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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Betty Parsons

Betty Parsons, 1963, Sylvia Sleigh
Three Trees, watercolor,
ca. 1937, Betty Parsons
I've always liked the analogy as of taking ones life by the horns and "driving" it in the direction you want to go. The opposite of that is to grab hold of life by the tail and hang on for a wild ride. One is active, the other passive. Invariably, the key to taking control is higher education, allowing one greater freedom in choosing a career (and thus a life) rather than settling for whatever existence happenstance allows. It's the difference between a job and a career. The more education, the more choices, and in general, the higher one may rise socially and economically. It's a pyramid: the base is backbreaking labor. The second level is skilled labor. the third level is responsible skilled labor (supervising others). The fourth level is corporate management. And at the top is creative innovation. Sometimes a young person may aim at some lower level only to be thrust upward to a much higher level far beyond their wildest dreams. That's what happened to Betty Parsons.

Four untitled pieces, Betty Parsons
She was never much of a picture painter and Betty Parson's other works involving painted blocks of wood (above) formed into abstract arrangements were hardly better. Her Three Trees (above, left), from around 1937, are decorative at best, "ho-hum" at worst. Her crudely painted stripes on blocks of wood are a curator's worst nightmare. They're all untitled and undated. The best that can be said about Betty Parsons' Sailboat, Rockport (below) is that it has a Matisse-like quality to it. However, dated at sometime after 1943, a time when Matisse was immensely popular in the United States, that's not too surprising.

Sailboat, Rockport, 1943-82, Betty Parsons
As a gallery owner responsible for bringing to light any number of Abstract Expressionists during the 1950s until her retirement in 1981 and death the following year, one might expect Betty Parsons' paintings along that line to be her most outstanding work. One would be wrong. As seen in her (again) Untitled (below, left)from 1950, and her Untitled Abstraction (below, right), Parsons' painting expertise and imagination are nowhere near that of the artists whom she represented. Though she had exhibits of her work in galleries around the world, and has been similarly collected by museums around the world, this recognition is not predicated on her work, but on her abundant connections in the art world and her name recognition. By the way, I counted at least seven of Parsons' paintings titled Untitled Abstraction. There were nine others marked as Untitled. As a gallery owner, you'd think she'd have known better. The other conclusion to be drawn from both her works and her titles (or lack thereof) is that, though she considered herself a artist, she was not, by her nature, a very creative individual.

Untitled, 1950, Betty Parsons
Untitled Abstraction, Betty Parsons
If not terribly talented as an artist, who was Betty Parsons? She was born Betty Bierne Pierson in 1900. She came from a wealthy New York family that divided their time between New York City, Newport, Palm Beach, and for a time, lived in Paris. As a teenager, she went to Miss Chapin's School for Girls in New York, though she was a very mediocre student, spoiled, and easily bored. The turning point in her life came in 1913 when she visited New York's famed Armory Show. There she was exposed to the work of virtually every artist from the era of Modern Art, both American and European. Despite the disapproval of her parents, the headstrong teenager decided she wanted to be an artist and chose as her instructor the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. She could hardly have made a worse choice. Borglum is recalled by Parsons and others as a terrible teacher. At the age of nineteen, Betty made another bad decision. She married Schuyler Livingston Parsons, a wealthy New York City playboy some ten years her senior. Her family hoped she would settle down into a conventional lifestyle. Three years later, the couple divorced on the grounds of incompatibility. She kept his name, however.

A Betty Parsons watercolor (probably untitled).
During the next several years, Betty Parsons remained in Paris, studying art under various mostly second-rate painters, but more importantly, getting to know them and their art quite intimately. Then, around 1933, the family wealth evaporated with the Great Depression, forcing Parson's to find a job and go to work for the first time in her life. Born in 1900, she was thirty-three by then. She tried teaching a sculpture class in California for a year or two, but in 1936 found herself back in New York with a one-woman show of her watercolors (similar to that above) at a mid-town gallery. The reviews were positive, if not overwhelmingly so. Her work was deemed "delightful" and "interestingly conceived." I've got a collection of glass paperweights of which the same could be said.
When the Betty Parsons Gallery first opened in 1946, the market for contemporary
art was miniscule and the reactions to it often quite negative.
Following her first one-woman show, the gallery owner, Alan Bruskin, offered Parsons a job selling art on commission. From there, around 1937, Parson quickly moved up to the gallery of Mary Quinn Sullivan, a founding trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. In 1940, Parsons left Sullivan's gallery and took a position managing a contemporary gallery in the Wakefield Bookshop on East 55th Street. This was her first job managing a gallery on her own in which she had full curatorial control regarding artists and exhibitions. Parsons soon began collection contemporary artists like some ladies collect silver teaspoons. In no time she was representing the likes of Saul Steinberg, Adolph Gottlieb, Alfonso Ossorio, Hedda Sterne, Theodoros Stamos, and Joseph Cornell. Four years later, by 1944, Parsons was invited to start and manage a contemporary art division in the gallery of art dealer, Mortimer Brandt. When he moved to England after the war, Parsons subleased the space and opened her own gallery on the fifth floor of a building on East 57th Street.
Betty Parsons' Irascibles--Front row:1.Theodoros Stamos, 2. Jimmy Ernst, 3. Barnett Newman, 4. James Brooks, 5. Mark Rothko; middle row: 6. Richard Pousette-Dart, 7. William Baziotes, 8. Jackson Pollock, 9. Clyfford Still,  10. Robert Motherwell, 11. Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: 12. Willem de Kooning,
31. Adolph Gottlieb, 14. Ad Reinhardt, and (standing) 15. Hedda Sterne.
The letter that got Parsons Pollock.
In 1946, Parsons put up one-thousand dollars and borrowed another four thousand to open her gallery. She held twelve shows per season (September thru May). Having found her niche in the world of art, Parson hung in there, though in the beginning, sales often bordered on the abysmal. Fortunately, Parsons' big break came just a year later when her friendly competitor, the wealthy heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, decided to close her Art of this Century Gallery in New York and set up shop in Venice on the Grand Canal. Parsons "inherited" Guggen-heim's "stable" of budding your artist (left). As the group photo above, from Life Magazine in 1951 suggests, it was quite the motley crew. Actually, they called themselves the "Irascibles." If contemporary accounts are accurate, they were well named.

Click below for a broader view of Betty Parson's 1950s world of contemporary art--

"All I did was supply the walls."

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