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The Fly in the Ointment: Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, “Portrait in Green” (1966), oil on canvas, 55 1⁄4 x 94 1⁄4 inches (all images © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery) (click to enlarge)
One view of Lee Krasner’s career is that there is no dramatic rupture marking the emergence of something new — at least not like the widely celebrated ones that occurred in the work of her husband, Jackson Pollock, or with Willem de Kooning, or, later, Philip Guston. This is just one of the many judgments coloring our view of what is clearly a remarkable career, beginning in the early 1930s and culminating with her death in 1984.

The other caveat is that Krasner does not fit comfortably into any of the narratives of Abstract Expressionism. She never became a gestural painter armed with a loaded brush (de Kooning and Franz Kline). She never developed into a field painter (Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman), or a geometric one (Ad Reinhardt), nor did she work in a large, all-over mode during the late 1940s. The point of these and other damning reservations is to diminish Krasner’s independence and strength, to deny her singular achievement.

Lee Krasner, “Self Portrait” (c. 1931–33), oil on linen, 18 x 16 inches (click to enlarge)

The vitriol Krasner inspired was made abundantly clear to me when the traveling exhibition, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, organized by Barbara Rose for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York (December 20, 1984–February 12, 1985). According to the press release, the installation of Krasner at MoMA was “supervised by William Rubin, Director of the Museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, in collaboration with Ms. Rose.” I have always wondered if Rubin was responsible for placing an enormous Frank Stella by the entrance to the Krasner show, as if to point out that she did not work on a heroic scale while Pollock was alive.

This was just one of the many prejudices Krasner had to face and she knew it. Her skin must have been as thick as an elephant’s to have put up with all the crap she had to face. Once, when asked if she had seen the film Reds (1981), about the American journalist John Reed and his sympathy for the Russian Revolution, she said that she didn’t need to see it because she had lived through it. She wasn’t interested in becoming a historical figure, the wife of Pollock. On another occasion she was having lunch with three art historians and told them that the only reason they were interested in her was because they wanted to enhance their careers after she was dead.

This uncompromising toughness was present from the beginning, as evidenced by “Self-Portrait” (1931–33) in the exhibition Lee Krasner, at Robert Miller Gallery (April 21–June 4, 2016). Krasner has turned her head towards the viewer (or mirror). One eye looks out, while the other remains in shadow, unseen. She is wary, which is not a state we usually associate with self-portraits. Who can blame her? She already knew the deck was stacked against her in more ways than one.

Lee Krasner, “Nude Study from Life” (1938), charcoal on paper, 25 1⁄2 x 20 inches

One of the amazing things about Krasner was that she was not afraid of strong men and, more importantly, the goal was independence rather than dependence. She enrolled in classes taught by Hans Hofmann in 1937 and stayed until the early 1940s. There are two charcoal drawings in one room of the gallery from that period, both from 1938, titled “Nude Study from Life.” They are paired with two later works, “Past Conditional” (1976) and “Imperfect Indicative” (both 1976). In the later works Krasner cut up charcoal drawings she made when studying with Hofmann and collaged them onto a large linen surface.

Lee Krasner, “Past Conditional” (1976), collage on canvas, 27 x 49 inches (click to enlarge)

In order to move forward, Krasner had to destroy the past, make something out of what she destroyed. These works were done twenty years after Pollock had killed himself and one of his passengers while driving drunk. The cubist-influenced drawings were done early in her career, before she married Pollock. Many of the cut-out shapes are sharp triangles, like a blade, evoking the scissor’s sharpness. “Past Conditional” and “Imperfect Indicative” are disturbing because they are the result of Krasner’s willful destruction of her own work. The feeling emanating from these works is necessity: she had to rearrange her past in order to move on. She couldn’t have cared less that critics thought painting was dead or that Pollock was its apotheosis, superseded by Pop Art and Minimalism.

In these collages, Krasner’s decision to cut up examples of early work is both original and distressing. She refuses to be nostalgic. They are collages on a huge scale, and they are not collages at all, at least as we think of them. They explore the figure-ground relationship, among other things. They feel bigger and certainly more indecorous than any collage made by Robert Motherwell, who was the first to break the mold in terms of scale. It seems to me that we have yet to really deal with these challenging works, and her use of collage throughout her later career.

We know that Pollock was self-destructive, but Krasner was not. There are no stories of her drinking, as there are of other Abstract Expressionists, including some of the women. There are no tales of her losing control. Known for being highly critical of her own work, and for destroying many of her works, Krasner changed paths a number of times throughout her career, an arc that has divided critics. She didn’t internalize destructiveness, she externalized it, which goes against our romantic view of the Abstract Expressionists and their hard-drinking ways.

Lee Krasner, “Palingenesis” (1971), oil on canvas, 82 x 134 inches (click to enlarge)

In “Untitled (Surrealist Composition)” (1935-36), a work done on blue paper, Krasner introduces the motif of disembodied eyes, which she returns to years later, in major works such as “The Eye Is the First Circle” (1960). Could Krasner have introduced Pollock to this motif, which is submerged in his painting “Eyes in the Heat” (1946)?

Aligned vertically, the eye-shape is visible on the left side of “Ochre Rhythm” (1951). This rounded form is a recurring motif in her work, distinguishing it from both the geometric and gestural branches of Abstract Expressionism. This form conveys a desire to get beyond the frame even as it acknowledges that it cannot do so. I disagree with those who assert that she became a field painter. I think she became an artist that didn’t fit into any of the categories. She became her own person. It is time a museum give her a retrospective that would show the extent of her singularity.

Lee Krasner continues at Robert Miller Gallery (524 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 4.

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