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Out of the Shadow

One of the great innovators in “allover” painting, Lee Krasner eclipsed her own career in order to advocate for that of her husband, Jackson Pollock.

Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries

Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries, circa 1960–61, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914–1984, bulk 1942–1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution © 2017 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Lee Krasner’s Another Storm (1963) is nearly 15 feet wide and therefore big enough to justify her claim to a place in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, those maestros of the expansive canvas. Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and of course Jackson Pollock—Krasner’s husband until his death in a car crash in 1956—were among the Abstract Expressionists who abandoned the easel painting to work at a scale that verges, often, on that of the public mural. When the Museum of Modern Art sent selection of the paintings on an eight-city tour of Europe in 1958, critics were shocked by their sheer size. As a Spanish critic noted, one of Pollock’s canvases were only able to enter the Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporaneo, in Madrid, after the main doorway had been enlarged.

Among the 17 artists included in this show, the only woman was Grace Hartigan, a member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Krasner, who had found her distinctive variant on the style before the end of the 1940s, was unrepresented. She did, however, lend two of Pollock’s paintings to the exhibition, earning herself an acknowledgment as “Lee Krasner Pollock.” Even now, she is sometimes seen more as Mrs. Jackson Pollock than as a painter in her own right and a major contributor to the development of the first genuinely American art movement.

Krasner made the first of her “Little Image” canvases in 1946. With their small, flat forms deployed in rows, these come very close to qualifying as allover paintings—that is, they exchange the thrusts and counter-thrusts of a traditional composition for an expansive and potentially infinite field of imagery. Though the term was first applied to Pollock’s airy webs of dripped and spattered color, his brushwork had begun to imply alloverness several seasons earlier. Krasner’s “Little Image” paintings were strikingly original responses to these implications. She and Pollock stood as equals on the frontiers of pictorial possibility. If their equality is rarely noted it is in part because, toward the end of the 1940s, she set aside her own career to advance his. This was an extraordinary sacrifice, for Krasner was among the most promising painters in the New York art world of that era.

A Brooklyn native, she was born in 1908 into a family indifferent to art. Her interest in drawing and painting appeared early and yet, when quizzed by an interviewer in 1964, she could not account for it. Nonetheless, she believed that she would become a painter, and chose to study at Washington Irving, in Manhattan, the only New York high school that offered a major in art. Upon graduation, she enrolled in a women’s art program at the Cooper Union, the celebrated art and science institute on Astor Place. After several years, she went uptown to study at the National Academy of Design. The curriculum was doggedly conservative at all three schools. Only after long semesters of foundation work and drawing from plaster casts of ancient statues were students permitted to paint from living models. Krasner excelled at none of these disciplines, yet she persevered and eventually found her way into the present—not in the classroom but in exhibitions where she first saw the paintings of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso. and Georges Braque.

Her exposure to modernist art was, as she said, “like a bomb that exploded.” In the wake of this shock, art “came to life in some magical way.” Living in Greenwich Village now, she was primed for a place in the classes taught by Hans Hofmann, a German émigré and a painter with roots in the Parisian avant-garde. Invited in 1931 to teach in the United States, the rise of the Nazis persuaded him to stay. Settled permanently in New York by mid-decade, Hofmann opened a school on West Eighth Street, in the Village, and became a mentor to several generations of American painters. One of Hofmann’s best students, Krasner absorbed his belief that painting is not a discipline to be learned but a set of formal possibilities to be reinvented nonstop.

As a young Hofmannite, Krasner was at the center of Manhattan’s downtown art world—a milieu inhabited by such figures as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and John Graham, a painter and visionary impresario. Toward the end of 1941, Graham asked Krasner to lend work to a show of American and French painters he was organizing for the McMillen Gallery. The names of the participating artists, which ranged from Matisse and Picasso to de Kooning and Stuart Davis, were all familiar to Krasner, with one exception: Jackson Pollock. Puzzled, she tracked him down in his Eighth Street studio, invited herself in, and, as she said on many occasions, was “completely bowled over.” Soon they became a couple and Krasner took on, step by fateful step, responsibility not only for Pollock’s troubled life but for the advancement of his art, which in 1947 had surged into new territory. His drip-and-pour paintings had no precedent in the history of Western art.

Shy when sober and unmanageable when drunk, Pollock had no talent for art-world politics. Convinced of his importance, Krasner took on the task of persuading critics and dealers to take him seriously. Peggy Guggenheim was her greatest challenge and most significant early success. An American heiress who had immersed herself in the Parisian avant-garde, Guggenheim returned to New York soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1942, she opened Art of This Century, a gallery on Manhattan’s West 57th Street. At the urging of Krasner and others, including Marcel Duchamp, Guggenheim gave Pollock a solo exhibition; and not so much urged as badgered by Krasner, she loaned the couple enough money to buy a house on Fireplace Road, in Springs, a small settlement at the Eastern end of Long Island. Krasner hoped that, away from the Cedar Tavern and other Greenwich Village hangouts, Pollock would stay sober and focus on his art. For three years, her hope was realized, and it was during this time that Pollock broke through to his mature work.

