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Lee Krasner

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

October 10, 1999-January 2, 2000

Des Moines Art Center

February 26, 2000-May 21, 2000

Akron (Ohio) Art Museum

June 10, 2000-August 27, 2000

The Brooklyn Museum of Art

October 6, 2000-January 7, 2001

"I ended up by finding sacred the disorder of my spirit." Arthur Rimbaud

"Bird Talk" by Lee Krasner

"Bird Talk," by Lee Krasner, oil, paper and canvas collage on cotton duck, 58 by 56 inches, 1955, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Zimmerman

By Carter B. Horsley

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was one of the great Abstract Expressionists.

Her work has the best rhythmic and organizational structure and is far more varied compositionally than Mark Rothko's. While not always as dramatic as some of the best Franz Kline's, it is considerably more complex. While not as flamboyant as much of the work of Willem de Kooning, her oeuvre has subtle palettes and great energy.

It is also more intellectual and less messy than much of the work of Jackson Pollock, her husband.

One is tempted to argue that her work is better than Pollock (See
The City Review article on a major exhibition on Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art). Had she not deferred to him, as she most assuredly did, there is little doubt that her fame might have become at least the equal of her celebrated, notorious husband. 

In his September 20, 2000 review in The New York Times of this traveling exhibition, critic Michael Kimmelman observed that "Krasner's best paintings are as beautiful as any abstract paintings America has produced." While that may somewhat slight earlier artists such as Georgia O'Keefe and Marsden Hartley, contemporaries such as Mark Rothko, and later ones such as Richard Diebenkorn, it is not too far off the mark.

Had feminism reared its head earlier, there is little doubt she would have received many more laurels. "Some critics," Mr. Kimmelman observed, "have talked about the feminity of Krasner's art, I suppose to compliment the voluptuousness of her imagery and feathery touch. The feathery touch proves Krasner's mastery of line, but it is balanced, always, by toughness. Krasner wanted the struggle of painting to be visible in the pictures, and it is: ferocious shapes jostling for dominance in consistently heavy weather."

"Untitled" by Lee Krasner

"Untitled," by Lee Krasner, gouache on mat board, 10 by 13 inches, circa 1942, Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York

Not all of her shapes, course, were "ferocious" and not all of her touch was "feathery," but Mr. Kimmelman's comments are not inappropriate for in much of her best work that is a grand sense of "voluptuousness," an all-engulfing dynamic that is not unresolved or unclarified, as it was in the works of many of her "New York School" contemporaries.

Be that as it may, there is little question that Lee Krasner was a major artist as evidenced by the handsome traveling retrospective that ended at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in January 2001 after having been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Des Moines Art Museum and the Akron (Ohio) Arts Center.

Born in Brooklyn, Krasner studied at Hans Hofmann's famous studio and worked on the WPA Mural Department.

"Jungle Green" by Lee Krasner

"Jungle Green," by Lee Krasner, oil and collage on canvas, 82 ¾ by 39 inches, 1955, Meredith Long & Company, Houston

The fine 224-page catalogue was published by Independent Curators International and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Robert Hobbs, the Rhoda Thalheimer Endowed Chair, Virginia Commonwealth University, was the guest curator and his catalogue essay, while occasionally obstruse, is fascinating for its insights and perspectives about the Depression era, Leftists's interests in and eventual disenchantment with Communism, the influence of Existentialism, the psychological insights of Henry Sullivan, the significance of symbol and language and the determined struggle of Lee Krasner to evolve her art. The catalogue contains 126 illustrations, 93 of which are in color, and costs $49.50.

In his introduction to the catalogue, B. H. Friedman offers some interesting and amusing excepts from his own diary about his friends, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. In an item dated Jan. 10, 1965, he writes:

"When Lee and Jackson moved to East Hampton, Bob Motherwell was already there considering a piece of property across the road. One night at their place, Bob said, "I'm going to be the best-known artist in America.' Lee replied, 'I'd be very lucky to live opposite the best-known artist in America and be married to the best.'"

