Betty Parsons (b.1900, New York, NY – d.1982, Southold, NY) was an abstract painter and sculptor who is best known as a dealer of mid-century art. Throughout her storied career as a gallerist, she maintained a rigorous artistic practice by creating works in a variety of media including paintings, sculpture, and works on paper. Parsons’ eye for innovative talent stemmed from her own artistic training, and her commitment to championing new and emerging artists of her time impacted the canon of twentieth-century art in the United States.
Parsons realized her passion for art early in life when she attended the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. As she entered adulthood, however, she experienced the educational and professional limitations that faced women of her era. Tenaciously maintaining her desire to study art in all its forms, Parsons took lessons with artists in New York City throughout finishing school and during her three-year marriage to Schuyler Livingston Parsons. Upon its dissolution in 1923, Parsons moved to Paris and stayed for ten years to dedicate herself fully to the pursuit of art. At the Academie de la Grande Chaumière, she studied painting and sculpture first with Antoine Bourdelle and later Ossip Zadkine, alongside fellow student Alberto Giacometti. Through her expatriate community of friends and cultural figures —including Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and Adge Baker— Parsons continued her artistic education outside the classroom. She joined Baker in studying watercolor with Sir Arthur Lindsey and spent summers with them painting en plein air along the Brittany coast.
After returning to the United States in 1933, Parsons continued to create art both in California and New York. In 1935, she had her first solo exhibition of paintings at Midtown Galleries, New York. She then accepted a position there, installing works and selling paintings on commission which began to establish her professional identity as an art dealer.
Parsons opened her eponymous gallery in New York in 1946. After the closure of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1947, she inherited Guggenheim’s roster of artists, including Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still. Although the legacy of the Betty Parsons Gallery is closely tied to these leading figures, Parsons showcased work by women, queer artists, and artists of color. Her diverse program reflected her liberal, inclusive values, and her profound sense of community.
While running her gallery, Parsons’ artistic practice was an ever-present constant. She began to render abstract works in the late 1940s in order to capture what she called “sheer energy” and “the new spirit.” Stylistically departing from her training as a sculptor and landscape artist, her paintings conveyed a passion for spontaneity and creative play through impulsive gestural brushstrokes and organic forms. She often applied thin layers of paint to allow for the canvas to remain visible, elevating its function from material to pigment. In addition, she employed the sgrafitto technique and scratched off the top layer of paint in select areas. Departing from verisimilitude, Parsons described this shift as an effort to capture not what a place or event “looked like, but what it made [her] feel.”
Throughout her life, Parsons traveled to various international locales, including Mexico, France, Italy, Africa, and Japan, to satiate her curiosity about the wider world around her. She prolifically recorded these trips as watercolors, sketches, drawings, and other entries in visual journals that number into the hundreds. The undulating brushstrokes and non-naturalistic pigmentation of these works show Parsons’ experimentation with these and other means to convey her distinctive sense of place.
Parsons commissioned designer and sculptor Tony Smith to construct her studio/residence in Southold, Long Island. After its completion in 1960, Parsons frequently traded the metropolis of New York City for the quiet of the Long Island Sound. Surrounded by nature in a creative haven of her own, her artistic output became more prolific and diverse. In addition to works on canvas —some of which she painted outside on the beach— Parsons began creating sculptures composed of driftwood she collected while walking along the shore. These painted wooden assemblages can be seen as amalgamations of her passion for sculpture, mastery of color, and connection to nature.
In 1977, Parsons coined the phrase “invisible presence” to describe the energy she experienced in any given setting, an energy that she attempted to capture in all forms of her artwork. This belief in an unseen force is a nod to her practice of non-Western spiritualism, including meditation, and her interest in mysticism and indigenous American art. Rather than subscribing to a rigid theoretical framework in both personal and artistic beliefs, Parsons’ abstraction allowed for expressive improvisation in her paintings, assemblages, and diaries. Her aesthetic development was not a linear progression, but rather one in which she established and then revisited artistic devices throughout her career.
By the time of her death in 1982, Betty Parsons had created a multi-faceted legacy that extended beyond her successful gallery career. Her activism took the form of championing women and other marginalized artists of her time as well as advocating for the health and preservation of our oceans. With her diverse exhibition history and unique artistic vision, she established herself as an artist in her own right and was an influential force in the art of the mid-twentieth century. A digital catalogue raisonné of her work is in production by the Betty Parsons and William P. Rayner Foundation.
Betty Parsons’ work has been the subject of numerous one-person exhibitions at Art Omi, Ghent, NY (2018); The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, NY (1992); the Montclair Museum of Art, NJ (1974); Whitechapel Gallery, London, United Kingdom (1968), and The Miami Museum of Modern Art, FL (1963). Parsons’ work is represented in prominent public collections including The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; The Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY; Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY; the Montclair Museum of Art, NJ; and The High Museum, Atlanta, GA; among others.