Art Chronicles: Margaret Mellis & Melissa Gordon … & Janet Sobel.

Back down to Eastbourne yesterday to visit the Towner Gallery and get a good whiff of sea air. The weather was glorious, the ever-changing skies viewed from the train were breathtaking, and the gallery – some fifteen minutes walk from the station – was, from the exterior, its usual colourful, crazy self. In supposedly sedate Eastbourne of all places!

The artist whose work had brought us there was Margaret Mellis, whom we knew from her connections with St. Ives. It was there that she came under the influence of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo …

Ben had been saying to me, “Do a collage, do a collage.” so I started in July [1940] and became completely obsessed with them.

The influence of Gabo especially, is evident, I think, in this piece from 1942, which is one of the early works in the exhibition.

Margaret Mellis : Collage with Red Oval, 1942

The majority of the work on show consists of a series of painterly constructions made from the driftwood picked up near Mellis’ home on the Suffolk coast, to which she’d moved in 1950 with her second husband, the painter Francis Davison. Once settled there she seems to have moved away from collage and back to her original love, painting – large landscapes and smaller studies of flowers – and it was only after Davison’s death in 1984 that she began making her constructions, prizing the driftwood for its texture, its jagged edges, its lingering elements of colour.

Margaret Mellis: Green Heart, 2002
Margaret Mellis: In the Night, 1993

Melissa Gordon’s work is displayed on roughly painted walls or on wire mesh and sections of chain link fencing. The inner space of the gallery is divided by tall strips of metal, framework for something waiting to be built. The resulting experience is like walking round a version of Gordon’s studio, busy, throbbing with ideas – large scale collages rich in colour, many referencing overlooked or excluded women artists. Elements of art history re-examined from a feminist viewpoint.

Melissa Gordon –Liquid Gestures, gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures – gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures; gallery view

One of the artists that Gordon chooses to highlight is Janet Sobel, who was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen. Married just two years later, she raised a family of five children, and it wasn’t, it seems, until she was in her mid-forties that she began to paint, progressing from figurative work into abstraction. She seems to have met with some early acceptance and recognition, exhibiting in a group show, The Women, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century Gallery in New York in 1945 and having a solo show there the following year. She was one of the first artists to apply paint to the canvas with what might be called a drip technique, achieved by pouring or blowing paint through a glass pipette – a technique that, perhaps unsurprisingly, drew the attention of Jackson Pollock and the eminence grise of post-45 American art criticism, Clement Greenberg.

And yet … and yet … she seems to have been largely forgotten, erased from the abstract expressionist landscape. Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan – those are the names we know, whose work is still frequently exhibited, and rightly so. But Sobel … it’s as if having admitted the bright few into the male-dominated club, enough was enough.*

Janet Sobel : Untitled, 1946-48
  • She is included, along with many others, greater and less-well known, in Women of Abstract Expressionism, edited by Joan Marter [Denver Art Museum & Yale University, 2016, from which I have taken some of the details above.
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