"Shooting Gold" by Lee Krasner

"Shooting Gold," by Lee Krasner, oil, paper, and burlap collage on canvas, 82 ¼ by 58 ½ inches, 1955, Collection of Fayez Sarofim

In the exhibition catalogue Mr. Hobbs notes that Krasner met Harold Rosenberg in 1932 when she was a cocktail waitress at Sam Johnson's nightclub in Greenwich Village, "which was frequented by such well-known figures as Lionel Abel, Maxwell Bodenheim, Joe Gould, Harold and David Rosenberg, and Parker Tyler. Soon after meeting Rosenberg at the club, Krasner and her "live-in companion, Igor Pantuhuff, a White Russian émigré who later became a portrait painter of little reknown," rented rooms in Mr. Rosenberg's apartment. Mr. Hobbs wrote that Lionel Abel, the literary critic, "believes Krasner to have been far more knowledgeable about art than Rosenberg, and in fact, considered her to be Rosenberg's artistic mentor. The bond between the two was no doubt cemented by the similarity of their backgrounds and interests. Both had been brought up by Orthodox Jews living in Brooklyn. Both were upwardly mobile and both were committed to art. Graduating from law school in 1928, Rosenberg suffered from a chronic bone infection and decide to forsake law in order to follow his father's love of poetry. A few informal classes in painting enabled him to obtain a position as an assistant with the Mural division of the Fine Arts project of the Works Progress Administration, and during the years 1938-42 he served as art editor of the WPA's American Guide. Krasner was also intent on making the leap from a simple parochial background to a sophisticated modern one: she studied first at the Cooper Union (1926-28), then the Art Students League (briefly), the National Academy of Design (1928-32), and City College (1932-22) where she intended to obtain a teaching certificate. After a hiatus of four years, she returned to school in 1937, attended Hans Hofmann's School of Fine Arts for several years, continuing even as late as 1940 to give it as a reference whenever the WPA periodically needed to verify her occupation as a practicing artist. Her intimate acquaintance with Hofmann's theories enabled her to pass on his ideas to both Rosenberg and his young protégé Clement Greenberg, whom she met through Rosenberg."

"Beginning in 1938 and continuing until 1942, when her work and thought became imbued with Jackson Pollock's way of painting," Mr. Hobbs continued, "Krasner adhered to a Platonic hierarchy of value in which more generalized forms were regarded as the most real. In the abstract paintings she created during this period, she deemphasized the shadowy realm of images, which Plato viewed as mere copies of objects, in order to posit the works as participants in a higher order of forms eternally true archetypes that can only became apprehensible in art through intellectual copies and corporeal reproductions. In her work, this separation/alienation of form from conventional subject matter is evident in the envelopes of space surrounding passages of pure color. Hofmann's elaborately constructed studio arrangements helped her in this undertaking....The use of these elaborate schemes, which would often take Hofmann an entire afternoon to assemble, was buttressed by his own theory that in art one presents at first a medium and then one-self. And that self can be defined only in so far as it can be channeled into a particular medium. His three-step understanding of this process depended on, first, a comprehension of nature's laws, second, the artist's empathy for both nature and a chosen artistic medium, and third, the ability of an artist to translate his or her inner world into a medium, being careful to acknoledge both its limitations and its strengths. Although this emphasis on the artist's inner world seems more in line with the Symbolists than Rimbaud, the rigor with which the medium was approached in Hofmann's schema prevented works of art from becoming merely ideosyncratic musings. Beginning in the late 1930s, Hofmann's overriding concern with the medium and his acknowledgment of the subsidiary yet constitutive role played by nature enabled Krasner to create increasingly abstract still lifes in the manner first of Matisse (ca. 1938) and then, particualry from 1939 to 1943, in the manner of Picasso. In these works, Krasner began what proved to a long evolutionary process of coming to terms with the theories of Rimbaud, a journey that would eventually lead to a full appreciation of his assertion, "I ending up by finding sacred the disorder of my spirit."

Before meeting Pollock, Krasner was active in the WPA and with the American Abstract Artists, an organization that focused on the strengths of European modernism.

