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One California Painter

The Laguna Art Museum puts some 70 works by the Ukrainian-born, California-based artist Peter Krasnow.

Peter Krasnow, K.-13, 1977

Peter Krasnow, K.-13, 1977 (waterways), oil on board, 32 x 39.5 inches

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In 1922, Peter Krasnow had an exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club of landscapes he had painted in a rented studio outside New York City. There, supposedly, a critic asked if he had ever been to California. Krasnow had moved to New York with his wife Rose Bloom (a writer) after he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1916. In the city, he lived in a tenement, removed from the beauty of nature, a vital source of his inspiration. Renting the studio had proven helpful to his creative output. The critic’s suggestion, too, must have made an impact on the artist: that same year, Krasnow and Bloom arrived in Southern California.

Krasnow’s relocation had an indelible influence on his art. In New York, his paintings often featured street scenes, and his palette was rich and dark. In his 1919 oil on canvas Portrait of a Woman, the sitter is adorned with a gauzy veil and fancy jewels. A heavy-looking crimson tapestry with dark accents, which serves as her backdrop, suggests the artist’s home region, the Ukraine. After his cross-country move to Los Angeles, Krasnow adopted a brighter palette. The light and landscape of the American West imprinted itself on his work. A 1925 oil-on-canvas portrait of Edward Weston (Edward Henry Weston), pictures the photographer in a dark cloak, but over his shoulder there is an expanse of land, mountains, and sky—the California landscape that begged to be painted.

Both paintings will be on view in “Peter Krasnow: Maverick Modernist,” at the Laguna Art Museum (June 26–September 25). The exhibition, which features nearly 50 paintings and 20 sculptures, will present a comprehensive look at Krasnow and his oeuvre—in fact, his first museum survey in some 40 years. In 2000 the Laguna Art Museum received a gift of 517 works by the artist—177 paintings, 54 sculptures, and 386 drawings—nearly doubling the small museum’s holdings. Selections from its collection of Krasnow’s work will be on display in all their glory, supplemented by loans from public and private collections. The museum, which is dedicated to the art history of Southern California, seems perhaps the most appropriate place in which to mount an exhibition of this pioneer of Los Angeles modernism.

Krasnow was born Feivish Reisberg in 1886 in Novohrad-Volynskyi, Ukraine. His learned to grind and blend colors through an apprenticeship with his father, an interior decorator. At the time, an appetite for art-making could not be sated in the Ukraine, and Krasnow emigrated to Boston in 1907, and later moved to Chicago, where he supported himself throughout art school as a maintenance man.

When he and Bloom arrived in California, Krasnow built a studio on land purchased from Weston. The painter and photographer remained friends until Weston’s death, and Krasnow fell in with the small but lively community of artists in Southern California, which included Henrietta Shore, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, and the architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra.

A Guggenheim grant took Krasnow to France in 1930. After a brief stop in Paris, he again fled the urban environment for a more naturally abundant setting and settled in the Dordogne region. There he created a series of watercolors and paintings with the French countryside as his subject. Krasnow said in a 1975 interview that the landscape “just cried out to be painted.” The paintings were exhibited in Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1934—the year Krasnow left France to return to Los Angeles.

Back in California, his work changed again. The next 10 years were devoted to making wooden sculptures he called “demountables.” Hewn from trees felled on Krasnow’s own property (such as walnut, cypress, avocado, and citrus), the sculptures incorporated interconnected geometric pieces of wood. The “demountables” celebrate the unique organic qualities of the wood—its grain and color—but also organize the wild materials in highly ordered, geometric combinations. They seem conversant with tribal objects and Mondrian paintings. Untitled (Demountable), a 1938 sculpture in “Maverick Modernist” is made from walnut, mahogany, oak, paduak, and goncalo alves, and features three interconnected vertical elements—its tallest at nearly nine feet—that stand with the majesty of obelisks. Untitled (Demountable) is so of the earth and yet so polished, it’s hard to decide whether it would best fit in a Native American camp, a 19th-century German Catholic church, or next to a Wendell Castle desk.

In 1944, in the midst of World War II, Krasnow reengaged with painting. He began creating colorful, highly geometric and structural abstract pieces, which borrowed iconography from his Jewish heritage. One 1971 oil on board painting, K.-8, seems to mimic the structure of the Tree of Life, the central mystical symbol of the Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism. K.-9 1953 (Life Line), a lively abstraction from 1953, features a large number of small shapes that seem to nod to Matisse’s cutouts, light the way for Hockney, and take the appearance of Hebrew letters all at once.

Krasnow, who after returning from France remained in Southern California for the rest of life, is closely related to Los Angeles. Yet, when looking at his work, as viewers will get to this summer at the Laguna Art Museum’s exhibition, there is the spirit of many places present at once. In a 1975 interview, Krasnow said of his paintings, “Their visible concept may ostensibly reveal characteristics of Time and Place, but the roots reach deep into ethnic strains of ancient culture through which the archetype emerges as indicator of the universal and eternal urge toward creation.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2016

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