Art Chronicles: Lee Krasner

From several interviews in the later years of her life it seems clear that Lee Krasner was – in terminology she would almost certainly have appreciated and understood – a tough old broad. And just as well. A female painter in what was predominantly – we’re talking New York in the years following WW2  – a man’s world, she had to push and struggle to be acknowledged and for her work to be seen. As she said when comparing her situation with that of the Abstract Expressionist women painters who came to prominence in her wake …

… the next generation, [Grace] Hartigan, [Joan] Mitchell, [Helen] Frankenthaler had an easier time of it. Galleries existed, dealers. We didn’t have that. We had to create all this. The next generation had an open door. This has all happened in a short passage of time.

Krasner wasn’t given her first retrospective until 1965, and then in London – at the Whitechapel Gallery – and not New York – and she would have to wait another ten years for a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The current Barbican exhibition, curated by Eleanor Nairne and designed by David Chipperfield Architects, brings together some 100 pieces, sufficient to give full rein to the range of Krasner’s work and, hopefully, help to ensure that she can no longer be dismissed as the wife of Jackson Pollock and a footnote in the history of Abstract Expressionism.

Born in 1908, the youngest of the six children of Jewish Russian parents who had left Europe for the United States and settled in Brooklyn, Krasner had decided at the age of 14 that she wanted to be an artist and, until her death in 1984 at the age of 76, that’s what she was. Beginning as an orthodox figure painter – and there are some well-executed examples here – she was introduced to cubism by her teacher at the time, Hans Hofmann.

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Lee Krasner at Hans Hofmann’s school of art, 1939

Hofmann aside, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian were her early influences and, to a greater or lesser extent, remained so for the rest of her life. And – a bonus – when Mondrian came to New York and she got to know him, they discovered a mutual love of jazz …

We were both mad for jazz and we used to go to jazz spots together … We used to go to a Café Uptown or Café Downtown and dance. … I was a fairly good dancer, that is to say I can follow easily, but the complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense … I nearly went mad trying to follow this man’s rhythm.

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Lee Krasner : Milkweed, 1955

But soon there was another set of influences to respond to, and – in a quite different, more intimately physical sense – another man. She first met Jackson Pollock in the early 40s, when they were working on a project for the WPA.

I resisted at first, but I must admit, I didn’t resist very long. I was terribly drawn to Jackson, and I fell in love with him – physically, mentally – in every sense of the word. I had a conviction when I met Jackson that he had something important to say.  When we began going together, my own work became irrelevant. He was the important thing. I couldn’t do enough for him.

Convinced, as she was, of Pollock’s ‘genius’, Krasner readily took on the task of promoting  his work – not least, as she thought it had a better chance of selling than her own and money was always a problem. But accepting a secondary role in the relationship did not mean she was willing to step away altogether from her own work as an artist.

For me, it was quite enough to continue working, and his success, once he began to sell, gave us an income of sorts and made me ever so grateful because, unlike wives of other artists who had to go out and support them, I could continue painting myself.

I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspect of the art world, continue my painting and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work and other things would have to make their turn. Now rightly or wrongly, I made my decisions.

The relationship with Pollock became less and less easy,  threatened as it was by his increasing dependence on alcohol, his womanising, and his occasionally violent temper. It was against this background that Krasner began working on the painting later called Prophecy, which is placed in a central position in the Barbican show, and represents a turning away (or moving on) from collage and the lingering influence of Mondrian to something looser and fleshier – pink limbs and body parts outlined in heavy black – abstraction now with more than a hint of figuration. Echoes of Picasso, perhaps, and Matisse, as well as Pollock himself. Hints of de Kooning.

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Lee Krasner : Prophecy, 1956

The canvas took Krasner herself by surprise. “The painting disturbed me enormously and I called Jackson to look at it. He assured me it was a good painting, and said not to think about it, just continue … do another … ” In time, she would do three more, all on display here, but right then it was left on the easel when Krasner, hoping to clear some ground perhaps between Pollock and herself, took a trip to Paris alone. It was when she was there that she received the news that Pollock was dead: drunk, he had crashed the car he had insisted on driving into a tree, killing himself and the friend of the woman with whom he had been having an affair, who was herself the only one to survive.

Krasner could have fallen apart: instead she continued to work. She moved from her smaller studio to the barn where Pollock had done his vast ‘drip’ paintings, and, with that extra space, her own paintings became bigger, more akin in some respects to Pollock’s own work, its movement and patterning, its repetitions. The first group of paintings she made were dark, tortured exercises in umber, swirling circles and slashing lines; reflections, it’s reasonable to assume, of her state of mind. But this passed and soon she was luxuriating in colour, a bright crimson that suggested life much as umber had suggested death. And when she fell and broke her right arm, she simply learned to paint with her left. Tough old broad, indeed!

Lee Krasner: Living Colour is at the Barbican Art Gallery until September 1st, after which it tours to Frankfurt, Switzerland and Spain.

 

 

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Art Chroncicles: Killed Negatives & the F.S.A.

Lange

Much as, for many people, Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, epitomises the suffering and endurance of the American heartland during the Great Depression, so this and other photographs that Lange took when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration in the 30s have come to be more or less fully representative of her career. This despite the fact that half a lifetime and more than half of that career were ahead of her.

After working for the FSA, she was hired by the War Location Authority to document the internment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbour and then collaborated with Ansel Adams in documenting the lives of shipyard workers, men and, increasingly, women, who had moved to California to work in the booming wartime shipping industry in the final years of WW2. In the 1950s. together with her writer-son, Daniel Dixon, she produced an in-depth portrait of rural life in Ireland, before returning to America and working on photo essays dealing with inequalities in the justice system and the effects of large-scale government land projects on local communities.

Lange died in 1965 at the age of seventy, just a few months before a retrospective exhibition of her work opened at MOMA in New York. She wrote the following as a postscript to the show …

I would like to add a line to encourage persons interested in using a camera to concern themselves with making photographs of the life which surrounds them, to raise his [or her] sights to include what’s going on about us, to the camera to show this awareness.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing [in conjunction with Vanessa Winchip: And Time Folds] is at the Barbican until September 2nd. And, running until August 26, there is a very  interesting exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which gives considerable insight into how Lange and the other photographers employed by the F.S.A. – Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott et al – were directed, encouraged and generally managed by Roy E. Stryker, who worked for the Farm Security Administration as Chief of the Historical Section of the Division of Information.

As Stryker later described himself …

I’m the guy who sat in the middle … I kept the store … My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan … I was one-half editor, one-half papa, one-half hell-raiser, one-half publishing agent, and occasionally psychoanalyst without portfolio.

He may not have had a plan when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his tenure, but, if indeed that were the case, one soon became clear. Arthur Rothstein, the first of Stryker’s hirings, was left in little doubt …

It was our job to document the problems of the depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

Here’s an extract from a letter Stryker sent to another photographer, Jack Delano …

Please watch out for autumn pictures, as calls are beginning to come in for them and we are short. These should be rather the symbol of Autumn … cornfields, pumpkins … Emphasize the idea of abundance – the ‘horn of plenty’ – and pour maple syrup over it – you know, mix well with white clouds and put on a sky-blue platter. I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but to hell with it. Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler on our doorstep? You are nothing but camera fodder to me.

As becomes clear from the photographs and letters on display at the Whitechapel, Stryker was quick to dismiss a photo that, to his mind, didn’t reinforce the impression of America in the Depression that he was after, just as he would discard an image he considered to be inadequately  focussed or badly framed. These – and this is reflected in the name of the show – he ‘killed’ by punching holes through the negative – an act which Dorothea Lange considered an act of vandalism, but that didn’t stop him. Any more than it stopped him sending strongly-worded letters to his men and women in the field, criticising them for what he perceived as their lack of technical skill. And one of the pleasures of the exhibition is deciding on which grounds – poetical, artistic or technical – Styrker had decided to make his cull.

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NB . The Stryker and Rothstein quotes come from Paul Hendrickson’s excellent book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott [Knopf, 1992] Currently out of print but ready available and, as is the case with all of Hendrickson’s  books, well worth reading.