"Many Leftists, who had looked to the Soviet Union as a model for failed Western economies, began to question their idealism when Joseph Stalin embarked on a reign of terror in which former Communist leaders, who might be his potential contenders, were summarily tried and executed; their allegiance was further weakened in 1939 when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hilter and invated Finland....The primary recourse for these New York liberals, including Krasner was to turn to the ideas of former Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky..., who offered in several essays published in Partisan Review a ready solution for how they could be both advanced abstract artists and entrenched leftists....In 1938, Partisan Review published an article ostensibly by French Surrealist leader André Breton and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera that was actually co-authored by Breton and Trotsky....Not only were Trotsky and Breton permitting modern artists the right to deviate from politically sanctioned art if it did not accord with their own inner voices, but they also empowered them to form an ongoing, anarchist faction that would ensure their society freedom of speech and prevent leaders from turning people into mere puppets....Whereas earlier in the decade, John Reed Club embers had crusaded for a programmatic socialist realist art that could be understood by workers who they hoped would form an eventual proletariat, Trotsky's position now allowed members of an elite vanguard to believe that their work would contribute to an eventual Communist state so long as they rigorously adhered to their own vision....Differing from both Midwestern Regionalists with their isolationist policies and from the social realists with their reactionary aesthetics aimed largely at an uneducated populace, AAA members regarded internationalism as the most advanced route for enlightened individuals wishing to keep faith with the future....[George L. K.] Morris...pointed out that AAA painters worked without the support of a public, without the promise of remuneration for their efforts, and with only themselves for an audience....In retrospect, the problem with such an elitist position as that taken by the AAA is thta it ultimately became so personal that it constituted no political stance at all, and could not be differentiated from the group ethos of determined individualism later characterizing Abstract Expressionism....But unlike many of the Abstract Expressionists who soon opted for a romantic definition of the self, Lee Krasner never forgot her Trotskyite affiliations....Along with other AAA members and the burgeoning Abstract Expressionists in the early 1940s, Krasner was soon preoccupied with the task of developing her own mode of painting. For a brief time, she, like the others, had been assured by Trotsky that this stance was both politically and artistically sanctioned. But after his assassination and after the white heat of political controversy that had fanned the flames of 1930s liberalism died down in the face of the war effort, the only memory of these complex and subtle distinctions that Krasner maintained was a tremendous pride in her Trotskyite stance. She believed that this affiliation with Trotsky elevated her above Pollock. Throughout her life she permitted herself the luxury of opening condemning him for helping David Alfaro Siqueiros, a suspect in the Trotsky assassination plot, whom he had had known in 1936 through this Mexican painter's experimental workshop at 5 West Fourteenth Street. Even though Siqueiros had been exonerated of any guilt in the May 24, 1940 attempt on Trotsky's life and the subsequent kidnapping and murder of his New York bodyguard, Robert Sheldon Harte, Krasner persisted in considering him guilty. She was particularly troubled that Pollock had admitted aiding Siqueiros during the time he was hiding from the police."

