La vie haute en couleur de Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner 
Palingenesis, 1971 
Öl auf Leinwand
 208.3 x 340.4 cm
Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York
Foto: Kasmin Gallery, New York
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Lee Krasner – A colourful life lived her own way

« I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent. »

Lee Krasner

Before ever meeting her famous husband, the American artist Lee Krasner established herself as a prominent figure in the Post-war American art scene. As one of a group of artists who took European modern art and created their own Abstract movement, Krasner’s contribution to making New York the centre of the art world after the Second World War has often been overlooked. 

When she married Jackson Pollock in 1945 aged 37, her own accomplishments often took a back seat against those of the volatile, East Coast trailblazer. The prominence she gained in the US, despite notorious challenges, has not, until now, been fully recognised amongst a European audience (there’s only one of her paintings in a collection in the UK, the 1961 piece “Gothic Landscape” held by the Tate. Another one is in Bern’s Kunstmuseum). The solo retrospective currently touring Europe aims to change perceptions and restate Krasner’s place in art history.

Lee Krasner Living Colour opened to critical acclaim last May at London’s Barbican, and can currently be seen at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. Hosting Krasner’s work in this iconic museum dedicated to the Swiss-German painter indicates a renewed impetus in acknowledging Krasner’s importance as a pivotal artist of Abstract Expressionism. Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle also ran the exhibition and the show travels to the Guggenheim Bilbao later in the year. 

It is the first showing of Krasner’s work in Switzerland since the Krasner-Pollock joint exhibition held at the Kunstmuseum Bern in 1989 and covers her fifty-year career. In its 2017 group show 10 Americans. After Paul Klee, the Swiss museum presented works by Pollock, Motherwell, Tobey, Gottlieb, Noland et al. Today, Krasner has the limelight to herself, and she steals it brilliantly.

“This is so good you would not know it was done by a woman”

Vue de l’exposition Lee KrasnerLiving Colour
Zentrum Paul Klee, Berne, 2020 © Alexia Green

Krasner never established a signature style. Instead, her oeuvre reveals a constant reinvention of her pictorial language, acting as a gauge for her response as an artist to the highs and lows of her life.  Using different mediums and styles – there are pieces in Masonite, lacquer, fabric and a mosaic table from 1947 made from remnants from her life with Pollock – her work revives in its resourcefulness.  Large and small oil paintings seduce with bursts of joyful colour, or ache in sombre tones. It is easy to feel the charge of Krasner’s emotion coursing through the layers of paint. 

Assured early portraits made when she was a young woman and searching for her own identity depict the resolute gaze of a girl who had decided at fourteen years old that she wanted to be an artist. Described as caustic, disputatious, unique, candid and brilliant by those who knew her, these self-portraits hint at traits which would make her one of the most relevant painters of postwar modernism in the United States. 

As Lena, or Lenore Krassner, born in 1908 in Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrants, she enrolled at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, the only public school in New York to offer art classes for girlsDropping the second ‘s’ from her name, Krasner went on to study at the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union.

Lee Krasner, um 1938
Fotograf: unbekannt

In 1937, she joined German painter Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts in New York. Hofmann was teaching the principles of Cubist abstraction which Krasner applied. She also drew on her own, previous observations of the Cubist masters like Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse. 

“This is so good you would not know it was done by a woman” Hofmann famously remarked of her results. During a later interview Krasner exclaimed “You don’t know quite what to do with the damn thing.”

She met Mondrian at a party in February 1941. Discovering a shared passion for jazz music, they frequently went out dancing. Interviewed in 1978 for New York’s Art World series, Krasner recounted “The complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense, it was hard for me to do!” She also revealed that her other outstanding dance partner Pollock “was ghastly and stepped all over me.”

That year, Krasner exhibited at the Fifth Annual Exhibition of the American Abstract Artists.

“Leger and Mondrian were visiting here and I was then a member of the American Abstract Artists… We had an exhibition once a year and on this occasion, both Mr. Leger and Mr. Mondrian were invited to partake in our exhibition.”  

On seeing Krasner’s work, the Dutch painter commented “You have a very strong inner rhythm. You must never lose it”.

“I was overwhelmed, bowled over, that’s all.”

Earlier in 1941, Krasner had met Jackson Pollock at the McMillen Gallery. He was the only painter in the exhibition that she had never heard of.  In 1942, proving her own artistic status, Krasner was picked to oversee the design and production of  large-scale window displays in New York for a War Services Project.  Her team of assistants included Pollock.

On visiting his studio around the corner from her own, she said “I was overwhelmed, bowled over, that’s all. I saw all those marvelous paintings. I felt as if the floor was sinking…”

They married in 1945 and moved out to a farmhouse in Springs, Long Island. Pollock worked in the spacious barn while Krasner worked out of an upper bedroom converted into a studio. “We found a harmonious rhythm” Krasner said. “Jackson always treated me as an artist… he always acknowledged, was aware of what I was doing… I was a painter before I knew him, and he knew that, and when we were together, I couldn’t have stayed with him one day if he didn’t treat me as a painter.”

In that same year, she exhibited in A Problem for Critics along with Pollock, Mark Rothko, Picasso, Hans Arp and Joan Miró. She was the only female participant.

Lee Krasner 
Abstract No. 2, 1946 – 1948
Öl auf Leinwand
 52 x 59 cm
IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat, Spanien
Foto: IVAM
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

The “Little Images” produced from their first year in Springs revealed a new, highly personal style and marked a move away from Cubism and the European tradition. These small-scale paintings which she continued to create until 1950 initially applied a freer style similar to Pollock’s all-over technique (they both acknowledged one another’s influence on their own work). Unlike Pollock who favoured enamel and industrial paints, Krasner used oil, applied more evenly and in a controlled manner. Colour was already an important theme in her work. The later images would take on strict “hieroglyphic” grid compositions partly informed by the Hebrew language which Krasner was taught to write as a child. 

