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.
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.
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.
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.