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Janet Sobel: The Ukrainian artist that created unique paint dripping artworks way before Pollock

Not Jackson Pollock, but Janet Sobel was the true creator of the paint dripping abstract technique.

Art is and always has been a men’s world. With few exceptions that have managed to pass through the misogynistic veil that has granted male artists the status of genius, there are very few women that have enjoyed the honey of success. More than often, female artists have been sent into oblivion, lived under the shadows of their male artist partners, or worst, stripped away from the credit they deserve in the art world.

When we think about abstract art, a good amount of male artists come into mind: Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Pollock, among many others. Pollock, in particular, caused great admiration among his peers for his “unique” technique of paint-dripping. Deemed a genius and venerated for how he let the paint and gravity speak a new language, Pollock was coined the true master and pioneer of the technique. But this isn’t more than a myth (not to mention that his wife, Lee Krasner would work on his paintings to make them look “art-worthy”). The real pioneer of the paint-dripping technique was Janet Sobel, a Ukrainian housewife who turned into an artist that was forgotten by art history.

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The real story? Pollack’s first drip painting, Full Fathom Five, was completed in 1947. Four years earlier a Ukrainian housewife with no formal art training stunned the art world with her all-over drip paintings and primitivist surreal dreamscapes. Her name was Janet Sobel and her art career spanned just three years from 1943 to 1946. As she faded into obscurity, Pollock rose to fame, credited for the technique that she pioneered.

Pollock’s first drip-paint artwork was created in 1947; four years earlier, a woman with no art training took the art world by storm with unique surreal fantasies and drip-painting masterpieces. But for Sobel, fame, and recognition lasted just a couple of years, and as the misogynistic reality of her time pushed her into oblivion, Pollock rose to the top of success and was credited for a technique Sobel had invented. So, who was this admirable artist?

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Who was Janet Sobel?

Janet Sobel, or better said, Jennie Olechovsky, was born in Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine in 1893. She was born into a humble Jewish family; with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century, Jews became the target of hatred. Her father perished in what the Russians called a pogrom, a terrible massacre, but her mother managed to take the rest of the family and flee to the US.

The Olenchovskys arrived in New York in 1908 and changed their name to Wilson. Jennie then decided to start over and changed her name to Janet. When she was only 16, she was married to a Ukrainian engraver called Max Sobel, a man obsessed with establishing a jewelry business. Janet was left in charge of raising their five children during the harsh times of the Depression Era.

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The rise of an artist

Janet Sobel became a housewife devoted to her children and her family. But it all changed when she was 44. Her 19-year-old son Sol, became interested in art and painting specifically. One good day, bored Janet saw her son’s supplies lying on the table and decided to give it a try. She started adorning envelopes, boxes, and magazines with doodles, leaves, and flowers that reminded her of Ukrainian folk art.

Sol knew his mother’s art was worthy and decided to push her work. The first thing he did was contact the already famous surrealist artist André Breton and Marc Chagall, a Russian-Jewish artists like themselves. Knowing that the world needed to see his mother’s work, Sol also wrote to the most influential galleries in the country, one of them was Sidney Janis, a prominent gallerist known for supporting “outsider” art. In just five years, Janet Sobel, a migrant housewife was selling her art and exhibiting it in some of the most important galleries in the US, including the Arts Club of Chicago and the Brooklyn Museum.

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Sobel didn’t stop with her figurative art, and the more in contact she became with the artist community, the more she started experimenting with technique and arts. She started creating abstract artworks using all her creativity and materials at her disposal. Soon, inspiration would give Sobel her greatest invention and something another person would reach the top of success with, drip painting. She put her canvas on the ground and started improvising. She used a vacuum cleaner to blow the layers of color and paint dripped into the canvas, and even used sand to add texture.

In 1944, Sobel had her breakthrough. She became part of an art exhibition at the Norlyst Gallery run by Eleanor Lust and her partner Jimmy Ernst. The latter was the son of the famous surrealist artist Max Erns who happened to be married to Peggy Guggenheim. The next year, she was one of the artists included in the Guggenheim’s all-women exhibition. In 1946, Janet Sobel got a solo art show at the Art of the Century gallery. Back in the day, Sidney Janis, claimed “Janet Sobel probably will be eventually known as the most important surrealist painter in this country.” It didn’t happen.

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A dream shut down

As the saying goes, “what goes up must come down,” right? Well, in Sobel’s story, it should be “what goes up, is drawn down by misogyny.” That same year she was tasting the honey of her success and hard work, her good-for-nothing husband decided his business had a chance and moved the entire family to New Jersey to be closer to the factory. Sobel was unable to drive so she soon lost all contact with the important galleries in New York. It was all done for Sobel.

Worst than her husband putting his obsession before the clear success of his wife, the narrative behind her decline was that she had developed an allergy to paint. According to her granddaughter, Sobel “was squashed by the way men thought about women and the way she thought of her duties as a woman... People thought she had allergies to paint. She had allergies to suburbia.”

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Although Janet Sobel kept creating art in New Jersey, none of her work would be hung and admired at a gallery again.

Relation with Jackson Pollock

By the next decade, Jackson Pollock started to rise to prominence with his “innovative” drip paintings and was deemed the inventor of the technique. However, according to one of his closest friends, and art critic, Clement Greenberg, “back in 1944…he had noticed one or two curious paintings shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s by a primitive painter Janet Sobel (who was, and still is, a housewife living in Brooklyn). Pollock (and I myself) admired these pictures rather furtively… it was the first really all-over one that I had ever seen”

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Pollock’s success with the technique should’ve brought the name Sobel back to the art circles, but it didn’t. It wasn’t until 1968 when putting together a retrospective on Pollock’s work at the Museum of Modern Art when the name of Janet Sobel came back. She passed the next year.

Janet Sobel’s art was key in the development of abstract art and yet, patriarchy took everything away from her. The fame and admiration she should be having today should be compared at least to that of Pollock, but only art enthusiasts seem to remember her.

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