The Betty Parsons Gallery
Summary of The Betty Parsons Gallery
Once referred to as "the den mother of Abstract Expressionism," Betty Parsons was an early advocate of the great Abstract Expressionists, including Pollock, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still and Newman, long before they all achieved notoriety. Her midtown gallery, which opened in 1946 (and closed every summer so that Parsons could focus on her own art), gave the Abstract Expresionist artists their first large-scale exposure, making it one of the most prestigious art galleries in New York. In its later years, the Parsons Gallery did much to promote the works of many gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, including Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Beginings and the 1913 Armory Show
Betty Pierson was born into a wealthy New York family in the year 1900. The young Betty Pierson visited the New York Armory Show in 1913, the exhibit that is often credited with introducing Modern art to the United States. While visitors were enthralled by the paintings of Goya, Courbet and other mid-19th-century Realists, Parsons recalled being quite taken with the more "shocking" and spirited paintings of Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp. It was at the Armory Show that she decided to devote her life to the arts.
Betty Parsons in Paris
She moved to Paris as a young woman, and for 3 years was married to Schuyler Livingston Parsons. The couple divorced in 1923, but Betty kept her married name. While living in Paris for the next decade, Parsons lived off her alimony and kept company with some of the expatriate lesbian community of Paris, among them Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach.
Parsons returns to the U.S.
Hard hit by the Great Depression, Parsons returned to the U.S. in 1933. She spent some time on the West coast, mostly in southern California where she became fascinated with the vastness of the terrain and the sense of freedom it conveyed. She soon began experimenting in her own art, playing with color, movement and emotion, unknowingly dabbling in what Rosenberg would later dub "Action painting." In this sense, Parsons seems to have discovered Abstract Expressionism on her own.
She returned to New York City in 1936. A small exhibit of her artwork was shown at the Midtown Galleries, where she was also offered an apprenticeship. In the early 1940s Parsons ran a small art gallery in the Wakefield Bookshop on 64 East 55th St. In 1944, she left the Wakefield Gallery to work at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery on East 57th Street, the site of her own gallery which would open just 2 years later.
The Betty Parsons Gallery Opens
The Betty Parsons Gallery opened in September 1946, in the gallery space once occupied by art dealer Mortimer Brandt. The opening exhibit, Northwest Coast Indian Painting, was organized by Barnett Newman and Tony Smith. Newman, who wrote for many of the catalogs on behalf of the Gallery, noted, "It is becoming more and more apparent that to understand Modern art, one must have an appreciation of the primitive arts, for just as modern art stands as an island of revolt in the stream of western European aesthetics, the many primitive art traditions stand apart as authentic aesthetic accomplishments.."
By 1948 the Parsons Gallery was representing not only Newman but other AbEx greats like Pollock, Rothko and Still. Parsons herself once affectionately referred to them as her "four horsemen of the apocalypse."