Krasner enjoyed critical acclaim in the US throughout her lifetime. Some of her early “Little Images” caught the eye of Clement Greenberg. She remembers the influential art critic telling her “That’s hot! It’s cooking!”

Ripping up and starting over – the collage paintings

Krasner’s recognition was hard-won against the many prejudices of the day; as a woman facing the sexism inherent in the art world and as a Jewish, first generation immigrant.  Life too with Pollock was far from easy. By 1950 and suffering the continual violent outbursts of an alcoholic husband, Krasner was starting to feel the effects of living in his shadow.  When Pollock left Betty Parsons Gallery because he wasn’t selling enough work, Krasner also had to leave, “it took me almost a year to recover from that shock before I could work again… I was kicked out of the gallery because I was Mrs. Jackson Pollock.”

Lee Krasner 
Bird Talk, 1955
Collage aus Ölfarbe, Papier und Textil auf Baumwollduck
 147.3 x 142.2 cm
Privatbesitz, New York
Foto: Sotheby’s
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Krasner responded with a series of new black and white drawings which she subsequently tore up, re-glued, added in her own unsold paintings from the Parsons show as well as sackcloth, newspaper, heavy photo paper and bits of Pollock’s discarded drawings.  She spent three years working on the pieces, firstly small elements consisting of neutral colours and later incorporating larger, vibrant forms. Two compositions Bald Eagle and Bird Talk from 1955 soar noisily in bright pink, orange, peach.  These new collages, Greenberg proclaimed were “a major addition to the American art scene of the era.”

On August 12th 1956, Krasner was in Paris when she received news of the car crash that killed Pollock and his lover’s friend.  Still sitting on her easel when she left for France was Prophecy, a composition of awkward, fleshy forms, an eye, disjointed body parts and angular black contours painted that summer when Pollock’s alcoholism was worsening. The new work “disturbed her greatly”.

A few weeks after the funeral. Krasner went back to painting. Her period of despair saw a return to the figurative style reminiscent of Cubism and Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. When asked how she could work in her state of mourning, she replied “Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking – do I want to live? My answer is yes – and I paint.”

Lee Krasner 
Polar Stampede, 1960
Öl auf Leinwand
 243.8  x 412.4 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Doris and Donald Fisher
Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Foto: Kasmin Gallery, New York © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation

Night Journeys and searching for colour 

Moving back to their home in Springs, Krasner took over Pollock’s studio.  The greater space gave her a freedom to paint with much greater size and scope.  Suffering from chronic insomnia and only working through the night under artificial light, she reverted to using raw umber and an off-white. The exhibition presents several of these largescale works from her Night Journeys series. Painted in this pared down palette,  Polar Stampede and The Eye is the First Circle from 1960 still exude a gestural rhythm and energy despite her aggravated state of grief (after losing her husband, Krasner’s mother had passed away in 1959 which propelled the artist into a period of deep depression).

By nature vivacious and passionate about her art, colour crept back into her new paintings. In the early 1960s when she broke her right arm in East Hampton, she learnt to paint left-handed, squeezing paint directly from the tube and applying with her fingertips.

The Primary Series which followed exudes a newfound confidence. Another Storm from 1963 retains the reduced palette of her Night Journeys but with its alternative deep crimson and white lines bridges the gap to the bold blues, greens, oranges and magentas which dominate works such as IcarusThrough Blue, Courtship, Siren  and Happy Lady.  In the late 60s, she produced four series of works called Seed, Earth, Water and Hieroglyphs, experimenting with gouache and textured paper. Using colour, Krasner dared to go on.  

Vue de l’exposition Lee KrasnerLiving Colour
Zentrum Paul Klee, Berne, 2020 © Alexia Green

Palingenesis

Twelve new paintings were presented at the Marlborough Gallery in April 1973. Received positivelythey showed Krasner intent on finding a different style and continuing what she called her “process of making art”. Moving away from the biomorphic, gestural pieces of the Primary Series, they are sharp-edged, starkly contrasting compositions. The stately Palingenesis, a riot of raspberry pink and green carries a poignant reference to the Greek term for ‘rebirth’. 

Reworked collages using charcoal life drawings from when Krasner studied with Hans Hofmann reappear in the Eleven Ways series. Shown at Pace gallery in New York in 1977, these unusual collages feature cut nudes fashioned by scissors into angular forms. 

 “Lee Krasner’s paintings truly are magnificent! She always found new ways to create abstract expressionistic works that radiate an incredible liveliness and power.” 

Fabienne Eggelhöfer, Chief Curator Zentrum Paul Klee

Krasner died in 1984. Seeing the vibrant and meaningful legacy that she gifted to the art world confirms the resilience and determination of an artist whose personal pursuit of creativity has ensured her own shining art star status. Crucially, it reminds audiences just how exceptional an artist Krasner was.

Her lifetime’s achievements within a male-dominated art milieu are to be championed. Today, they speak louder than those of her male contemporaries to a modern audience where gender-imbalance in the arts has become an urgent narrative. Krasner famously stated “I’m an artist – not a ‘woman artist’ ; not an ‘American artist’.“  

Perhaps her story will help redress the balance for artists of any gender or ethnicity. Surely she would say “I’m in!” First though, let’s go dancing Lee Krasner’s way.

Lee Krasner, Springs, 1972
Fotograf: Irving Penn
© The Irving Penn Foundation

Lee Krasner. Living Colour
Zentrum Paul Klee
Berne
Jusqu’au 16 août 2020
www.zpk.org

AND

From 18 September 2020 to 10 January 2021 www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus

Toute reproduction interdite
© http://www.arteez.ch 2020