Betty Parsons (1900-1982) was one of the leading art dealers in New York City specializing in modern art, particularly the work of the Abstract Expressionists, and an abstract painter and sculptor in her own right. She opened Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946 at 15 E. 57th St., later moving to 24 W. 57th St.
The history of the Betty Parsons Gallery is inextricably bound to the life and experiences of its founder. Betty Parsons was born Betty Bierne Pierson on January 31, 1900 in New York City. She enjoyed a privileged childhood, which included vacation homes in Newport and Palm Beach. Her only formal education was a five-year stint at the prestigious Chapin School from 1910-1915, where she met many of the women who would become life-long friends and supporters. In the spring of 1920, she married Schuyler Livingston Parsons from one of New York's oldest families. The marriage ended after only three years and the couple traveled to Paris where they could obtain a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. She retained her married surname and purchased a house on the rue Boulard in Paris, where she remained for ten years, pursuing studies in painting and sculpture.
Financial constraints forced Parsons to return to the United States in 1933. She first traveled west to California, but it was her return to New York in 1935 that marked the start of her career as an art dealer. Her first opportunity to connect with the New York art world came after a successful exhibition of her watercolors at the Midtown Galleries where the owner, Alan Gruskin, noted Parson's faithful and wealthy group of supporters and offered her work installing exhibitions and selling paintings on commission. Her work for the Midtown Galleries led to a second position in the Park Avenue gallery of Mary Sullivan, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art. Here, Parsons learned the business of running a gallery. By 1940 Parsons was ready to take on more independent responsibility and agreed to manage a gallery within the Wakefield Bookshop. In this job, she exercised full curatorial control by selecting artists and organizing exhibitions. She championed then unknown contemporary American artists and the gallery's roster soon included Saul Steinberg, Hedda Sterne, Alfonso Ossorio, Joseph Cornell, Walter Murch, and Theodore Stamos. Although the majority of the exhibitions were solo shows, there were a few group shows and themed exhibitions, such as Love in Art (1941) and Ballet in Art (1942). Under Parson's direction, the gallery hosted an important exhibition of Pre-Columbian sculpture, curated by Barnett Newman.
When the owners of the Wakefield Bookshop decided to close the gallery late in 1944, Mortimer Brandt, a dealer who specialized in Old Master paintings and drawings, offered her a position as head of the newly created contemporary section of his gallery. Many of the artists who had shown with Parsons at the Wakefield Gallery followed her to her new gallery, where they were joined by Ad Reinhardt, Boris Mango, and Hans Hofmann. While the exhibitions garnered attention from the press and the interest of contemporary artists, the contemporary section was not a financial success and Brandt opted to close his gallery in 1946.
Using $1000 of her own money and an additional borrowed $4000, Parsons sublet the space that previously housed Mortimer Brandt's contemporary section, on the fifth floor of 15 East 57th Street, and opened the Betty Parsons Gallery.
In many respects the early years of the Betty Parsons Gallery were the most vital, as it was during the period of 1947-1951 that the gallery became linked with the Abstract Expressionists and the history of post-WWII American Art. In an unpublished history of the gallery, noted art critic Lawrence Alloway stated that the significance of the gallery's early exhibitions ranks with Durand-Ruel's Impressionists exhibitions or Kahnweiler's shows of the Cubists. Betty Parsons Gallery quickly became one of the most prestigious galleries in New York City associated with new American Art of all styles. Her close friend Barnett Newman organized the gallery's inaugural exhibition of Northwest Coast Indian Art and he soon began to exhibit his own work at the gallery. When Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery closed, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko joined Parsons' growing stable of artists. Although Parsons continued to promote and exhibit many of the artists whom she had previously discovered, these four artists dominated this period. Newman, Pollock, Still, and Rothko worked closely together, holding themselves apart from the other artists somewhat. They were actively involved in the curatorial process and often hung their own shows. For these artists, the exhibition itself was an artistic act of creation.
Parsons provided a supportive environment and allowed her artists enormous freedom in planning and designing their exhibitions. She was not, however, an aggressive salesperson. During this early period the gallery ledgers document sales to an impressive array of museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as important collectors such as Edward Root and Duncan Phillips. Nevertheless, the art that the gallery promoted was not yet widely accepted. Sales were few, prices were low and the business would not turn a profit for several years. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure from Pollock, Newman, Still, and Rothko to drop some of the other artists from Parsons' stable and focus all resources on them. They wanted to be promoted to a larger audience and have their work sold at higher prices, but Parsons enjoyed discovering new artists and did not want to be restricted in this endeavor. The year 1951 marks the last time that Pollock's drip paintings or the monumental works of Newman, Rothko or Still were shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery.
In the following years the Betty Parsons Gallery continued to attract a diverse group of talented artists. Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Tuttle, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jack Youngerman had their first New York exhibitions at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Parsons opened Section Eleven in 1958, a short-lived annex to the main gallery, so that she could promote younger, less well-known artists. It closed in 1960 due to the administrative difficulties in running two essentially separate galleries.
In 1962, Sidney Janis, another prominent art dealer, started proceedings to evict Parsons from the floor that they shared on 15 East 57th Street. The Betty Parsons Gallery moved to 24 West 57th Street in 1963, where it remained until it closed in 1983, following Parsons' death the preceding year. Throughout the gallery's history, Parsons continued to promote faithful artists such as Hedda Sterne and Saul Steinberg, who had been with her from the beginning and to seek out new talent, both for her main gallery and for other venues, such as the short-lived Parsons-Truman Gallery, which she opened in 1974 with former Parsons Gallery director Jock Truman to show works on paper by emerging artists.
In addition to being an art dealer, Betty Parsons was a respected artist and collector. With her connoisseur's eye and connections, Parsons amassed an impressive private collection of art. She bought her first piece while an art student in Paris in the 1920s, a small gouache by Zadkine, but did not begin acquiring works in earnest until she was established as an art dealer. Partial inventories of her personal collection show that the majority of her collection contained works by artists associated with the gallery. Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, and Kenzo Okada were among the artists represented. Many were gifts from the artists, such as an ink drawing by Jackson Pollock, inscribed "For Betty." Selections from her collection appeared in small museums across the United States, including a traveling exhibition organized by Fitch College, New York, in 1968. In her role as a promoter of contemporary American art, Parsons lent generously from her collection, particularly to the federal Art in the Embassies Program. Throughout her life she also donated works to a variety of museums, most notably, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Parsons frequently claimed that her desire to pursue a career as an artist stemmed from a visit to the Armory Show when she was thirteen. In her late teens, after pressuring her father for art lessons, she studied with the sculptor Gutzon Burglum of Mount Rushmore fame. In Paris, she continued her studies first with Antoine Bourdelle, whose sculptures she had admired at the Armory Show, and later with Ossip Zadkine. The first exhibition of her work, figurative watercolors and sculptures, took place in Paris in 1927. As she matured as an artist, her art became more abstract. Her late works were painted wood sculptures that she pieced together from wood that she found near her studio in Long Island. Parsons's work was exhibited in more than thirty solo exhibitions, including, Betty Parsons; Paintings, Gouaches and Sculpture, 1955-1968, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. During her lifetime, she would not allow her works to be shown in her own gallery. Shortly after she died of a stroke in 1982, In Memoriam, Betty Parsons: Late Sculptures, opened at the Betty Parsons Gallery.