One Fine Show: Janet Sobel’s Accessible Abstraction at The Menil Collection

Clement Greenberg wrote in 1961 that Sobel’s technique was “the first really all-over effect that I had seen.”

A colorful abstract painting that looks like a nebula
‘Milky Way,’ 1945, Enamel on canvas, 44 7/8 x 29 7/8″ (114 x 75.9 cm). Gift of the artist’s family. © Janet Sobel. Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

In a time when the popularity of Taylor Swift is suspected by some to be a “psy-op,” it’s important to remember that Abstract Expressionism actually was one. The Central Intelligence Agency materially supported the work of artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock as part of the propaganda war against the Soviet Union—despite President Truman’s opinion, “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot”—under the theory that if you can make art like that in America, then it must be pretty cool on this side of the Atlantic.

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One wonders if a certain Ukrainian ever received such love from the CIA. Janet Sobel (1893-1968) was already a grandmother when she began painting in 1937 but is credited with inventing the drip style of painting that Pollock brought to the public imagination. Her overlooked career is examined and celebrated in “Janet Sobel: All-Over,” a new show at The Menil Collection that brings together over thirty paintings and drawings from the institution’s collection and from others equally esteemed, like the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

One of the more important works on display is Milky Way (1945), from the collection of MoMA, which also owns Pollock’s first drip painting from the next year, Free Form (1946). Sobel is sometimes also classified as a surrealist, and Milky Way shows why. It has a marbled, spiderweb feel that wouldn’t be out of place in a Max Ernst painting. She achieved this effect by blowing enamel paint through glass pipettes—both materials obtained from her husband, a manufacturer of costume jewelry. The end result is definitely abstract but somehow has a more accessible narrative than Ernst’s scenes, perhaps achieved through its subtle inward swirling. It starts to the edges and sucks you in.

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The term “all-over” comes from Clement Greenberg, who wrote in 1961 that Sobel’s technique was “the first really all-over effect that I had seen.” But even her semi-over works are strong. In Heavenly Sympathy (c. 1947), she knows just where to put the blissed-out faces within its psychedelic sprawl. Also fun is The Burning Bush (1944) where the faces emerge from the chaos itself. In her drawings, too, she tries to wedge in a face here and there. Her pure abstractions constitute her best work, but I admire the anthropomorphic impulse—she’s clearly trying to keep things light. In this way, she’s the anti-Rothko, who could make even bright colors feel heavy. The faces are there to keep the trip friendly.

This is dense art that doesn’t dwell in its ideas or try to impress you. Sobel was a sly double agent in the brooding, effortful world of Abstract Expressionism.

Janet Sobel: All-Over” is on view at The Menil Collection through August 11.

One Fine Show: Janet Sobel’s Accessible Abstraction at The Menil Collection