October 27, 1908, is the birthday of Lee Krasner. For many women throughout history, the reputation of their spouse has been remembered more completely than their own legacy. Lee Krasner, the late widow of the visionary Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, has been no exception.
Born Lenore Krasner to Eastern European Jewish immigrants Joseph and Anna in 1908, in Brooklyn, Lee was raised in a matriarchal home and began painting and drawing from a very early age. She studied art under Hans Hofmann from 1937 until the early 1940s. Her intense academic education brought her toward an early comprehension of Modernism, with an especially keen familiarity with the aesthetics of Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian. It is said that, among the New York School painters, only Lee Krasner and Ad Reinhart were “…working under total abstraction prior to World War II” (Rose, p. 9).
Lee was a woman of the utmost convictions. Her critical views on art history are still considered alternative compared to traditional academic training, and it was precisely her tendency to stand by her strictly manicured views that further marginalized her from artistic circles in New York during the 1940s and ‘50s. Despite her opinions, her art was exhibited alongside works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in the historic “Ninth Street Show” of 1951.
“She [Krasner] does not look at art history as a series of sensational breakthroughs. For her it is a continuum encompassing Eastern as well as Western art, and within this collective body, which transcends the individual genius, forms may appear and reappear centuries or millennia later in another context”. – Barbara Rose, 1983.
When Krasner and Pollock met after exhibiting together at the 942 McMillen Gallery exhibition, they began a tightly knit relationship which turned into marriage. Their marriage was almost always constricted by Jackson’s violent alcoholism. To retreat from bars and social events, the pair moved to East Hampton where they lived with their two dogs in a farm-house with a barn. Jackson would use the barn as his studio, which allowed him to create his large “action paintings” by utilizing the floor space, while Lee elected to work in a back room, which accounts for the smaller scale of her paintings compared to Jackson’s at this time.
One of the more unique creations by Lee in the early years of living on the East end of Long Island is this Mosaic table (1947), a promised gift to Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection For the majority of her decades-long career, Lee worked as a painter. However, she had extensive training in drawing from her time as a student under Hans Hofmann. This mosaic table could be read as an exercise in an effort of creating a gestural design using pre-existing forms.
The effervescent and unfolding forms and colors that respond to each other in Mosaic Table can be related to the painting Krasner was working on at around the same time titled Noon, seen above. The circular shape of the table she designed is not singular in her oeuvre; she also created a painting, titled Stop and Go (seen below), with the same circular framing.
Lee is described as being a lively, gregarious, but tough woman with a mysterious anger that sat in her psyche like “…a monster in the basement cellar” (Levin, p. 305). Although her art was colorful and truly notable on its own, she knew she would always be only as great as people believed she could be. Whereas Jackson, being a man, could triumph through any artistic barriers he might encounter. In this regard, she consciously cared about her husband’s work more than he did, and fed into his creations as a critic, confidant, and ultimate encourager. It is no understatement that she was his biggest supporter.
Jackson died in a car accident that also killed passenger Edith Metzger on the night of August 11, 1956. His mistress, Ruth Kligman, was also in the car, but did not die. Lee was in France when she received the call from art critic, Clement Greenberg. She was absolutely distraught and returned to New York immediately. In the time after his death, Lee moved her studio from the house into the barn, where Jackson used to work. It was during this period of mourning that Lee’s artistic expression reached a previously unseen level of free association and her canvases became larger in scale, displaying a freer association of forms and a new sense of assuredness.
After researching Lee’s career in depth over the past week, I have come to a new sense of appreciation for her art and her personality. Many of her friends have spoken of her character in high regard and, sometimes, disbelief that she was ever so good to Jackson throughout the turmoil he put them through. I am happy to know that the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s forced the male-dominated New York art scene to take a second look at artwork created by women, inciting a more objective recognition of Lee’s contributions to abstraction. Nonetheless, there is still a tendency to approach women artists as women first, then artists. It is imperative that the contributions women give to the world of Art are awarded their own merit, not just despite their being women. I personally see Lee as the tipping point in Jackson’s aesthetic momentum and further, one of the most self-aware and insistent artists of the mid-twentieth century. Happy Birthday, Lee!
Levin, Gail. Lee Krasner: a biography. New York: William Morrow, 2012.
Rose, Barbara. Lee Krasner: a restrospective. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1983.