LONDON — The painting “Prophecy” (1956) is an interlude of sorts in the retrospective here at the Barbican Centre, Lee Krasner: Living Colour. This semiabstract portrait deviates from Krasner’s prior commitment to a purely nonrepresentational mode. And just as unexpectedly, it wears its art historical influences on its sleeve, adopting the splintered composition and color palette of Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907).
And as the gallery wall plates explain, “Prophecy” invites viewers to read it through the prism of the Krasner’s psychobiography. As the well-known story goes, by 1956, her husband Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism and infidelities had unsettled their lives. Yet the couple still relied heavily on one another for artistic direction and encouragement, much as they always had. When Krasner, at work on “Prophecy,” confessed to Pollock that its emerging imagery “disturbed me enormously,” he assured her the painting was working and she ought to continue “without thinking about it.” She finished the painting later that summer, following Pollock’s violent death.
Though Krasner often invited art historians to interpret her work biographically, she was too resourceful an artist for those reductive readings to overshadow her art’s complexity. If “Prophecy,” speaks to her personal travails, it does so obliquely.
In this allusive, formally complex work, the picture plane breaks into three vectors within which a thickset pink figure bends and twists. Bodily features materialize by tortuous indirection — a bent knee; feet planted sideways; an extended forearm; a glancing eye. The fleshly, muscular contortions only further confine the imprisoned figure. Like ancient Greek tragedy, “Prophecy” exposes the folly of human efforts to circumvent fate, which become the very acts that ultimately fulfill it, making a mockery of free will — even, it turns out, for someone as steely as Krasner was said to be.
Krasner’s other explorations of embodied vulnerability — “Birth,” “Embrace,” and “Three In Two” (all completed in 1956, the same year as “Prophecy”) — further dramatize quasi-human pink forms grappling with tormenting confinement. Splashes of red connote punctured flesh, and dark paint streaks downward like blood and tears. The series feels like a harrowing purgation and catharsis.
It was an agonizing period. In 1959, Krasner’s mother died. Still reeling from Pollock’s death, she fell into depression. If grief was a full-time job, so was attending to what she later called the “horrifying” aspects of settling Pollock’s affairs on the business side of the art world. “You know, it was rough, because I tend to say what I want to, to whomever I want to,” she says in one of the exhibition’s videos. “I don’t care whose toes I step on but here, you see, I was Mrs. Pollock, and I stepped on a lot of toes and I know it.”
Ironically the next artistic breakthroughs happened once Krasner took over the large studio — a converted barn behind her house — in which Pollock had worked. This revival began with an acclaimed solo show at Martha Jackson Gallery in the late 1950s, immediately followed by a mosaic commissioned by the Uris Buildings Corporation for its downtown headquarters. The latter project marked her return to large-scale works much like the civic art she had done in the Works Progress Administration in her youth.
Krasner suffered from severe insomnia, and so she opted to work at night, tacking huge unstretched canvases to the studio wall. Relying on artificial light, she let it rip. The massive, immersive paintings that begin with the Umber series and carry her through the 1960s serve as Living Colour’s sustained, spine-tingling crescendo.
With their thick, curvilinear brushwork and looping, gestural, interlacing patterns, these works attest to Krasner’s belief in the organic life pulsating through apparently inanimate abstract forms.
Built on dense paint strokes integrating cream, white, and umber, the panoramic “Polar Stampede” (1960) resembles interlaced tree branches limned with snow, while warm, textured spindles of splattered paint conjure the pelage and underfur of exotic animals. Given the primal and enigmatic energy at work, these paintings also seem to channel the atavistic mystery of prehistoric cave paintings.
As the decade progressed, she introduced color into these works. Paintings such as “Through Blue” (1963), with its bifurcating blue rivulets spilling around crenellated brown fields, resemble imaginary topographies. Flecked with white, like sunlight glinting on water, the painting’s strange, layered depths seem to express both the elemental and the personal.
Other paintings channel transformative states like fertility and liquefaction, drawing on Abstract Expressionist and Color Field techniques within the same compositions. In “Chrysalis” (1964), “Icarus” (1964), and “Combat” (1965), myriad dots, curving lines, and precipitous arcs impose semiabstract order within washes of pinks, reds, and violets, approximating the collective and individual grandeur of wildflowers. Other paintings, like “Seed No. 21” (1969), move overtly into still life as they explore the inner anatomy of flowers.
The epic, feverish, red-pink“Palingenesis” (1970) displays Krasner’s ongoing embrace of large-scale painting while paying subtle homage to Henri Matisse’s late work. With leaf-like green and pink cutouts integrated among nonobjective forms, the painting is her most confident investigation into the interrelationship between the abstract forms in art and nature, in which nature reproduces itself through aesthetic displays, from flower blossoms to peacock struts, that resemble the artifice of painting.
Alongside variations in scale and intricacy, the warm confidence and bold expressivity of these late paintings are all the more remarkable considering how out of step most of them were with the aesthetic of cool irony that dominated much of the art world in the middle-to-late 1960s and early 1970s. But by this time, Krasner had long broken with the orthodoxies and kingmakers of the very New York avant-garde she had been so central in setting in motion.
For Krasner, art had never been a matter of calculated productivity. As she puts it in the interview footage featured in the exhibition, making art is about facing down uncertainty and risk with each new work, requiring an almost religious patience of its maker before an image is allowed to “come through” the canvas.
As if to prove this credo through concrete metaphors, her final paintings involved cutting up drawings she had done decades earlier in Hans Hofmann’s school and remaking them into kaleidoscopic visions gyrating between sharp bolts of color and soft black-and-white textures. They make for a fittingly unconstrained finale for someone who had never waited around for anyone’s permission, much less the wider world’s stamp of approval.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk St, London, England) through September 1.