The Van Gogh to Rothko: Masterworks of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery exhibition features several magnificent paintings by leading twentieth-century female artists. Among the highlights is Lee Krasner’s Milkweed.
Lee Krasner was part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. The situation for Krasner and her female artist friends was difficult, since Abstract Expressionism was a male-dominated art movement. Krasner’s teacher, Hans Hofmann, made a famous comment about one of her collages that summarizes the prevailing attitude: “This is so good you would not know that it was done by a woman.” [Heartney, Eleanor. 2007. After the revolution: women who transformed contemporary art. Munich: Prestel.]
Until her death in 1984, Krasner’s work underwent numerous stylistic changes. She was first exposed to collage art was during the late 1930s when she studied the work of Picasso and Matisse. However, it was not until 1951 that she began to experiment with collage techniques herself. Milkweed belongs to a series of canvas collages Krasner created between 1953 and 1955. They are based on ideas from the black-and-white paper collages she made in 1951; however, her canvas collages are more complex. Milkweed combines several styles within Abstract Expressionism such as gestural painting and Color Field painting, and a dramatic, large composition consisting of layers of paint and unconventional materials such as “recycled” canvas.
Milkweed and other canvas collages are the result of Krasner’s self-critical personality. She performed regular reviews and editing of her work. As part of this exercise, in 1952-53 she destroyed a group of paintings she was not satisfied with. The process of unstretching and slashing or cutting up the canvases was the beginning of her idea for this series of canvas collages. Milkweed very likely came from a group of works intended for destruction. The fragments of canvas and paper are torn and cut in a manner that emphasizes their edges, which are alternately jagged and frayed, sharp and incisive. Lightly applied dark green lines unite the fragments in circular rhythms that contrast with the vertical movement of thin white strips rising from below.
Krasner titled her paintings after careful study. She might have chosen the title Milkweed because of its stem- and leaf-like shapes, and the germinative sensation of rising, swelling, and splitting of forms. The large black areas are in sharp contrast to the pointy white strips and add drama to the composition. Both are balanced by a patch of orange-gold of such intensity that it appears to be illuminated from within.
In 1945, Krasner married fellow Ab Ex painter Jackson Pollock. It was a difficult marriage because of his alcohol addiction, frequent violent behavior, and infidelity. Although she continued to create and exhibit her own work, she also devoted a great deal of her time and energy to promoting Pollock’s art and career. Art critic Clement Greenberg stated: “I don’t feel Pollock would have gotten where he did without he eye and her support.” [Berger, Doris, and Doris Berger. 2014. Projected art history: biopics, celebrity culture, and the popularizing of American art. 93]