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LONDON – The British art establishment often does the world a favor by spotlighting a vanguard American who has been undervalued Stateside. In 1965, London’s Whitechapel Gallery mounted the first retrospective for American painter Lee Krasner, an exhibition that toured British cities before arriving on US shores to remind the public about a great artist in their midst.
Now Krasner is having another British retrospective — Barbican Centre’s Lee Krasner: Living Colour, the first European show of her work since the Whitechapel exhibition more than 50 years ago. Opening this past May and curated by Eleanor Nairne, the exhibition will move in October to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.
Enhanced by video installations in which Krasner details her aesthetic practices and belief in painting as an instrument of revelation, Living Colour captures the artist as vividly as it does her art, charting her breakthroughs in the face of 20th-century America’s cultural intransigence and narrow-mindedness to become a leader in the development of abstract art, progressing through cycles of radical self-reinvention across six decades.
Born in 1908, the daughter of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, raised in working-class Brooklyn, Krasner’s only “advantage” was that she knew the world did not owe her anything. In grade school, reading Edgar Allen Poe stoked her interest in the visionary dimensions of the creative life. As a young woman, she read Existentialist philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche to liberate herself from family and religion.
The early self-portraits here reveal her autonomy and resolve. In one such image, set in the woods, the young artist, dressed in overalls, clutches paintbrushes in one hand while working on a canvas with the other, reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s poetic self-portraits. The young artist’s confident gaze, tinged with earnestness, reflect a disciplined romanticism that would propel Krasner for decades.
She had her more than her share of teachers. She studied at Cooper Union, The National Academy of Design, and The Art Students League. The Academy, which she dismissed as committed to “congealed mediocrity,” suspended Krasner for entering studios banned to female students. When she took classes with Hans Hofmann the famous teacher praised her work with a backhanded commendation. The work was so good, Hofmann told her, that you would have never known it was done by a woman.
As the war years loomed, she became an activist in the left-leaning Artists Union, protesting government policies and frequently getting arrested for civil disobedience. For Krasner, solidarity would go hand in hand with independence as she fought the establishment everywhere she went. But she eventually cut ties with the Artists Union, rejecting the leadership’s naïve conviction – still in vogue in our time — that art can instigate social progress by being pedantic and literal. “Art,” Krasner said, “is not an illustration.”
As the Great Depression suffocated the nation, she met the rent by modeling in art studios and waiting tables, supplemented by occasional commissions from federal programs. At the War Services Commission, she oversaw teams of artists designing window displays that promoted wartime training courses. Recognizing the anarchic beauty lurking in these tableaus, which juxtaposed images of smiling office workers against falling bombs and fighter jets, Krasner created long-lost photomontages based on similar ideas. To demonstrate the influence these civic projects had on Krasner’s move into collage, Living Colour features video slide shows with archival photographs of the surreal wartime displays created by Krasner and fellow artists.
The exhibition begins with works on paper that document her rapid artistic evolution in the 1930s. Krasner pushes her life drawings from virtuosic classical studies to geometric figurations. By the 1940s, she was already a full fledged abstract painter moving among the still small avant-garde circle downtown. The émigré abstract painter Piet Mondrian had the greatest impact on Krasner, and the svelte Dutchman became her preferred dance partner in the city’s jazz clubs. Another European émigré, artist John Graham, launched Krasner’s public career by including her in his midtown exhibition American and French Paintings in 1942.
Secret codes fascinated her. As a young child she was trained to write Hebrew even though she never learned to read it. Carving out her own approach to abstraction, Krasner tapped into hermetic languages outside of art history. As the catalogue essays by scholar Katy Siegel and Hyperallergic Weekend’s John Yau point out, Krasner’s fascination with physiognomies in nature coincided with her reading of Symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud, and these twin forces informed the breakthrough Little Image paintings in the 1940s.
The Little Image paintings involve visual alphabets in the form of squares, circles, rectangles and glyphs that evoke writing in ancient scriptural texts and biblical scrolls, while also alluding to intricate physical patterns found in nature. Their absorbing details pack as much punch as their overall radiant harmonies. They cohere through an almost invisible geometric syntax that Krasner weaves into the substructure of each work, including the well-known mosaic she built into a table top.
After the Little Image paintings, Krasner’s difficult second phase would also involve the creation of sublime paintings built from beautiful minutiae and utterly original visual grammars. But the process of getting there was, in Krasner’s own words, a “violent” one. In the early 1950s, she found the black-and-white drawings that lined the walls of her studio to be such failures that she tore them to pieces. From the strewn remnants carpeting the floor, she identified patterns that would form the basis for her collage paintings, which represented Krasner’s next artistic pinnacle.
These collage paintings conjure the gestural explosiveness of Abstract Expressionism tempered by geometric rhythms and graceful nuances. In “Shattered Light” (1954), compressed swathes of beige and brown evoking ruined seashells, stones, or wood chips are punctuated by squibs of blues, yellows, and reds. A fiery red-orange field underpins the large-scale dreamscapes in “Desert Moon” (1955), as long, tapered black shards and curved pink globules dramatize an unsettling interchange between nature and the supernatural.
Given their poised vehemence, it’s tempting to read these collage paintings as if they are channeling the upheavals that roiled Krasner’s personal life. Having married and relocated to the town of Springs on Long Island’s East End, Krasner found the home front unraveling. Her husband, Jackson Pollock, by now a world-famous figure thanks to Krasner’s tireless early support, was losing his battle with a debilitating and destructive alcoholism.
In the summer of 1956, Krasner temporarily escaped the chaos at home by visiting friends in France. In mid-August, while in Paris, she learned that Pollock had killed himself and a young passenger named Edith Metzger in a drunken car crash near their house in Springs.
Before leaving Europe, she had begun work on a painting that she would eventually call “Prophecy” (1956). Its resumption following Pollock’s death would mark a new, triumphant third phase for Krasner, during which she would make what art history has come to regard as the most powerful works in her career.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk St, London, England) through September 1.