no different. The progression from figural work to abstraction with its emphasis on process was what defined the mature styles of many abstract expressionist artists, including Janet Sobel. Through the Glass from around 1944 shows her transition from figuration to abstraction. The figures fill the space and are brought to the front of the picture plane. This was an important step in her move towards abstract expressionism, which emphasized an all-overness quality of space. The strange figures and biomorphic forms are discernible through the use of Sobel’s expressive paint handling. In this painting, we can see that the process of creating abstract imagery is taking priority over the subject.
Finally, by around 1944 Sobel was moving towards her more advanced, mature abstract style. One of Sobel’s most beautiful abstract expressionist paintings was Milky Way from 1945. The painting contains a harmoniously balanced composition with its blend of soft color fields and dripped, active swirls. Within a few years, Sobel began to widely experiment with paint applications, as can be seen in work from about 1946 to 1948. In Untitled (JS-015) from 1946, the paint has been so thickly applied that it protrudes from the canvas, creating a visceral quality that begs to be touched.
There are of course deeper issues at hand in regards to gender discrimination. Women such as Janet Sobel were working during a time when society immediately disregarded her and minimized her accomplishments as an artist because of her sex. In a review of her art in 1944 called “Art of the Week,” the author, who interestingly was also a woman, begins the article by pointing out the fact that Sobel, “buxom, pink-cheeked, round-faced, and dressed in a neat cotton print, looks just like any other Brooklyn housewife. You picture her over a stove on a warm Summer day, irritatedly shooing her grandchildren out of the kitchen, then relenting and giving them that mid-afternoon piece of cake.” Why is it that the first image we get of Sobel is not about the subject of the article (her art!) but about her dress and activity in the kitchen? This review and others like it from this time period give us a sense of the biased atmosphere that Sobel was working in. Really, did she ever have a chance at beating these preconceived assumptions?
The nature of abstract expressionism by definition helped to exclude women from the movement, making it a kind of “boy’s only club.” By the mid 1940s abstract expressionism came to stand for a heroic American artistic style that promoted the American ideals of universalism, individualism and freedom. This was in part due to the effect that WWII had on Americans’ notion of national identity. Male soldiers who fought in the war were celebrated in society at that time as almost heroic figures of democracy and freedom. Male artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnet Newman and Mark Rothko embodied these ideals and were heroicized as the new American artists of the twentieth century. According to art historian Ann Eden Gibson, artists who did not follow this doctrine were subsequently pushed aside. Perhaps Sobel’s themes in her art were not “universal” enough (or were not perceived as such) to belong to this creed. If this was the case, then it could be one reason that her art has been overlooked until recently. Gibson also says that thanks to the popularity of male artists like Pollock, “the identification of abstract expressionism with a virile American heroism was common currency.” Thanks to the media attention given to Pollock, when audiences thought of abstract expressionism, they thought of the tough male artist, smoking a cigarette while splashing paint about the canvas in his barn. This new masculine art form in essence, excluded women. In American society during this time, the feminine represented passiveness and docility, which by its own definition were not characteristics of abstract expressionism. This assumption in the mid twentieth century meant that Sobel and other female artists like here would never rise to the same state of regard as their male counter parts.
Despite her short-lived fame, Sobel’s art can be appreciated today for its own merits and values, not the values of the male dominated abstract expressionist doctrines of the time in which she worked. The fact that she succeeded as much as she did without any official artistic training suggests an artistic genius that until now has been overlooked. It is far past time that we recognize Sobel and other extraordinary female artists who have been forgotten, or never recognized in the first place.
More disturbingly, even in our modern age women artists are still looked over and are not given the same praise and attention as men. For example, in museums and galleries, one-man shows by male artists greatly outnumber those by women. Again, is the proportion to male artists to women artists so imbalanced that there is not enough art by women to hang in modern galleries and museums? The answer of course is no, there are many great contemporary female artists working today. The problem is that they are lacking the recognition that they deserve. This inequality can be seen across a variety of art mediums. Similar to women visual artists, women working in the film industry are less recognized for their accomplishments compared to men. For example, the Academy Awards, which has been hosting its annual award ceremony since 1929, only very recently awarded a woman as best director. A recent study shows that of the top 100 domestic US grossing film women were only 29% of the major characters and had only 30% of all speaking roles on film.  The study points out that these figures have barely changed at all since the 1940s.
I could now comment and give examples of how the tides are turning and things are looking up for women artists. More exhibitions are being produced that feature women artists throughout history. More single-artist shows by women are being featured in galleries. However, the fact remains that whatever milestones have been made, women are still largely the minority of celebrated and acknowledged artists. No real change can be made until the institutions that have so greatly influenced our artistic culture, adjust their system of values enough to accept women as valid, credible artists. Museums, galleries, art critics and other institutions must lead the way in this endeavor, because like it or not, the majority of audiences look to them for validation of what is considered credible art and what is not.
 Bill Leonard, “This is New York,” Station WCBS, (December 16, 1946).
 Gail Levin, “Janet Sobel: Primitivist, Surrealist, and Abstract Expressionist,” Woman’s Art Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2005): 13.
 Ann Eden Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 2.
 Ibid., 6.
 Suzanne Cowie, Yahoo! Shine, “New Study Reveals Shocking Statistics About Women in Hollywood,” Last modified March 14, 2014, https://shine.yahoo.com/work-money/study-reveals-shocking-statistics-women-hollywood-191500383.html.
What do you think? Leave a comment.