The Ukrainian Museum Spotlights Abstract Expressionist Pioneer Artist Janet Sobel in New Show

Ukrainian Jewish artist Janet Sobel made very few statements about her practice, but one that stands out for its uncommon forthrightness is, “I am intensely interested in people and everything that pertains to them.” Sobel’s innate curiosity about people thus serves as the through line of her first solo museum exhibition, “Wartime,” at the Ukrainian Museum in New York, taking place more than 50 years since her passing and nearly three quarters of a century since fading into obscurity.

Known, or rather unknown, by many names—including Jennie Wilson and Yevhenia Olechovska—Sobel has only recently begun to receive attention for her achievements, chief among them her foray into drip painting prior to Jackson Pollock. While documentation of her influence on Pollock is indisputable, transcribed by Clement Greenberg in his 1961 version of “American-Type Painting,” published in Art and Culture, this sensationalized anecdote does not do justice to the contributions she made to art history or the eccentricities of her story.

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Once enmeshed in New York’s 1940s art scene, having exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, and been included in group shows with her contemporaries—introduced to the likes of John Dewey, Sidney Janis, Marc Chagall, Mark Rothko, and Max Ernst—Sobel was not the driving force behind her participation in this milieu: it was her son, Sol Sobel, who spurred her on. A painter himself, and the reason for his mother’s exploration of the medium, the young Sobel actively made inroads for his mother in this world, reaching out to artists and gallerists alike on her behalf. A postcard addressed to him from Greenberg, dated not long after her death, further admitted: “Pollock told me, in 1948 when he saw—in reproduction—his first [drip painting by Mark] Tobey, that he thought your mother was better.”

Kind words from a man who could have made Sobel what Pollock is today, but instead chose to render her a mere footnote. Such admissions consequently appear only as anecdotes in private correspondence, never fully transcribed into art’s histories. Sobel’s apparent disinterest in making grandiose proclamations about her work, her contradicting claims about her own cultural eruditeness, and her rather abrupt departure from the art world—she moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1946, when her husband opened another large factory for their artificial pearl business, of which she was eventually vice president—all contributed to her near erasure there, especially when coupled with her frequent dismissal as a woman, a housewife, and an outsider.

A painting with the faces and bodies of several women in a swirl of plants.
Untitled / Без назви c. 1945, gouache on paper mounted on board, Janet Sobel.
Luis Corzo/Courtesy of The Ukrainian Museum, New York

But between the late 1930s and the mid-’40s, Sobel was prolific. Self-taught, she painted, lying on her stomach on the carpeted floor of her Brighton Beach apartment, using materials lent by her son or taken from the family’s factory. In this usual position, she splattered and dripped paint, allowing shapes and figures to emerge from these expressive gestures. The technique initially engendered figurative works as well as those of an allover quality, before veering into total abstraction.

Sobel’s abstraction, as noted by art historian Alisa Lozhkina in her exhibition catalogue essay, did not emerge “logically from the development of contemporary art” as it did for so many other modernists, but was rather “an integral part of the depths of the human soul.” Sobel’s paintings, like her practice, are both wildly unpretentious and uncommonly sincere. They attest not to a desire to mimic the fashions of the time, but rather to release the preoccupations of a curious mind. Alex Halberstadt, senior writer at MoMA, echoes this sentiment, describing the development of Sobel’s practice as something “done entirely for one’s own pleasure in the privacy of one’s own home.”

Taking varied inspiration from her memories of Ukraine—having immigrated to the United States as a teenager—as well as newspapers and radio shows, Sobel created scenes that reflect an unselfconscious vision of the world around her, brimming with the liveliness of her culture and an interest in that of the United States. In one painting, four egg-shaped figures stand shoulder to shoulder facing the viewer under a marbled sky of pink, yellow, and blue. Interspersed among these individuals—two of whom wear traditional Ukrainian flower garlands in their hair, and another who sports a beard that looks more old-world than New Age—are surfboards and a palm tree. The obvious incongruities here, both geographic and cultural, suggest a deliberate collaging of references that characterize her figurative paintings featuring not only Jewish and Ukrainian life, but Black and Indigenous individuals, nuns, soldiers, and everything in between. Taken together, Sobel’s oeuvre reveals, in Lozhkina’s words, a “lively and beautiful multicultural world that preserves its touching purity despite the presence of evil and grief.”

