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 Betty Bierne Pierson Parsons  (1900 - 1982)



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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: mod views-non ob images, sculpture

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Ad Code: 3
Betty Bierne Parsons
from Auction House Records.
Totem Materia-R, 1980
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Better known as an art dealer than an artist, she had a self-named gallery that significantly promoted the careers of numerous abstract artists of the 1940s.  In fact, by some critics, she was called the "midwife" of the New York School*.

She grew up in an upper class existence in New York City and turned down a position on the U.S. Olympic tennis team to pursue her art career.  She was married briefly and then divorced but kept her husband's name.  From 1923 to 1933, she studied sculpture in Paris and was very much a part of avant-garde circles there that included Gertrude Stein, Alexander Calder, and Man Ray.

The stock market crash forced her to return to the United States where she spent three years teaching in Santa Barbara, California, and then returned to New York City.

She learned the art gallery business by working with Mrs. Cornelius Sullivan and in 1946 opened her own gallery where she gave artists total freedom with their exhibitions.  Because she had many aristocratic connections, she created bridges between art collectors and emerging artists such as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Irene Rice Pereira and Mark Rothko.

She never showed her own work at the Parson's Gallery 8 but continued to exhibit, moving from traditional watercolors in the 1930s, through Abstract Expressionism 8, and then to sculpture in the 1970s.  In the last decade of her eight-one years, she moved to Long Island where her studio on a cliff overlooked the ocean.

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Born in NYC on Jan. 31, 1900. Parsons studied art in France where she was greatly influenced by the French modernists. From 1933 to 1936 she lived in Santa Barbara, CA. Returning to NYC, she opened an art gallery which promoted the work of young, modernist painters. She died in NYC in July 1982. Exh: Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1934.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Index of Artists Supplement (Daniel Mallett); Social Security Death Index (1940-2002).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Spanierman Gallery (retired):
Renowned as an esteemed and legendary art dealer who for more than three decades was devoted to encouraging and championing many of the leading artists of the mid- and late- twentieth century, Betty Parsons was also an accomplished artist in her own right, who developed a penetrating and original vision in response to the abstract art of her era. She exhibited her work regularly during her lifetime, and several shows have been dedicated to her role as a dealer since her death. She transcended the often purely formal and dogmatic issues that preoccupied much of mid-twentieth century abstraction after Abstract Expressionism began to be viewed as a school akin to a new academy in the late 1950s.

Born in 1900 into a socially prominent and wealthy family, Betty Parsons showed her independent streak early. At age thirteen she had her first electrifying experience of Modernism in the spectacle at the Armory Show of 1913, which showcased the European avant-garde. While many New Yorkers found the art of the Cubists and Futurists to be shocking, it enthralled Parsons, forging her determination to become an artist, and she aspired to be a sculptor like Antoine Bourdelle, the French sculptor, who was her favorite artist at the time. Her family expected her to follow a traditional path, to the extent of marrying, which she did in 1919. Unhappy in her marriage, she divorced in 1924, leaving that year for Paris, where she set out to fulfill her earlier dream of pursuing a career as an artist. Enrolling at the Académie de La Grand Chaumière, she studied with Bourdelle, Alexander Archipenko, and the sculptor and painter Ossip Zadkine. One of her classmates was the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti and her circle of friends included Man Ray and the American sculptor Alexander Calder. Parsons also received instruction in painting and watercolor from the English artist Arthur Lindsay.

The first exhibition of Parsons's work was held in Paris in 1933, shortly before the Great Depression severed her income and forced her to return to the United States. Initially she went to California, where she had a show of her work in Los Angeles in 1934, before she came back to New York in 1935. That year she began her association with Midtown Galleries, where she subsequently had ten solo shows, the last in 1957. In 1936 she had her first experience in selling art, working for Midtown Gallery. She then held a variety of jobs, including serving as director of Wakefield Gallery and of Mortimer Brandt Gallery, before opening her own gallery in 1946.

At her gallery on 57th Street Betty Parsons held groundbreaking shows for Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman, which were instrumental in gaining Abstract Expressionism its first important foothold in the postwar art scene and for establishing these artists as the movement's leaders. When some members of the art world had doubts about this group, Parson's considered them "great innovators" She gave many contemporary artists their first solo shows in New York, including Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle, and Ellsworth Kelly.

Although Parsons did exhibit her work and was given a solo exhibition at London's prestigious Whitechapel Gallery in 1968, her paintings were never fully appreciated during her years as a gallery owner. Indeed, her fame as an art dealer created an extra burden. It was thought unseemly for art dealers to compete with artists.

Parsons died in New York City in 1982. Her work may be found in numerous public collections, including the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; The High Museum, Altanta, Georgia; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery and may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without written permission from Spanierman Gallery nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery.

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