Due in part to Krasner’s advocacy, Pollock became the subject of contending theories by Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, the two most influential art critics of the era. Asked in 1950 to select three of the six artists to represent the United States in that year’s Venice Biennale, Alfred Barr, of the Museum of Modern Art, chose Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock. The previous year, Life magazine had shown Pollock posing in front of a recent drip painting. Above, a banner headline asked, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”—a question prompted by the art-world buzz Krasner had done so much to generate. She helped in the studio, as well.

Talking in 1969 with the critic and biographer B. H. Friedman, Krasner recalled that Pollock would sometimes crop a canvas and, as confident as he felt when slinging his colors, wasn’t always sure how to take this irrevocable step. “Sometimes,” said Krasner, “he’d ask, ‘Should I cut it here? Should this be the bottom?’ He’d have long sessions of cutting and editing, some of which I was in on, but the final decisions were always his.” By making herself so important to Pollock, in the studio and in the larger world, Krasner eclipsed her own career. That she did so willingly should not, however, obscure either the intensity of her ambition or the significance of her achievement. Her version of the allover image is among the most powerful to emerge from the first generation of Abstract Expressionists.

At Hans Hofmann’s school, Krasner mastered a curriculum derived from modernist precedents: Cubist structure merged with Matissean color. His sensibility tinged by mysticism, Hofmann spoke of art as a high road to “the Real”—a concept he never explained, though his visionary writings suggest that it was an avant-gardist painter’s variation on the Platonic ideal of transcendent Truth. There is no sign that Krasner responded to this thread in the complex fabric of Hofmann’s teaching. She was bent chiefly on learning how to make a painting “work,” as New York artists were beginning to say in those days. This was a formalist approach, and Krasner’s command of her strictly pictorial options prepared her to understand, as few others did, Pollock’s achievements.

During the mid-1930s, Krasner painted cityscapes with a faint—one might say, carefully measured—tinge of Surrealism. Later in the decade, the formal lessons she learned from Hofmann inspired elegantly structured quasi-abstractions. Then she met Pollock and put his career ahead of her own. Yet she never entirely stopped painting. The “Little Image” paintings appeared and, after them, a series of experiments that Krasner found unsatisfactory and destroyed. She was a ruthless editor of her own work. As the 1950s began, she launched the first of her collage paintings. Invented by Picasso and Braque, collage brings with it the small scale and compositional devices of early Cubism. Krasner freed herself from this historical baggage by expanding the size of her paintings—she was working now on immense lengths of canvas unfurled across the floor—and by dismissing all traces of traditional composition. From this rejection of art-historical precedent emerged the fully realized alloverness foretold by the “Little Image” paintings.

Since the early Renaissance, Western painters have worked to reconcile disparate forms in balanced compositions. When they succeed, their images are not only harmonious; they also rest comfortably within the frame. When Krasner, Pollock, and other painters in New York dispensed with the machinery of the well-composed picture, their works were often seen as chaotic—fields of disorganized imagery devolving into a meaninglessness infinite. Yet the absence of an overarching composition does not necessarily produce chaos. In Krasner’s allover paintings, each form prompts the appearance of the next, generating a field held together by localized incidents of order. Rather than resolving forms into harmonies, stable and enclosed, she creates images that remain open and filled with energies that take them, in the sympathetic viewer’s imagination, far beyond the limits of the frame. Like Pollock and other allover painters of their generation, she charges her imagery with the optimistic openness of American space.

Pollock’s allover paintings assert his grandly idiosyncratic gesture. Still gives alloverness a dark, heavy, almost geological feel, and Newman built his open structures from an austere geometry. By startling contrast, the lines and blots and spatters of Krasner’s allover painting have an unmistakably floral quality. Yet there is nothing delicate, nothing conventionally feminine, about her allusions to petals and stems and leaves. Some of her paintings are quiet. Some are raucous. All of them draw us into zones of pulsing, organic energy. Her imagery is not feminine but female, as challenging as it is seductive, and heroic not only in ambition but also in its impact.

Nonetheless, to be a female artist is to be hindered. When feminist protest disrupted the 1970s Whitney Annual, Krasner had no patience with those who argued that the art world had gotten over its gender biases. Any women who says that she faces no discrimination should, declared Krasner, “have her face slapped.” By then she had been given a retrospective by the Whitechapel Gallery, in London, and in 1978 she was finally accorded her rightful place alongside Pollock, Rothko, and the others in Abstract Expressionism: “The Formative Years,” an exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, at Cornell University. In the decade before her death in 1984, Krasner received a full measure of honors, awards, and exhibitions. She had become, at last, a fully recognized member of her generation. Yet her fierceness never abated. It is there to be felt even in her most subtly painted canvases.

By Carter Ratcliff

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2018

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