Burgoyne Diller, the head of the WPA mural division in New York City, asked Krasner to do a mural for Sound Studio A at radio Station WNYC in the Municipal Building straddling Chambers Street. According to Hobbs, her mural studies "indicate Krasner's ease working within the stylistic constraints of international avant-garde art and place her work at the forefront of the American Abstract Artists...Instead of innovating a new style, they were content to synthesize various European avant-garde factions into an easily assimilated yet still elitist program....Despite the subsequent acceptance of Krasner's mural..., it was never able to receive the approval of the New York City Art Commission, since WPA funds in March 1942 were channeled to the Graphic Section of the War Services Program....Promoted to the role of supervisor of the War Services Project in May, Krasner was responsible for overseeing in 1942 the creation of twenty-one department-store window displays in Manhattan and Brooklyn....her team...included Ben Benn, Jean Xceron, Frank Greco, and Jackson Pollock. Krasner's initial disappointment regarding the collapse of the WNYC mural commission was abated at the end of the year when painter John Graham...invited her to participate in the exhibition he was curating for a midtown design firm, McMillen, Inc....His exhibition was entitled French and American Painting, and its purpose was to demonstrate the strengths of American artists when seen in the company of such important Europeans as Braque, Matisse, and Picasso. Included among the Americans was Stuart Davis, John Graham himself, Willem de Kooning, Walt Kuhn, and Jackson Pollock. Although Krasner had met Pollock briefly at a party in the late 1930s, she had forgotten this brief encounter and set out to introduce herself to him once she determined that he was the only artist in the McMillen exhibition with whom she seemed to be unacquainted....A guru capable of dramatizing esoterica, tribal artifacts, and intimate knowledge of the School of Paris, Graham created around himself an entourage of maturing artists that included prospective Abstract Expressionists de Kooning, Adolf Gottlieb, Krasner, Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, and David Smith. 'He had an enormous influence on me,' Krasner later acknowledged....Both her pragmatism and precarious self-esteem protected her from the grandiloquence and hyperbolic egotism of those Abstract Expressionists who believed themselves capable of conjuring humanity's most ancient and important truths."

Krasner fell into an aesthetic slumber in the early war years, and she referred to it later as her "mud period." "A possible explanation for these dense, turgid works of the mid-1940s," Mr. Hobbs suggested, "is that they were subliminal reactions to the mass murders of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, which were then being publicly acknowledged in New York. On December 2, 1942, the first public solemnization of the Holocaust took place when approximately half a million Jews and others in New York City elected to stop work for ten minutes in order to remember those who had been killed and also to alert the general public to the continuing massacre. Several radio stations observed two minutes of silence before broadcasting memorial services at 4:30 that same afternoon. Soon after these acts of public mourning, the first newspaper accounts of the atrocities began to appear, usually embedded in lengthy war reports."

In 1946-7, Krasner began a "Little Image" series that Mr. Hobbs maintained was probably inspired in part by Pollock's Sounds in the Grass series and his drip paintings of 1946. "...but these are are from being merely delicate imitations of Pollock's ferociously innovative style as they have far too often been characterized in the past....within they general field established by Pollock, Krasner evolved her own sustained aesthetic investigations of the mystery and power of language....Rather than settling in this series for an intelligible languarge that would turn her paintings into specific communiqués, Krasner made them abstract meditations on language's dual role by emphasizing her own painterly script while enusring that her allusions to ancient sign systems remain mostly indeciferable. In this way, language in her art remais both personal, through her distinctive touch, and collective, through its allusions to ancient forms of writing. Her focus on language shares a concern with abstracted signs evident in Pollock's drips, Gottlieb's pictographs, de Kooning's compositions built from such ordinary words as 'gone,' Bradley Tomlin Walker's references to Chinese script, and Motherwell's Je t'aime series. In these works languages range from the personal and idiosyncratic in Pollock, to the ancient in Gottlieb, the mundane in de Kooning, and finally the exotic and foreign in Tomlin and Motherwell. In this alphabet soup of various sign systems all poetically referring to abstract art's abilitiy to suggest meaning without detailing specific narratives, Krasner's work is distinguished...for its connections to a series of discoveries and decipherments of ancient languages that began in the late 1920s and continued through the time of her Little Image series."

"I thought of [my unconscious messages] as a kind of crazy writing of my own, sent by me to I don't know who, which I can't read, and I'm not so anxious to read," Krasner once explained.

"Created at a time when general Abstract Expressionist rhetoric was moving away from an early, transitional phase and was beginning to make extravagant claims for artistic individuality and autonomy," Mr. Hobbs wrote, "Krasner's Hieroglyphs celebrate continuity over originality and longevity over innovation. In doing so, they posit a paradigm of a language-originated culture that differs from most of the contemporaneous Abstract Expressionist art that was starting to focus on the artists themselves and their individuality intuited sensibilities. Considered in relation to the Holocaust and the subsequent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Krasner's Hieroglyphs offer the positive and reassuring message of perpetuity and resiliency through knowledge of one's cultural heritage. In many of these works she took Pollock's all-over compositions in a different direction by refusing to settle for basically centralized images - as he tended to so even in his most advanced drip paintings - and instead emphasized the fragmentary nature of compositions that look as if they might once have extended far beyond their boundaries.

