Janet Sobel and the Milky Way

By Rose Mckean

When Janet Sobel is discussed – granted this doesn’t happen often – you can almost guarantee that the name Jackson Pollock is lurking somewhere nearby. Indeed, I have immediately fallen into this trap myself. Although Sobel precedes Pollock in many ways, her influence on Pollock being well-documented in the accounts of Clemence Greenberg, Pollock continues to eclipse her both in art history and cultural memory. 

When William Rubin, curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) travelled to visit Sobel in Pennsylvania 1968, bedridden as she was and nearing the end of her life, he did so with the intention of collecting a painting that could be positioned alongside the work of Pollock. The painting Milky Way (shown above) was subsequently added to MoMA’s 1970 exhibition and thereafter positioned “kitty-corner” from Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. And so, Sobel’s work was subsumed into the narrative of a man she had never met. This is not an uncommon process for the female artist, who is so often viewed in relation to her male contemporaries, reduced to a footnote in someone else’s story. Within art history, Janet Sobel is often cast as a ‘supporting act’ to the male painters of Abstract Expressionist movement, and her value as an individual artist is largely erased. 

When I first encountered Sobel’s Milky Way, it was merely a print, and I was merely a girl, staring at the seemingly infinite swirling shapes where they found space on my Mother’s wall. I was not yet of an age where I had absorbed this thing we call the ‘western artistic canon’ and ‘Jackson Pollock’ would have simply presented a jumble of unfamiliar (and probably quite amusing) nonsense words. What I did experience when I sat staring at this painting, was a sense of pure wonderment, not unlike that feeling that expands within you when you look up on a clear night sky. 

Although many have dismissively described Sobel as a “primitive” painter, for me this is part of her appeal. As Sobel herself once remarked: I only paint what I feel” and there is a strong sense emotional in every painting she produced. Though I only discovered this later, Sobel’s process has become as important to me as the finished piece. She often produced ‘all-over’ compositions with a fast-drying enamel paint, converging the subconscious emotion and physical motion to create these powerfully evocative images. In Milky Way The tangled web of unfurling colours dripped and blown over her canvas are created with her automatic technique, which has earned her further comparisons to the Surrealist movement. The cream, pink and yellow paints orbit across a surface of smudged blues, purples and greens, recalling a clear night sky and implying an ever-expanding universe.

I only discovered Sobel’s personal history recently. The Ukranian-American Artist was self-taught and only began painting at the age of 38. Like many women at the time, Sobel took on many identities outside that of the artist. She was a mother, a businesswoman, and even a “palette packin’ grandma” as critics described her after her first (and only) solo show in New York. Sadly, Sobel had to look after her family business once her husband died and she developed an allergy to paint, so her name as an artist soon faded. Though we may never know as much about Janet Sobel as we do about the likes of Jackson Pollock, her work remains a beautiful testament to her. 

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