Mothers of Invention: Betty Parsons

Invisible Presence at Alexander Gray Associates, May 25-July 14, 2017

Originally published July 20, 2017

The view that greets you as you reach the top of the stairs at Alexander Gray Associates in Chelsea

A few years ago at the Armory Modern show in New York City, I saw Betty Parsons's artwork for the first time. Of course I was familiar with her legacy as a gallerist. In her eponymous gallery, which she opened in 1946 and would run for 37 years until just before her death in 1982, she had shown the likes of Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg, and launched the careers of such artists as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Richard Tuttle. What I hadn’t known then is that she was an artist in her own right and that, in fact, she’d had 10 solo shows at Midtown Gallery (Later Midtown Payson) and elsewhere before and during the course of her tenure as the doyenne of 57th Street. 

I was reminded of that first encounter when I walked into Invisible Presence, the radiant exhibition of Parsons’s work at Alexander Gray Associates, which has been extended through July 28. The ground floor gallery offers a selection of her early work—watercolors and a couple of bronze sculptures, made when she was a young woman studying art in Paris. (She was born in 1900, decided to be an artist after seeing the original Armory Show in 1913. Family wealth funded her studies.)

Early watercolors in the street-level space, including the one below, which in this photo is just to the right of the desk. Image from the gallery website

Below: Rockport, 1943, graphite and gouache on paper

A pivotal work as Parsons moved into abstraction: Untitled, ca. 1950, acrylic on panel, 16 x 10

Upstairs are the paintings and found-wood sculptures made by the mature artist. Parsons didn’t show her own work in her gallery, but it would have fit right in. Roberta Smith, reviewing Invisible Presence, described a style that “finesses its way between the emotionality of Abstract Expressionism and the formal ecstasies of Color Field painting.”

An almost 360-degree panorama in the second-floor gallery. Use this image as your guide as I take you around clockwise, starting with the painting, shown below, which holds the distant left wall 

March 3, 1962, acrylic on canvas

Swinging around to the long wall

Victory, 1967, acrylic on canvas

Parsons was born in 1900, so she was hitting her stride in her late 60s

Flame, 1967, acrylic on canvas

This painting evokes two thoughts. First, it presages the female imagery in Judy Chicago's 1979 Dinner Party; second, it suggests the iconic corona around the Virgin of Guadalupe. I love the connection between sexuality and divinity. (Turns out that Parsons was a lesbian. Connect the dots if you wish.)

II Oglala, 1979, acrylic on wood

From the gallery handout I learned that Parsons maintained a studio in Southold on Long Island and that she collected pieces of wood on her beach walks. She began making assemblages in 1965 and titled them after places she had visited or as a reflection of her cultural interests

Continuing around the long wall

Punch and Judy Theater, 1975, acrylic on wood

Maine, 1972, and Bird in a Boat, 1971; both acrylic on canvas

Below: Closer view of Maine

African Dawn, 1972, acrylic on canvas

Back of II Oglala

To the left,  Challenge. Journey, which you'll see as you scroll down, is hidden by the sculpture. To the right you can just about make out the legs of a vitrine, which you'll see shortly as well

Below: Challenge, 1976, acrylic on canvas

Journey, 1975, acrylic on canvas

The Grass and the Wine, 1960, acrylic on canvas

The Grass and the Wine and the vitrine are to your right at you reach the top of the stairs. The wall text quotes Parsons: "I have always been fascinated with what I call the invisible presence. We all have it. Everything has it . . . a room has it. And that is what I am intrigued with, especially when I am working. That invisible presence."

Two views of the vitrine that documents Parsons, the artist

More on Parsons:
. Wikipedia
. ArtNews from the Archives
. 1992 NYT review
. NYT obit
. Archive Grid

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