Why Did Art History Marginalize Janet Sobel?

Featured image: Janet Sobel, “Untitled” (c. 1946), oil and enamel on board, 18 x 14 inches (artwork © Janet Sobel; photo © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY; image courtesy the Menil Collection)

HOUSTON — In the fall of 1944, the gallerist and collector Peggy Guggenheim was confident that she’d found the next big thing. “Put Janet Sobel on your list,” she once wrote to a fellow gallerist. “She is the best woman painter by far (in America).” A year later, Guggenheim included Sobel’s work in a group show at her renowned New York gallery Art of This Century, which then hosted the artist’s solo show the following year. Covered in vibrant, dripping colors and web-like layers of texture, Sobel’s groundbreaking paintings attracted the attention of New York’s key critics and artists; in fact, Jackson Pollock created his now-iconic all-over drip paintings sometime after seeing Sobel’s work. But in 1947, at the height of her fame, Sobel left New York and its art scene. Soon after, American art history largely left her behind, too.

Janet Sobel: All-Over at the Menil Collection is a timely, captivating glimpse into this formative but nearly-forgotten figure through 30 of her paintings and drawings. Curated by Natalie Dupêcher and on view through August 11, the exhibition not only presents visitors with the rare opportunity to experience Sobel’s unique work, which broke the mold of mid-century American avant-garde art, but it also raises important questions about the ways that we remember and historicize artists who have long been pushed to the margins.

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