The Painter Lee Krasner Has Long Been Eclipsed by Her Much More Famous Artist Husband. Now, a New Book Is Rewriting Art History on Her Terms
That husband, of course, was Jackson Pollock.
In this excerpt from the book More than a Muse, which highlights creative women who have been overshadowed by their more famous spouses, see how the artist Lee Krasner worked her way up to the apex of New York’s art scene, only to often find herself reduced to the role of Jackson Pollock’s wife.
Coming up as an artist during the Great Depression was a crippling financial struggle for Krasner, as she came from a working class background, there was no family money to fall back on. Even if she could get a gallery show, people could barely afford to buy bread, let alone an oil painting. Her hours as a nightclub waitress and model didn’t provide enough to get by, so she took a job with the Federal Art Project, part of the United States Government’s New Deal. When Roosevelt put people’s jobs on the line by slashing funding, Krasner would be out protesting with her fellow artists and models, calling for justice. “I was practically in every jail in New York City,” she said. “Each time we were fired, or threatened with being fired, we’d go out and picket. On many occasions we’d be taken off in a Black Maria [police van] and locked in a cell.”
Nobody could afford to buy paintings, but the New York avant-garde was coming into its own. At this time, Krasner was pinballing from one style to another. Initially she took her lead from the European modernists, and crowded her canvases with colorful Miró-esque shapes. After a visit to MoMA’s Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism show in 1936, she experimented with a desolate Kay-Sage-like landscape that feels so far removed from her later abstract works. Artistically, she simply didn’t like to stay in one place. She loved the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, and scrawled his words on the wall of her Greenwich Village studio: “Finally I came to consider my mind’s disorder as sacred.”
Krasner was a respected figure in the New York art world, not just for her position in the Federal Art Project, but for the reputation she’d developed for her ‘strict eye’ for art. By the late 1930s, she was already friendly with Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky; at one point, she and her ex-boyfriend Igor Pantuhoff had shared a flat with Harold Rosenberg, a powerful American art critic. Krasner became a part of the American Abstract Artists group (AAA). At their group exhibition in 1941, she began talking with Piet Mondrian. The two hit it off so well, they met up again to spend the night dancing to jazz at Café Uptown. It’s probably not much of a surprise that, Mondrian, the man who painted Broadway Boogie-Woogie, could cut some serious rug, “I loved jazz and he loved jazz, so I saw him several times and we went dancing like crazy,” said Krasner. Mondrian was a hero figure to her. In her experiments with abstraction in the 1930s she would sometimes limit herself to his signature palette of just primary colors plus black and white in a kind of Mondrian homage, so she was understandably anxious as he approached her painting at the AAA exhibition that night. He told her she had a “very strong inner rhythm; stay with it.”
It’s clear that by the 1940s, Krasner was an established part of the city’s Abstract art scene. If they were in secondary school, she’d be sitting at the back of the bus sharing Lucky Strikes with de Kooning. And Pollock? He’d be carving his initials into a table in the common room, taking slugs from the whisky flask tucked under his school jumper. Soon after their relationship began, there was a shift in her work. Krasner, convinced of Pollock’s ability, began introducing him to friends in the art world in an effort to boost his career. And at the same time, Krasner entered a battle with her own painting, producing what she called “gray slabs.” Much has been made of this ‘dead’ period in her work, as it fits neatly into the narrative of the all-consuming Pollock, with a painting style so original it could overwhelm a talent like Krasner’s. The year after they’d married, she wrote to her friend, the artist Mercedes Matter, saying, “I showed [Sidney] Janis my last three paintings. He said they were too much Pollock–it’s completely idiotic, but I have a feeling from now on that’s going to be the story.” What’s rarely mentioned is that, around this time, Krasner lost her father and was in a state of grief, “in spite of his age, he was 81, it pretty well tears you to pieces and is like some terrific eruption with everything being torn up … I must wait until spaces are closer and time changes feeling.” When speaking about her process, Krasner reiterated again and again the importance of waiting, of taking a deep breath, and sitting through the “dead” periods. She would never force it, no matter how painful the experience might be. When an interviewer asked Krasner what her husband had been working on during those years, she clipped back, “I don’t know, I had my own problems.”
‘A very destructive act’
In an attempt to break away from Manhattan, Krasner managed to convince art collector Peggy Guggenheim to lend her the down payment on a house in the isolated hamlet of Springs, Long Island. Out there, in nature, she and Pollock made their entire lives about the work, surviving on very little cash, eating whatever clams they could dig out of the sand. But structurally, the balance was off. While he took over the famous “barn”—a factory for drip painting where he had space to splash, pour and slash the canvas with paint, Krasner took on the bedroom as a studio, a smaller space, that resulted in smaller pieces, her ‘Little Images’. They were her moments of controlled chaos, rectangles of white noise, sometimes featuring a pattern of swirling glyphs that Krasner called ‘a kind of crazy writing of my own’. The critics weren’t speaking her language. When she showed her ‘Little Images’ alongside Pollock’s works at Artists: Man and Wife, an exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, they were dismissed as tight, tidy imitations of his. It’s a theme that would follow her for a large part of her career. It’s true that she was no Jackson Pollock, but only in the sense that he was no Lee Krasner.
