No American art dealer has a better reputation than Betty Parsons. By the time of her death, in 1982, she had come to be regarded as an emblematic figure, as much for her astuteness in recognizing new artists as for her famous inability to hold onto them. Her best discoveries always seemed to be leaving her, and the fault was entirely her own; at business, she was nearly hopeless. Parsons managed to keep her gallery afloat for a full three decades—it opened in the fall of 1946, at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street, and in 1963 moved across Fifth Avenue, to 24 West Fifty-seventh Street, where it remained until 1978—but today when we think of the Parsons Gallery, we tend to think of one specific moment, of the dramatic period around 1950, when most of the Abstract Expressionists belonged to the gallery and were painting the pictures that would set art history on its ear.

Parsons was an appealing woman. An artist herself who...


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