Odd Woman In

The Forgotten Hooked Rugs of Dorothy Grebenak

Dorothy Grebenak was an artist in New York for less than a decade but was part of the initial group of artists recognized for creating "pop art." In 1963, just one year after Warhol's soup cans, Grebenak began making hooked rugs, her only known artistic output. While employing the language and imagery of advertising and popular culture, as her contemporaries were, Grebenak's sensibilities speak to both her singularity as an artist as well as the wider narrative of how women were excluded from what we came to accept (but are now reconsidering) as the dominant narratives of mid-century art.

Grebenak working on her Con Edison Co. rugs, c. 1963

Con Edison Co. was made from charcoal rubbings Grebenak did of New York City manhole covers. A particular dry wit characterizes her work, as well as a concern for the fluidity of public and domestic space that not many other pop artists had explored. Rugs depicting the phone number of the New York City police line on a rotary phone, blown-up five dollar bills and what could be a cut-out coupon for Tide detergent are joyous and dumb in their matter-of-fact restatement of the overlooked imagery that infiltrates our homes and streets.

440-1234, c. 1965

Her work first got attention from legendary gallerist, Allan Stone, who encountered her rugs not on the walls of a gallery but on the floors of the Brooklyn Museum gift shop. He put together the first show of her rugs in 1963 and they were featured in the exhibition Odd Man In in 1964. While her works were held in major private collections of those such as Nelson Rockefeller, they were used, largely, as rugs, and thus not many have survived. Women's creative energies were often relegated to the "minor" and "craft" mediums, excluding their work from the more serious consideration granted to artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein.

An exhibition of Grebenak's works at Allan Stone Gallery, 1963

As the scope of mid-century Pop Art expands to accommodate more diverse voices, including artists like Marisol and Sister Mary Corita Kent, Grebenak's work stands out as a touchstone of the emerging sensibilities that would soon come to dominate contemporary art. Grebenak lived in Park Slope and in 1971, after her husband died, she relocated to London, where she lived until she died in 1990. It is not known whether she continued to create art and nothing from this period of her life exists. These works are not important because they were overlooked, but rather, in spite of it, as they endure as both iconographic and slightly outside of our narrative of modern American art.

I don’t think what I do is Pop Art. People who name things probably would, but I don’t like labels. I think transposing something from one medium to another is droll. The idea of a big $5 bill makes me laugh.

Dorothy Grebenak

The Visionary Eye of Allan Stone

Allan Stone; Allan Stone Gallery, New York, c. 1975. Images courtesy of the Allan Stone Collection

Founded in 1960 by art dealer Allan Stone (1932–2006), the New York gallery known today as Allan Stone Projects has been admired for over half a century. Celebrated for its eclectic approach and early advocacy of pivotal artists of the 20th century, Allan Stone Gallery was a leading authority on Abstract Expressionism, the New York dealer for Wayne Thiebaud for over forty years, and showed the works of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Joseph Cornell, John Graham and John Chamberlain. Stone also promoted the work of a younger generation of artists that were in conversation with other artists in his collection, working in the mediums of assemblage, collage and new modes of abstraction. In addition to modern masterworks and contemporary art, Allan Stone also collected and exhibited international folk art, Americana and important decorative arts and industrial design.

Dorothy Grebenak 1913–1990

Dorothy Grebenak was born in Oxford, Nebraska in 1913. She lived with her husband Louis, a WPA artist, in Park Slope until 1971. Grebenak taught high school and studied dance. In the 1940s she began teaching herself rug-making and her works were initially sold in the Brooklyn Museum gift shop. She had solo exhibitions in 1963 and 1964 at Allan Stone Gallery, through which her rugs entered major private collections, including those of Nelson Rockefeller, Albert and Vera List, William and Norma Copley, Carter Burden, and John and Kimiko Powers. Her work was featured in various group exhibitions and was included in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Pop Art and the American Tradition exhibition in 1965. Recently, Grebenak was included in the 2010 exhibition, Seductive Subversion: Woman Pop Artist, 1958-1968 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. After her husband’s death in 1971, Grebenak relocated to London leaving the art world behind and where she died in 1990.

US currency, liquor labels, detergent boxes, rotary dials, and life-sized manhole covers, Dorothy Grebenak used such iconography to create hooked-rugs that fused modern pop-culture with America’s pastoral history. Upending traditional distinctions between fine, folk, and decorative arts, Grebenak subverts the readymade tendencies of the Pop-era to establish a cheeky-irreverence all her own. While her work has clear overlaps with the themes found in the forthcoming Feminist Art of the later-1960s and 1970s, Grebenak’s production exists largely outside this dialogue. While incorporating similar themes, her Pop Art has less in common with the ideals and politics of Judy Chicago or Miriam Schapiro, and is not necessarily related to the more blatant cultural commentaries of Warhol or Lichtenstein. Instead, Grebenak has more in common with Robert Arneson or H.C Westermann, men who challenged perceptions of crafts and fine art. A self- taught practitioner, she bought books on rug-making in the late-1940s and began refining her creations shortly thereafter. The works were initially sold in the Brooklyn Museum gift shop, and later, garnering the attention of Allan Stone, were elevated to their appropriate status on the walls of a gallery.

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