“I don’t think ever I [sic] would paint a picture without music to listen to. All humans must have something like that, that warms them inside.”
Janet Sobel was already a mother of five and a grandmother when she took up painting in her Brighton Beach apartment in 1939. With no prior artistic training, she felt the urge to create and began using one of her sons’ art materials, painting on scraps of paper, the backs of envelopes, pieces of cardboard, and seashells found on the beach. Recognizing his mother’s talent, Sol Sobel introduced her paintings to artists and writers such as Max Ernst, John Dewey, and Sidney Janis, who quickly championed her work. Within just a few years, Sobel had participated in several group exhibitions and was given two solo gallery shows in New York.
Born Jennie Lechovsky in a shtetl near Ekaterinoslav in Russia (now Dnipro in Ukraine), Sobel and her family emigrated to the United States in 1908, after her father was killed in a Russian pogrom. The motifs of her figurative paintings often relied on memories of her childhood: floral patterns that draw on Ukrainian folk art, regional costumes, traditional Jewish families, soldiers with cannons, and imperial armies. Sobel saw these figures as symbolic beings and often filled the spaces around them with whirling colorful designs.
Experimenting with unusual materials such as glass and sand in her paintings, Sobel also turned to self-invented automatic techniques that resulted in abstract allover compositions, with paint dripped in spatters and continuous looping lines. According to her son, Sobel worked “freely and rapidly” when making enamel paintings such as Milky Way or Untitled. “She would prepare a ‘ground’ which would invariably suggest or trigger some ‘idea’ for her,” he said, “whose sudden conception was matched by an equally rapid execution. In her efforts to pin down her conception, she would pour the paint, tip the canvas, blow the wet lacquer, and if you had the misfortune to be too close—she would use your shirt sleeve as a daub.” Sobel’s automatic methods were praised by critics, who compared them to those of the Surrealists. But when she was asked about her interest in art, Sobel responded, “No, I never went to museums much. I didn’t have time and I didn’t understand these things. But I always read books…and I love music…. I don’t think ever I [sic] would paint a picture without music to listen to. All humans must have something like that, that warms them inside.”
Sobel’s surprisingly rapid rise to fame in the New York art world was followed by an almost equally sudden disappearance from it, when she and her family moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1947. Now farther from the city, Sobel also developed an allergy to paint, which led her to work primarily in crayon, ink, and pencil after 1948.
Years later, in 1961, the art critic Clement Greenberg would write that, in the 1940s, he and Jackson Pollock “had noticed one or two curious paintings…by a ‘primitive’ painter, Janet Sobel.” Greenberg described Sobel’s works as “the first really ‘all-over’ one [he] had ever seen,” adding that “Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him.” From then on, Sobel’s practice was mostly framed in relation to Pollock’s career, so that by the time of her death in 1968, she was little more than an anecdote, primarily known as the self-taught “housewife” who happened to have dripped paint on a canvas before him.
Laura Braverman, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2022