Such darker valences are the explicit focus of “Wartime.” Predominated by paintings created between 1941 and 1943, the exhibition foregrounds a period of Sobel’s career pre-abstraction, during which she was preoccupied with World War II and its lived repercussions on her own family—two of her five children went off to fight in Europe—her Brooklyn community, and her relations back home in Ukraine.

Though her practice did not unfold in series, or thematic stages, and she consistently fluctuated between different styles and motifs, Ukrainian Museum director and the exhibition’s curator, Peter Doroshenko, organized the show’s nearly 50 paintings by subject to shed light on the stylistic breadth of her practice and the depth of her artistic investigations. Populating the outer galleries are remembrances of her home in Ukraine and the people who comprised her community in New York, followed by those that reflect an increasing preoccupation with news of the war, to what were then called her “primitive” works, and finally others that reflect a growing tendency toward abstraction.

A painting of three women with flowers in their hair and wearing dresses behind tall grasses.
Untitled / Без назви, c. 1941, gouache on paper mounted on board, Janet Sobel.
Luis Corzo/Courtesy of The Ukrainian Museum, New York

Culminating the exhibition, the central room gathers a selection of paintings that directly address the war raging abroad. Here, a low indistinct rumbling accompanies scenes of soldiers of all ethnicities on the battlefield—peeking through barricades, convened around a conference table, wielding bayonets, and sitting astride cannons. These far-off sounds of war, reminiscent of what Sobel might have heard on the radio, prompt viewers to consider not only the trenchant fear experienced by those physically embroiled in violent conflict, but to acknowledge our very distance from such dangers here in the US.

While “Wartime” thus foregrounds Sobel’s responses to WWII—her geographic remove from it and her pieced-together understanding of conditions on the frontlines from accounts by friends, relatives, and the news—a concurrent exhibition at the museum by Ukrainian artist Lesia Khomenko (b. 1980) titled “Image and Presence” speaks to the current conflict with Russia. Curated by Lilia Kudelia, many of the works on view subvert socialist realist painting traditions—which served the propagandistic function of valorizing the Russian military during the mid-20th century—by eliminating the figures and equipment pictured therein to present only a depopulated terrain and, as such, an abstracted composition.

Khomenko applies this tactic to new work created for the exhibition titled AJS (After Janet Sobel), 2023. When reproducing a painting by the elder artist, Khomenko again obviates attendant figures and weaponry to depict only a blood-stained sky above an irregularly shaped absence where Sobel had featured four soldiers and two cannons. These instantiations of life and violence are instead transposed by Khomenko onto two canvases that she rolled up and leaned against the abstracted, wall-hung composition—echoing and making three-dimensional the cannons pictured in Sobel’s painting. While this gesture underscores the human absence that characterizes the subject at hand, it also speaks to the logistical practicalities of forced migration with which both artists contended.

A photograph of a room in an art museum with wood floors and white walls with two abstract paintings on the walls.
An installation shot of Lesia Khomenko, AJS (After Janet Sobel), 2023.
Luis Corzo/Courtesy of The Ukrainian Museum, New York

When asked about her conceptualization of this piece, Khomenko told ARTnews: “I wanted to connect two different shows and two women … artists who immigrated from Ukraine over 100 years apart. I was thinking about enacting a dialogue between generations.”

The dialogue that results illuminates experiences shared across time, and is further underscored by Khomenko’s observation that the soldiers pictured in Sobel’s paintings do not look like “iconic, professional soldiers but like volunteer defenders that are so common in Ukraine nowadays”—a testament not only to the diasporic Ukrainian community that has risen to the challenge posed by Russia, but also to the fact that “every war comprises a million individual experiences whether on the frontlines or very far away on another continent.”

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