Spanierman Modern Gallery Presents an Exhibition of Betty Parsons Sculpture and Paintings

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For over three decades, as a gallerist and dealer in the leading avant-garde artists of the mid- and late twentieth century (Newman, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Rothko, et al.), Betty Parsons held a critical position in the American art world. Yet her renown in showing so many artists long before their work became recognized, has overshadowed her genius as a painter. In the last decade and a half several exhibitions and publications have been devoted to Parsons's oeuvre, revealing its originality and her unique voice.

Betty Parsons "Round About"

the pleasure here is the nonwhimsical result of a flirtation with whimsy

Spanierman Gallery, LLC is pleased to announce the opening on September 10, 2008 of Totem Materia: Sculpture and Paintings by Betty Parsons. As an art dealer and advocate of the leading avant-garde artists of the mid- and late twentieth century, Parsons (1900-1982) held a critical position in the American art world for over three decades. Yet the renown of her gallery, and her prescience in giving recognition to artists long before their work became accepted by others, has overshadowed an awareness of her own art. This situation has been remedied in the last decade and a half, when several exhibitions and publications have been devoted to Parsons's oeuvre, revealing its originality and her distinctive artistic voice. Following shows held at venues including the Pollock-Krasner House, East Hampton, New York (1992), the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York (1999), and the Naples Museum of Art, Florida (2005), the present exhibition provides a further opportunity to reveal a body of work that, while reflecting the radical currents that she championed, also demonstrates Parsons's unique perspective, in which she often side-stepped the serious, theoretical outlook of the abstract art of her time to allow wit, personality, and direct inventiveness to guide her creative efforts.

Born in 1900 into a socially prominent New York family, Parsons demonstrated her independence early. Enthralled by the avant-garde art at the Armory Show of 1913, she resolved to become a sculptor like Antoine Bourdelle, her favorite artist at the time. Her family expected her to follow a traditional path, and she married a fellow aristocrat in 1919 only to divorce five years later. She left for Paris in 1924, where she set out to fulfill her earlier dream of pursuing a career as an artist. Enrolling at the Académie de La Grand Chaumière, she studied with Bourdelle and the sculptor and painter Ossip Zadkine. Parsons also received instruction from the Russian émigré Alexander Archipenko and from English watercolorist Arthur Lindsey.

Parsons had the first exhibition of her work in Paris in 1933, shortly before the Great Depression severed her income and forced her to return to the United States. Initially living in California, she returned to New York in 1935. There she began a long association with Midtown Galleries, where she exhibited for more than twenty years, while also commencing her career as an art dealer in 1936. After opening her own gallery ten years later, she held groundbreaking exhibitions for Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, which were instrumental in gaining Abstract Expressionism its first important foothold in the postwar art scene and for establishing these artists as the movement's leaders. She gave many other contemporary artists their first solo shows in New York, including Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Lindner, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Tuttle.

Yet, throughout her years of running a gallery, Parsons continued to produce her own work. In her paintings, she gradually shifted her emphasis from an expressive representational style to an individualistic abstract mode in which she integrated color and shape according to her responses to a wide range of topics, including natural and cosmological phenomena. In this exhibition, Moonlight, Maine (1972) evokes such experiences as a bird's-eye map of water and land, a remembrance of light hovering at the edge of a darkening deep sea, and a feeling of floating movement. Set against a light, translucent background, the animated shapes in Untitled (#5020) (1962) seem to transpose into shells, fossil, and bones engaged in a graceful dance.

In 1959 Parsons received an unexpected inheritance from an uncle she barely knew, which enabled her to purchase land along a cliff by the sea in Southold, Long Island, and to hire the architect Tony Smith (later a noted sculptor) to design a house and studio for her overlooking the water. In the years that followed, she spent weekends and summers in Southold, where during walks along the beach, she began to gather wood scraps, including parts of houses, docks, furniture, and boats as well as shop signs and lumber bits that were plentiful due to the East End's building boom.

Not interested in driftwood due to its lack of a human element, Parsons was drawn to her "carpenter's throwaways" for their evocations of past narratives and former lives. Keeping her pieces intact, their old nails, paint residues, chips, and attached canvas or rope left in place, she laid them out on the floor and combined them into new constructions, letting them become, as her imagination dictated, "a prince, a dancer, a king . . .this mad priest, probably from Russia . . . a boat chugging against the waves . . . a terrific African warrior." While drawing inspiration from Native American, Pre-Columbian, Folk, and children's art, Parsons did not follow her sources closely, often blending their aspects to give a work a particular persona or to enhance the qualities suggested by the wood forms themselves, whether they evoked architectural, urban, or biomorphic associations.

Although the result of beachcoming, Parsons's constructions, as noted by the critic John Perreault (Art in America, 1974), are less about found art than they are about transformation. Perreault wrote: "the pleasure here is the nonwhimsical result of a flirtation with whimsy," expressing the way that although Parsons's sculptures may appear childlike or fanciful, they also reach into the wellspring of cultural resonances and psychological archetypes elicited in us by the language of shape and color.


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