Pioneering Artist Betty Parsons Is Coming To Alison Jacques

©Lynn Gilbert 1977

©Lynn Gilbert 1977

Alison Jacques Gallery just released news a new exhibition dedicated to artist and pioneer Betty Parsons will open in London in October 2019. This will be the first show of the artist’s work to be held in London for nearly forty years (!) and also marks the gallery’s inaugural exhibition since announcing its representation of the Estate of Betty Parsons in 2018.

Nowadays when art historians mention Betty Parsons, they are mainly talking about her New York gallery, one of those which from the 1940s ‘till the ‘60s, was partially responsible for making Abstract Expressionism famous. The gallery showed works of the likes of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and many others. What it is often omitted is that Betty Parsons was an artist and a painter herself.

Born in New York in a building that is literally the Rockefeller Centre today, in 1919 she married socialite Schuyler Livingston Parsons, but within three years they both realised that they were incompatible. It was 1922 and the idea of divorce equalised scandal therefore her family sent her to Paris, where she flourished. She had studied art as a teenager in New York, had taken private sculpture and drawing lessons after her marriage and had even been offered a job as a fashion designer. Now that she was in Paris, the great art city, she was free to pursue her love of art. After taking a studio and whilst living the parisienne life for 10 years, she met everyone from Hart Crane and Gertrude Stein to Man Ray and Gurdjiev. Max Jacob did her horoscope. Alexander Calder took her dancing every week - “for the exercise.”

After returning to the United States only in 1933, she lived for some time in sunny California, where she embarked on teaching: drawing and sculpture. After a few years thought, she became too homesick for busy New York, so she returned to her native city in the late 1930s.

Betty Parsons,  Flame , 1967. Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates. © Betty Parsons Foundation.

Betty Parsons, Flame, 1967. Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates. © Betty Parsons Foundation.

Betty Parsons,  African Dawn , 1972, acrylic on canvas. © Betty Parsons Foundation.

Betty Parsons, African Dawn, 1972, acrylic on canvas. © Betty Parsons Foundation.

She soon began to organise exhibitions for others, whilst a gallery owner who had shown Parsons’ own work offered her a chance to sell also her work on a commission basis. During World War II she managed galleries for others, observing the changes in American art and painting that was later to explode into a revolution called Abstract Expressionism. One biographer has said that Parsons found herself in the right place at the right time, but much more was involved. From the beginning she understood that the work of Pollock and Rothko, de Kooning and Newman heralded a new era. Her artist’s eye caught the emotional and intellectual intensity of their vision and its power to transform postwar American painting. In 1946 she was finally able to open her own gallery.

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The Betty Parsons Gallery opened in 1946 in Manhattan. At a time when the market for avant-garde American art was microscopic, Parsons was the only dealer willing to represent artists like Jackson Pollock after Peggy Guggenheim closed her Art of This Century gallery. Parsons showed work by William Congdon, Clyfford Still, Theodoros Stamos, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Hedda Sterne, and Robert Rauschenberg among others. Many of the Abstract Expressionist artists she had launched left her gallery for more commercial galleries such as Sam Kootz and Sidney Janis. Art critic B. H. Friedman noted, "She was resentful. She had struggled so long to get them established, and other dealers capitalised on her efforts."

She ran the gallery until her death in 1982 after which it was taken over by her former gallery assistant Jack Tilton.

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