Lee Krasner: Living Colour
so good you would not know it was done by a woman – Hans Hofman
For too long the artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984) lived in the overbearing shadow of her alcoholic husband, Jackson Pollock, in both life and death. Yet when they met in 1941, she was already developing a significant career for herself as an artist in her own right who earned praise – and a dancing partner – from Piet Mondrian, amongst others. But that was then – when women were sidelined, overlooked or just ignored (Krasner changed her name from Lena to the andrognous “Lee” in response to this) – and this is now. And this long overdue exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery – the first in Europe in 50 years – reveals Krasner as an important artist in her own right, a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism who adopted an entirely abstract approach which endured throughout her life. Her artistic language was distinctive, independent and continually evolving. Unlike many of her contemporaries, her husband included, she refused to develop a ‘signature image’, preferring to “believe in continuity”.
Largely organised chronologically (take the mini guide with a map as the exibition layout is initially rather confusing), the Barbican show actually begins with work created in 1945 and after, when Krasner moved to Springs, Long Island, with her new husband, Jackson Pollock. While Pollock worked in his own studio, Krasner set up her own makeshift studio space in a bedroom. The paintings produced during this period may be small in scale but include a wealth of precise detail, and they pulsate with an energy redolent of her husband’s famous drip paintings. These jewel-like abstractions, and the mosaic tables she created from old wagon wheels, prove that size need not be a constraint on the freedom of artistic imagination.
You can have a tiny painting which is monumental in scale
– Lee Krasner
The exhibition then backtracks to Krasner’s early years, when as young woman she started experimenting with self-portraits. By 1928 she had graduated from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union, and was due to commence her studies at the prestigious National Academy of Design. These self-portraits are confident works, her love of colour and bold strokes already evident. Examples of her life drawing, classical in style but assured and uninhibited, are displayed in the next room, opposite her early adventures in abstraction: the influence of the cubists, and particularly Picasso is clear in these works.
The most significant work on the upper floor of this exhibition is Prophecy (1956) a large canvas dominated by fleshy human forms and gashes of red and yellow. Boldly outlined with black, the work was painted at a time when her relationship with the unfaithful, alcoholic Pollock was under considerable strain. She herself was disturbed by the painting, leaving it on her easel while she went to France. On 12 August 1956 she received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had crashed his car, killing himself and Edith Metzger, a friend of his lover Ruth Kligman. Just a few weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to her painting, creating equally troubled, psychological companion pieces to Prophecy – Birth, Embrace and Three in Two, which are reunited in this exhibition.
In the downstairs rooms of the Barbican Art Gallery, a series of spacious white rooms allow the viewer to fully appreciate Krasner’s ongoing artistic development. It was as if the loss of her husband allowed her artistic vision and creativity to really take flight, and the works on display here are big-boned, expansive and highly expressive. Colours bounce exuberantly from the canvasses – soft shapes in vibrant crimsons and hot fuchsia pinks which pay homage to one of her artistic heroes, Henri Matisse. Even her monotone canvasses in umber and white, painted at nighttime during periods of insomnia, are vivid and gestural. Her willingness, or need, to create and reinvent, to move forward, is seen clearly in the ‘Palingenesis’ series, paintings with hard-edged abstract forms in which cool blues and greens join Krasner’s favourite reds and pinks. These works have a minimalist grace and a sense of peace, expansive yet restrained.
The same hard-edged forms find new expression in her ‘Eleven Ways’ collages, created from earlier works and cut with scissors to achieve “precise incision” (her earlier collages were made from torn paper and her old canvasses and even some of Pollock’s discarded works). The juxtaposition of shapes bring energy and dynamism to these striking works.
In an age when the habit of identifying artists, writers and composers as “female artist/writer/composer” seems paramount, Krasner’s work confirms that there is no need for such distinctions, that it is all just “art” – and very fine art it is too.
Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 1 September 2019
Header image: Desert Moon, 1955. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. © 2018. Digital Image Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence