Dorothy Grebenak’s artistic work was unconventional. To begin with, she was a married woman in the 1950s and 1960s making her own money, secondly, her subjects were detergent labels, manhole covers, and baseball cards, nothing particularly special or uncommon, and thirdly all her work was made in the medium of fiber arts, specifically hooked rugs. Nowadays her art would be called “cool” and “artsy” but back then people thought of it as just some cute little rugs to place in the living room. Most people didn’t see her work as actual art. It was just a rug after all. But the pieces Dorothy Grebenak made were creative, detailed, and full of hard work.
Dorothy Grebenak was a female pop artist in the 1950s and 1960s. She worked exclusively in the medium of rugs and her subjects were completely ordinary objects. Very little is known about her personal life. She was born in 1913 in Oxford Nebraska. She married another artist, a man named Louis Grebenak, who was a muralist in the Great Depression for the Work Progress Administration but later became a hard edge, abstract painter. She worked as a teacher in Brooklyn, while she taught herself rug making from books and trial and error in the late 1940s. These early works of hers were in the Brooklyn Museum of Art but not in the galleries. They were sold in the gift shop, where she was discovered by her later art dealer Allan Stone. She made rugs throughout the 50s and 60s, ending her career in 1971 when she moved to London after the death of her husband. She died in England in 1990.
Her work came in three types; a common object or symbol, something inspired by what was happening in art at the time, or something more abstract and in the vein of her husband’s work. Her abstract work was blocky, colorful, and unlike her usual creations, few of them were made. Her work based on what was happening in art was her take on what other artists were doing. When Andy Warhol screen printed money, she made a rug of a two-dollar bill. When Roy Lichtenstein got in some hot water over a piece where he took a comic panel, changed the text, removed the artist’s signature, and called it his own piece, she made a rug of the panel with the original text. It is hard to say what her intentions were with either of these pieces but it is obvious that she knew what was going on in the world of art around her. The pieces of ordinary, common objects were what she made most and are for what she is best known. She would make rugs out of liquor and detergent labels, manhole covers, and eye charts. These were meant to be things that were familiar to those who saw the rugs. Though she often chose subjects similar to those of Warhol, her pieces had a different meaning behind them. She wanted to blur the line of what is considered art. Back then and even to a certain extent now, rug making was considered more of a craft or hobby for girls than an art form. Her medium of choice was literally meant to be walked on and her subjects were common and plain objects. Could that really be called art? Some thought yes and hung them up in galleries, others disagreed, thinking of them as home decor and placing them in their kitchens. Prominent names and collectors such as the Rockefellers bought her work but they placed them on the ground and walked on them. The rugs treated like regular rugs were worn down and destroyed beyond repair. This means we will unfortunately never be able to see all the amazing and creative work she made.
The question of if what she was doing could be considered art along with the fact that she was a married woman in the 1950s and 60s with a job were the main reasons she never got the acclaim or spot in art history she deserved for her work as one of the few moderately successful female pop artists. Even though she was featured in several exhibits and had some solo exhibits while she was actively making art after she stopped making rugs when her husband died she was all but forgotten by the art scene. It wasn’t until very recently in 2010 when her work was part of a traveling exhibit called Seductive Subversion: Women in Pop Art that she and her art have come back into the public eye. Since then she has been featured in two exhibits, DIS-FUNCTIONAL in 2014 and Two Views of Pop in spring of 2017. While she is not the only female pop artist to have her role in the movement vanish from public memory the moment she left, she was certainly a more extreme case, not having her work exhibited for over 40 years. Pop Art, while an experimental and groundbreaking time for the arts, was still definitely the male-dominated place art had always been. Amazing artists all over the world didn’t have the chance to get the name recognition of Andy Warhol, never had a moment to shine, and show people their work, just because they were women. Dorothy, sadly, was among their ranks as a forgotten artist of this time.
The overlooking of Dorothy’s art for decades is a tragedy. Her gender, her medium, and her subjects were all unfairly judged. She was not taken seriously as the creative and innovative artist she was. As her work has come back in the public eye, people have been able to see her ‘cute little rugs’ for the art they truly are.