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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

80. (Brighton Beach; Plainfield, New Jersey; 11 West 53rd Street)

After her father is killed in an anti-Semitic pogrom, an 8-year-old girl emigrates with her mother from the Ukraine to New York City. It’s only long after, at the age of 45, that she begins to paint, using, among other materials and tools, enamel paint and glass pipettes from her husband’s costume jewelry business. Working with these unconventional means she develops a novel method of painting that involves dispersing fluid drips and pours of paint across the entire canvas. Her studio is a few square feet on the parquet floor of the Brighton Beach apartment she shares with her husband and son. Thanks in large part to the actions of her son, her work attracts the attention of several avant-garde refugees from Europe (two of whom pay visits to her in Brooklyn) and other people interested in “primitive” art. Her paintings begin to be shown at a few New York galleries where one day they are noticed by a painter and a critic who are making the rounds together. Over the next several years the painter, who is in his 30s, incorporates her techniques into his own work. The year he makes his first all-over poured painting, the artist and her husband move from Brooklyn to Plainfield, New Jersey. Two years later when the painter has become famous thanks to “his” pouring technique, the artist is beginning a 20-year-long descent into obscurity. When she is almost 70, the critic finally publishes a few sentences about the impact her paintings had had decades before, while characterizing her, in a phrase that manages to be at once dismissive and erroneous, as “a housewife living in Brooklyn.” Nonetheless, these sentences spur the interest of a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. After several years of fruitless efforts to track her down, he is able to acquire one of her pour paintings for the museum and hang it in one of the galleries. That same year, at the age of 75, the artist dies. Her only solo show during the last 24 years of her life is at a frame shop in Plainfield.

(Janet Sobel [née Jennie Olechovsky], Sol Sobel, Max Ernst, André Breton, Jackson Pollock, Clement Greenberg, William Rubin)

(In writing this episode I am indebted to my wife Heather Bause Rubinstein for so often reminding me of Sobel’s importance and to my colleague Sandra Zalman for her scholarship.)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues