[Image: Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede (1960). The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]
The exhibition Lee Krasner: Living Colour Barbican, London (30 May-1 September 2019; Schirnhalle, Frankfurt, 11 October 2019-12 January 2020; Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, 7 February-10 May 2020; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 29 May-6 September 2020) is the first European retrospective of Krasner’s work since 1965. It displays the contributions of one of the major figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Arranged over two floors and a touch confusingly laid out, the exhibition takes us from the 1920s to the 1970s. The large spaces in the downstairs galleries allow the big paintings to be hung and viewed adequately. There is a film which uses interviews with the artist to shed light on her opinions.
Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was from a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Born Lena Krassner, Krasner took an independent course from the start. She studied painting at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, New York. She attached herself to the idea of advanced art but in America in the late 1920s that was at that time plein air Impressionism. Her self-portrait of c. 1928 shows her skill and ambition to be thought of as avant-garde. Competence is evident in here other self-portraits and life drawings in conté crayon from her student years.
In the 1930s two events changed her approach to art. The first was the birth of the WPA, which (among other things) provided artists with work making murals to decorate public space and producing easel paintings for government buildings. Krasner was employed by the WPA and became a trusted employee, heading teams and taking a prominent role. She was given high praise by her instructors. At the time she did not see herself as a woman artist because women artists were if not common then not uncommon. For artists of the time, in a country that had no developed market for Modernist art and an economy reeling from the Great Depression, the WPA provided not only work and income, it forged a community of artists. Committees, unions, action groups and informal clubs brought artists together and allowed them to exchange professional advice and artistic ideas. Some photographs of montages by Krasner made in 1942 for window displays are projected in one gallery. They are effective at large size.
The second change was studying under Hans Hofmann, starting in 1937. Hofmann was a German émigré and a bona fide Modernist who painted abstract work (which he tended not to display, for fear of influencing his students). He treated Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Expressionism, Fauvism and abstract art as viable routes for artists. Previously only a handful of artists around Alfred Stieglitz and the 291 Gallery were standard-bearers for Modernism in America since the landmark Amory Show of 1913. While there a degree of credibility and seriousness attached to that group in the 1913-1933 period, they made little headway with the general public and even in the art world of the USA. Hofmann was a key figure, alongside artists such as the Mexican Muralists and Arshile Gorky, who advanced the idea of Modernism being the destiny of American art. She exhibited alongside respected artists and earned the reputation as a good painter. However, in the early 1940s the market for abstract and semi-abstract art was miniscule and prices – when work was sold – were low. She dabbled in Surrealism and produced paintings that owed a debt to the School of Paris but were creditable efforts.
In the early 1940s Krasner met Jackson Pollock. They started a romantic relation, married in 1945 and remained together until his death in 1956. They talked about art, shared materials and visited exhibitions together. It seems as though Krasner developed strategies to avoid provoking professional jealousy of Pollock. They moved out of New York City to Springs, Long Island, then a rural backwater a convenient distance from the city. They only had one large workspace – the barn. It was natural that Pollock should have it as he was earning more money from his art than Krasner was. Supported by Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s income kept the impoverished couple above water financially. She worked in the bedroom, which was small and had poor light. This was a factor in the creation of the Little Image series. These were abstract paintings that not only featured grids and patterns of little images but the pictures themselves were of modest or small size. This series is the highlight of the Barbican show. They are some of the most beautiful paintings to have emerged from Abstract Expressionism. They have glints of gem-like colour showing through webs of black webs, caused by the multiple layers and variety of colours used in tiny amounts. In Abstract No. 2 (1946-8) the black web dances in an inverted depiction of water – with the overlaying pattern in black not white. It is a great conceit.
Krasner was part of the trend to work in black and white paint, which was the rage in the late 1940s. She excelled at it. The all-over patterns in some paintings recall the white writing of Mark Tobey and the speckled paintings of Janet Sobel. These pictures have satisfying quality. The square line designs over dark colour in patterns is very much of its time and it recalls swatches of wallpaper design. This is not a denigration of these paintings, which are very dense and yet have a calligraphic astringency. The weighting of elements is brilliantly judged. One black-and-white block patterned painting (Untitled (c. 1948-9)) has been reworked with dark red dashes in a grid fashion. It seems a tribute to Mondrian’s New York paintings. Krasner met and greatly admired Mondrian.
[Image: Lee Krasner, Abstract No. 2 (1947). IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy IVAM]
Restrictions sometimes provide stimulating challenges. The constraints on size directed Krasner to produce her what turned out to be her best works. The lack of opportunity to expand meant that she compressed the energy and expanses into small pictures. That gives the pictures their density and heft. A related work is her Mosaic Table (1947), which is a superb work. Reproduction cannot convey the rich colours and satisfying range of textures. Getting close allows one to see the coins and keys among the tesserae and glass, placed within a circular surface within a wagon wheel which had been left at her new country home. It is a beautiful object. It is a shame that Krasner did not create more works along these lines. Krasner’s strength is that she was willing to take risks; her weakness was that did not allow herself enough time to work out a seam thoroughly.
[Image: Lee Krasner, Mosaic Table (1947) Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York]
The later collages used torn up drawings that Krasner had been dissatisfied. When she returned to work, she found that the torn strips had attractive qualities. The arrangement of diagonal elongated strips is redolent of Cubism, Cubo-Futurism and Russian abstract art. Collage appealed to other artists of the time, including Robert Motherwell. Krasner, Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler were friendly at this time.
Prophecy (1956) and related paintings are a little obvious. The unrelenting pink seems too close to Matisse, the drawn curving verticals are too close to Wilfredo Lam. Later collages on a large size seem to parallel Matisse’s decoupages. After Pollock’s death she started to use his studio and produced her largest paintings. Few are fully successful. Polar Stampede (1960) is full of lashed liquid paint. Standing in front of it is like drowning in a stormy sea – a peculiar suffocating quality that is perhaps unintended and memorable even if it is not especially pleasant. However, the thinner works, were the raw canvas shows through are less satisfying. Krasner works best when her surfaces have depth in two or more layers and some kind of tensile strength of mark-making. The drawn calligraphic paintings of the 1960s are slight. Play is made of the fact that Clement Greenberg disapproved of the works of 1960, even though they went on to be praised. But Greenberg was correct. These are weak pieces. The brown colour is disagreeable, the surfaces lightly worked, the absence of palette variation a problem, the sizes too large. These are not good paintings. Too often one gets the impression these large pictures are flailings – spattered loops dancing in space which are made with the hope that brio will carry off the work. The density and tension of her best art is sorely missed here.
[Image: Lee Krasner, Another Storm (1963), Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]
Another Storm (1963) is better. Technically similar to Polar Stampede, the alizarin relieves the claustrophobia and the mark-making knits the surface satisfactorily. Unfortunately, the painting has suffered extensive cracking. Krasner welcomed the change in fashion when it advanced hard-edge abstract at the end of the 1960s. Pop Art and a reaction against the stained surfaces of Colour-Field painting – along with the rise of Minimalism – had revived sharp lines and flat planes of colour in the painting of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These pictures work better than the preceding period, but one still has to like geometric abstraction to warm to them. The late collages include a series made out of sliced life drawings, cut into slivers. There is a gallery with a selection of works on paper, which feature staining and calligraphic signs and biomorphic marks.
Krasner died in 1984, while her solo retrospective was touring the USA. She was receiving the attention she had long deserved. The curators acknowledge that Krasner’s status as a woman painter has complicated the reception of her work. In 1945 she rejected an offer to participate in the exhibition The Women. She did not feel an automatic affinity with other women painters. The was tough and self-reliant in her marriage to a major painter and she was just as impervious to her colleagues, male and female. Not least, the shadow of Jackson Pollock – one of the most influential painters in history – has inevitably fallen over Krasner. Happily, it is easy to judge her as an independent talent without reference to Pollock. On the quality of her best work, Krasner well deserves her place as a founder of Abstract Expressionism. Her participation in the touchstones of the New York School experience and her innate abilities make her a key figure in the history of American abstraction. This exhibition is a fine and long overdue tribute to an important painter.
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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