August 23, 2006

In The Gallery

Spanierman Gallery in East Hampton, 68 Newtown Lane

"Betty Parsons: A Painting Retrospective."

Why now, a visitor asks about the show of one-time artist and gallery owner Betty Parsons' paintings and works on paper. Why not, shoots back Helen Spanierman, with enthusiasm and glee. "This is her time."

And indeed it would seem to be, especially because this August marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Jackson Pollock whose innovative work Betty Parsons championed and exhibited in her 57th Street gallery, along with the works of others in the avant garde. But, ironically, because Betty Parsons is known primarily as an art dealer, it's also her time to be recognized outside the art community as a painter in her own right, and this goal Spanierman impressively realizes in its striking exhibit of 40 or so of Betty Parsons' oils, acrylics, watercolors and gouaches, spanning a period of approximately five decades (she died 24 years ago at the age of 82).

"No one has done this before," says Helen Spanierman, noting that for most people Parsons' extensive and various work will come as a surprise — a welcome one, though, because Betty Parsons made modern art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, a serious study and a dedicated passion. Moreover, Helen Spanierman adds, Betty Parsons was "our own."

Though born to privilege and well traveled, Betty Bierne Pierson Parsons spent her later years in Southold, painting and making constructions out of found beach objects, and it is with a sense of loyalty to the East End that Spanierman has mounted this one-woman show, reaffirming the famous midtown art dealer's place in the Long Island art scene. One of several fascinating photos supplied to the gallery by Betty Parsons' nephew Bill Raynor shows the artist in her LI studio, intent, brush in hand, traces of her beauty still discernible.

Betty Parsons fixed on abstract art early on, though she moved into what might be identified as different periods (all on display here), from impressionistic landscapes done in the '40s to bold, Aztec-looking geometric acrylics, such as the large-canvas Teeth of the Temple, with its ethnic coloring and suggestive asymmetry, a picture that exemplifies Parsons' work in the '70s and '80s. Two relatively early pieces, however — West Dennis, a lovely gouache and watercolor swirling mass of sailboats on the sea, done in 1941, and the joyous, slightly decorative June Garden, also a gouache, executed a decade later (both in Spanierman's downstairs gallery) — testify to Parsons' ability to embrace different styles and techniques.

Curator Ronny Cohen has admirably arranged all the works in a way that emphasizes Parsons' distinctiveness but also her evolution as an Abstract Expressionist, with free-form geometric designs beginning to show up in the late '50s. The exhibit also, however, evidences Parsons' continuing ties to nature, a fact clearly seen in the acrylic-on-canvas Ice Flow (1970), with its remarkable archipelago of blue-outlined white islands on green, a sea of underpainting glimpsed through layers of thinly applied pigment. How refreshing, therefore, to turn a corner in Spanierman's expansive, sunny-white spaces and also find Parsons' absolutely charming, pink-suffused oil-on-masonite New Orleans Window, which dates to the late '40s or early '50s.

Parsons' diversity reflects her obvious determination to try out simpler, more abstract configurations while teasingly, in some works, continuing to be a bit representational, a real-world reference she invites by giving many of her pieces descriptive titles. As Ronny Cohen points out, the naming of her paintings set Parsons aside from colleagues who preferred to call their works "untitled" or just to number them. Though a viewer might not think so at first, The Whale (1959) shows itself as a whale, whales, actually, blue-eyed, mustard-orange mammal shapes swimming into blue-gray and black, areas outlined in part by a luminescent blue sea.

It's also possible that the 1972 acrylic Gold Stipple Moonshot was intended as cultural criticism, with its suggestive motif of red, white and blue rockets arching into a black sky. On the other hand, the lively-colored striped Head — Signature (1978), free-form shapes set on somber green, and Tropical Garden, Mississippi (1954) are a bit of a representational reach, though they serve as reminders, in color and form, of the cubism that attracted Parsons when she studied in Paris in the '30s. All in all, a remarkable exhibit, running through September 11.

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