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Betty Parsons: A Painting Retrospective

Originally Posted: August 15, 2006

Betty Parsons, Aspen, Colorado, 1967, Acrylic on paper, 12 x 9
inches, Dated and inscribed on verso: Aspen Dec/67/Colorado

Spanierman Gallery, LLC will be showing Betty Parsons: A Painting Retrospective, featuring more than forty paintings and works on paper by the legendary art dealer. Renowned for more than three decades as a champion of the leading artists of the mid- and late twentieth century, Betty Parsons (1900-1982) was also an accomplished artist in her own right, who developed a penetrating and original vision in response to the abstract art of her era. Curated by the scholar and veteran art critic Ronny Cohen, this exhibition features her two-dimensional work. A brochure by Cohen discussing Parsons and the evolution of her distinctive style, which reflected her perennial desire to seek "the creative note" in her own work as well as in that of the artists she showed at her eponymous gallery.

Born in 1900 into a socially prominent and wealthy family, Parsons showed her independent streak 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 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, Alexander Archipenko, and the sculptor and painter Ossip Zadkine. Parsons also received instruction in painting and watercolor from the English artist Arthur Lindsay.

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.

She began a long association with Midtown Galleries, exhibiting there for more than twenty years, and also commencing her career as an art dealer there the following year. She opened her own gallery in 1946. Although Parsons did show and was given a solo exhibition at London's prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in 1968, her painting was never fully appreciated during her years as a gallery owner. The curators, collectors, and museum directors who supported her efforts on behalf of other artists such as Clyfford Still or Richard Tuttle were less interested in her own work.

Betty Parsons, Gold Stipple Moonshot, 1972, Acrylic on canvas,
48 x 48 inches, Signed and dated upper right: Betty Parsons/72,
Dated and inscribed on verso: Gold Stopple 1972 Moonshot

Often inspired by some element or aspect of nature, she focused on light and color in paintings infused with her excitement and energy. A selection of early works on paper attests to her ability to work representationally, but the majority of paintings date from the 1950s or later. Parsons first ventured into abstraction around 1947, but from that point she worked almost entirely abstractly. Integrating color and shape and her observations on a wide range of topics—from many of nature's phenomena (starting with the sea) and entire cultures (Chinese, Native American) to the cosmos (Sputnick, Moonshot, U.F.O) to her own childhood—Parsons brought to her art a distinctive sense of play, drama, and drollery and a sophisticated, savvy commentary. Her ability to break rules and convey themes of fantasy and wonder reveal her to have been an artist ahead of her time, whose work continues to resonate today, even while that of many of her contemporaries seem locked in the issues and attitudes of an earlier time.

Her oils from the 1950s as well as her remarkably inventive gouaches on paper feature densely worked passages, the medium applied with dash and vigor, with even the pointed tip of the brush used to incise dancing lines into the paint surface. By the end of the decade, forms began to simplify, with large shapes surrounded by auras of glowing pigment. Parsons' tendency to work reductively and expand her vision continued through the 1960s, as forms began to float against expanses of solid colors.

Betty Parsons, Chinese Image, 1958, Oil on canvas, 66 1/2 x 43
1/2 inches

A new serenity crept into her work, perhaps stemming from her adoption of the Eastern practice known as Subud as much as from the respite offered by her new weekend retreat in Southold, designed by the sculptor and architect Tony Smith, one of her stable. Her late paintings, executed in the newer medium of acrylic, are characterized by crisply delineated forms and exuberant colors. Creative and active until the end, Parsons died in 1982, in her home overlooking Long Island Sound.

As an art dealer, in an illustrious career lasting more than 40 years, Parsons perennially sought "the creative note" and in so doing became one of the champions of Abstract Expressionism, exhibiting the radically different paintings of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clifford Still as early as 1949. Together with Sam Kootz, Charles Egan, and the Willard Gallery, the Betty Parsons Gallery helped establish New York City as the center of the post-War art world. Indeed, it is important to recognize that in the course of her long career as a dealer, Parsons continued to look for the new and creative in art, and found merit in a vast range of media and styles.

Although a number of her artists achieved significant recognition during her lifetime, what is truly remarkable about Betty Parsons' legacy is how many of them, even today, are being reevaluated and rediscovered, a trend that is likely to continue.

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