Her work spoke for itself at a solo show in Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951, and was better received, but still the paintings didn’t sell. Frustrated by her lukewarm reception and with Pollock’s aggressive drinking, in 1953, she grabbed the drawings that hung from the walls and ceiling of her studio—and started ripping them to shreds. “Walked in one day, hated it all, took it down, tore everything and threw it on the floor, and when I went back … it was seemingly a very destructive act. I don’t know why I did it, except I certainly did it.” After cannibalizing her creations, she started reassembling them into a series of collages made up of old drawings, rough shards of paintings and bits of old burlap sack. When these trophies of iconoclasm went on display at the Stable Gallery in 1955, the same reviewer who had bashed her “Little Images,” Stuart Preston, said “The eye is fenced in by the myriad scraps of paper, burlap and canvas swobbed [sic] with color that she pastes up so energetically. She is a good noisy colorist.” The destruction was the catalyst she needed to make her Frankensteinian pieces. Even Pollock’s drawings got hoovered up in the frenzy for Bald Eagle, a piece that contains both of their DNA. When you look at it, you can hear the paper being ripped in two.
‘Painting is not separate from life. It is one’
Lee Krasner had two jobs. A full-time artist and crisis manager. Living with a heavy-drinking, quick-tempered Pollock was not easy. When he began an affair with Ruth Kligman, and made no effort to hide the betrayal from her or their friends, Krasner had enough, deciding to take a break from the destruction to travel to Europe. Before she left, she made a start on the painting Prophecy, pink and menacing, like a liquid cadaver; even she admitted to being frightened by it.
Krasner was in Paris when she got the call from Clement Greenberg that Pollock had died in a car crash along with one of Ruth Kligman’s friends. When she returned home, she had to face that painting: Prophecy. Within months, Krasner had taken over the barn as her studio, filling the negative space he had left behind. Her grief became a vehicle, and its scale can be seen in the enormous, rectangular paintings she produced after his death. Plagued by insomnia and a hatred of working in color without natural light, she began to use umber so she could cope with working at night. These are the paintings that move me most: stripped back to reveal Krasner’s exhausted, emotionally charged gestures as she jumped to mark her canvas, paintings like The Eye is the First Circle, which, in my opinion, was unjustly ridiculed when it was presented without proper context in 2016.
When asked how she managed to face the canvas again, she said, “Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking—do I want to live? My answer is yes—and I paint.” With Krasner, there is never a singular style, even if she wanted one, “My own image of my work is that I no sooner settle into something than a break occurs. These breaks are always painful and depressing but despite them I see that there’s a consistency that holds out, but is hard to define.”
By the 1960s, she was working in full color, monumental paintings with a flux of oranges and pinks and a dark arc peeking out from underneath. Sometimes her marks are bulbous and awkward; other times, diffused into concentrated splatters of paint. To see them together in one room is like experiencing an abstract expressionism group show.
In the 1970s, Krasner expressed regret that she had not yet been offered a retrospective in America, only in London. The opportunity to see a real period of work was something she considered important for a painter. When Pollock died, and she became the executor of his estate, she had a clear vision for how she wanted his art to be handled; she was generous with the work, lending it out to museum and gallery collections. If Krasner had only served her own interests, she could have taken advantage of certain connections to boost her own reputation, but she was a pugnacious character that had no interest in filling the pockets of art collectors, “I behaved with the paintings as I saw fit. I stepped on a lot of toes. And I think even today it’s difficult for people to see me, or to speak to me, or observe my work, and not connect it with Pollock. They cannot free themselves.”
For a long time, she was correct. Plenty of art critics could not be trusted to assess her work without bias. The Whitechapel show received dozens of reviews that painted her as the second fiddle widow, even in their veiled compliments. The Observer turned on the tap of that cold shower compliment issued by Hofmann in the 1930s: “I doubt whether anybody would guess from the paintings that they are by a woman. On the other hand, they are unmistakably American.”
Things began to look brighter when, in 1984, MoMA honored Krasner with a retrospective of her work. Although the term “woman artist” never sat well with her, and she never really identified as a feminist, Krasner recognized the importance of the women’s movement. Just over 10 years before she got the news of the MoMA show, she was on the steps of the same gallery, protesting the dearth of female artists in its collection. She passed away months before the MoMA retrospective was due to open.
Excerpted with permission from More Than a Muse by Katie McCabe, published by Quadrille April 2020, RRP $23.99 Hardcover.
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