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.
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.
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.
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.