"Black, White and Pink Collage" by Lee Krasner

"Black, White and Pink Collage," by Lee Krasner, ink and collage on paper, 23 by 29 inches, 1958-74, Pollock-Krasner Foundation Inc., courtesy of Robert Miller Gallery, New York

Abstract Expressionist was included by Surrealism's emphasis on automatic writing and Existentialism and in the late 1940s and early 1950s "this Surrealist/Existentialist procedure for coming to terms with the self began, in fact, to culminate in identifying images and/or processes such as Pollock's drips, Rothko's lambent fields, Newman's zips, Motherwell's awkward cuts and tears, de Kooning's primordial women, and Kline's black and white swthes. Like Narcissus, some of these artists became enamored with these reified images of themselves and consequently relinguished the burden of freedom that, according to Sartre, obliges human beings to create their essense anew throughout every moment of their existence....Despite the heroism of this quest for a perpetuallty unresolved self, most Abstract Expressionists, with the exception of Lee Krassner and, on occasion, Pollock, eventually left this Edenic hell of perpetual self-contingency for the comfort and stability of distinct images or styles that achieved a brand-name identifiability for them....Lee Krasner, however, avoided succumbing to the myth of a unitary self. Her work never settled for long into a distinct style. Her reluctance (or inability) to settle on a single defining image serves in retrospect as a cogent critique of Abstract Expressionism."

"Rising Green" by Lee Krasner

"Rising Green," by Lee Krasner, oil on canvas, 82 by 69 inches, 1972, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw

Krasner's oeuvre went through a variety of styles. For a while, she produced very dense works that were similar to a certain extent with the work of Mark Tobey and Bradley Tomlin Walker. Later in her career, she opened up her compositions, sometimes almost mimicking Matisse's cut-outs, as in "Rising Green, a 82-by-69-inch oil on canvas in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum that was a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw.

"Mysteries" by Lee Krasner

"Mysteries" by Lee Krasner, oil on cotton duck, 69 by 90 inches, 1972, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Dick S. Ramsay Fund

She was capable of very fluid lines, but she also often used unusual palettes that are almost dissonant, as in "Mysteries," a 69-by-90-inch oil on cotton duck in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Many of her most powerful compositions are collages in which she used discarded pieces of her own and occasionally also Pollock's work.

She never stopped evolving as an artist while many of her Abstract Expressionist colleagues would settle into "signature" styles. What truly distinguishes her work, however, is the consistency of the strength of her very bold compositions and her intellectuality.

At the November 11, 2003 Post-War & Contemporary Art evening auction at Christie's (see The City Review article), Lot 27, "Celebration" a large painting by Lee Krasner, sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art for $1,911,500, which smashed the artist's previous auction record of $198,400 set at Sotheby's May 14, 2003.

The City Review article that contains two reproductions of works from this exhibition that sold at Sotheby's Contemporary Art day November 13, 2003. Lot 174, "The City," is a superb, 48-by-36-inch oil and paper collage on masonite that is very strong. It had an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000 and sold for $579,200. The auction catalogue notes that Krasner would tear up works with which she was dissatisfied during the period in which this lot was created but noticed that when she made a heap on the floor "something exciting was happening." Indeed, Krasner's work tends to be much more structured than that of Jackson Pollock, her husband. Less dense is Lot 189, "Majuscule," a 69-by-82 1/8-inch oil on canvas that Krasner painted in 1971. The auction catalogue notes that the title refers to the first and large letters in old manuscripts and indicated the artist's new direction: "Majuscule shows that she now favored a lyrical, classically balanced composition, rather than a loose, more expressionistic and painterly rendering." With its simple palette of a few blues and greens, white and red, this work does not have the textural complexity of her earlier work, but it is marvelously dynamic in its swooping composition. It had an estimate of only $80,000 to $120,000 and it sold for $254,400.


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