The image above is a photo of a young Lee Krasner (American, 1908-1984). She looks tough and determined. She was born in Brooklyn, NY into an immigrant Russian Orthodox-Jewish family. Becoming an artist was something her family never expected, and Krasner was engaged as an artist throughout her long life. She belonged to the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters. She is also known as the woman who married Jackson Pollock, and, in many ways, her reputation was overshadowed by his fame.
Lee Krasner was “rediscovered” by feminist art historians during the 1970s and lived to see the recognition she deserved. Today she is regarded as embodying the spirit of the 20thcentury American avant-garde. Her paintings, collages on canvas, and drawings are part of the permanent collections at major national and international museums, including the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, the Brooklyn Museum, NY, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, the National Gallery of Australia Sydney, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, Tate Modern, London and many others.
The image above is titled Seated Nude (1940), 25×18 inches, drawing with charcoal on paper, collection: the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Krasner’s art training was thorough and rigorous. She attended the Cooper Union, the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design in New York, (1928-1932) where she mastered the fundamentals of drawing, painting and design. Following the Academy, Krasner studied with the influential German abstract artist Hans Hofmann and absorbed his theories about Cubism, Neo-Cubism, and Fauvism. She was inspired by Piet Mondrian’s grid and the way Matisse constructed collage.
During the Depression, she worked as a muralist for the Works Project Administration (WPA). She was an important member of the Artists Union and the American Abstract Artists, and was committed to social and political activism throughout her life.
Krasner created Seated Nude in 1940 about the same time she began to associate with the American Abstract artists. This drawing looks like part of the figure is erased, and shows the remnants of Cubism. Krasner was experimenting with abstraction in a raw and evocative way.
30 years later, Krasner cut up many of her drawings and began to create with collage on canvas.
LITTLE IMAGE Series
The above image is part of the Little Image series done from 1946-1950. It’s titled Noon (1947) and is one of 31 works in the series. The design is all-over abstraction, and seems to be composed of innumerable little images that may represent a personal vocabulary. Swirls of paint surround daubs of paint. The paint is thick. Colors are tonal reds, blues, brown-green, pale yellows and warm whites.
At artnet.com, I read: “Krasner was moving toward a more color-saturated, almost pointillist approach that allowed color to take over for gesture as the expressive element in her work.” At the artstory.org, I read: “With these paintings Krasner expanded the visual vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism. Taking her cue from Pollock, she worked more directly from instinct, but painted in a state of controlled chaos.”
It’s possible Krasner named the series Little Images because she had to work in a small 2ndfloor bedroom in the home she shared with Pollock at the Springs (Long Island, NY). He had the barn to paint big. Like him, she worked with canvas on a flat surface. She applied thick paint—sometimes directly from the tube—in rhythmic and repetitive strokes, giving equal attention to every inch of the canvas. We might ask the question: which artist was inspired by the other in terms of imagery? We know the difference was scale.
Robert G. Edelman wrote: “Krasner’s Little Image paintings were admired by fellow artists and critics when they visited Krasner and Pollock at the Springs. Krasner recalled that the art critic Clement Greenberg had stopped by, and spotting an early work from the series remarked, “That’s hot, it’s cooking.” Later, despite the remark’s possibly derisive double meaning, Krasner said, “I considered it a compliment.”
The image above is Untitled (1949). It’s oil on composition board, 48×37 inches, and part of the Little Image series (gift of Alfonso A. Ossorio, permanent collection: the Museum of Modern Art). Colors are blue, green, cool white and pale pink-purple.
The painting above is titled Gaea. It’s oil on canvas (1966), 5’ 9” x 10’ 6”, permanent collection: the Museum of Modern Art, Kay Sage Tanguy Fund © 2018 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Lee Krasner was always drawn to nature-inspired imagery with organic forms – in this case –swirling paint in shapes that look like super-sized flowers. The painting Gaea was included in the huge 2017 MoMA exhibition titled Making Space: Women, Arts and Postwar Abstraction (April 15-August 13, 2017), and was located prominently in one of the first galleries in the show. It was especially dramatic because of its scale, brush-work and colors. Starr Figure co-curated the MoMA exhibition and wrote: “Krasner put her whole body into the brushstrokes that you see across the canvas…and abstract expressionism was all about personal expression through the gesture of painting.”
The painting was created in the barn on the property at Springs after Pollock died in 1956. The wall signage next to the painting read: “…In the mid-1960s her work took on a spirit of free invention, embodied in broad, sweeping strokes of paint – quite different from her smaller, thickly painted, and tightly controlled canvases of the Little Image series of the late 1940s.” Gaea is named for the Earth goddess of ancient Greek mythology.
Here’s a link to the YouTube video interview with Starr Figura about the meaning of the title “Making Space.” – about making more space for women artists in the Museum’s programming, and how the women in the exhibition paved the way for more women artists to follow.
The image above is titled The Springs (1964), oil on canvas, 43 x 66 inches, collection: National Museum of Women in the Arts, gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, ©2012 the Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS).
This painting combines the vocabulary of circles, ovals, and chevron shapes that Krasner first developed in her “Little Image” paintings of the 1940s. The colors are earth greens, ivory white, and palest pink on an ivory white background. The colors and interlaced forms suggest flowers in a wind-blown landscape.
Springs is the name of the village near East Hampton, Long Island, where Krasner and Pollock, moved in 1945. Krasner began using the small barn as her studio after Pollock died, and her works grew in size. After Krasner’s death in 1984, the house became the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. Paint by both artists can be seen on the floorboards on the barn-studio.
CUT UP CANVAS COLLAGE
In the early 1950s Lee Krasner became frustrated with the quality of several of her works and began shredding the canvases. In her earlier days studying with Hans Hofmann, Krasner had become an avid fan of Matisse, and had experimented with collage. Inspired by Matisse and his cutouts, she started using her shredded paintings as raw materials for a body of powerful, emotive collages, transforming the shreds of her “failed” paintings into a radical new direction in her oeuvre.
The image above is titled Milkweed (1955), 82 x 57 inches, oil, paper and canvas collage on canvas, collection: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
Milkweed is a perennial plant, sometimes also called Butterfly flower.
Lee Krasner was criticized during her life because she destroyed and repurposed drawings and paintings into new works. Milkweed and other collages on canvas are the result.” Starting in 1952-53, she unstretched, slashed, tore and cut up canvases in a way that emphasized their edges, which are alternately jagged and frayed, sharp and keen. With Milkweeed, she added dark green lines to unite the fragments with a circular rhythmic pattern that contrasts with the vertical movement of thin white canvas strips rising from below.
In her book 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History, author Bridget Quinn writes: “It strikes me that the collages are Krasner’s most autobiographical works. What is not autobiography if it’s not selecting chunks of the past and artfully reorienting them in the present? Each collage was a work…ripe with her joys and sorrows.”
The image above is titled Imperative (1976), 50 x 50 inches, oil, charcoal and paper collage on canvas, collection: the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, gift of Mr/Mrs Eugene Victor Thaw.
In this collage, Krasner integrated cut up charcoal drawings with cut up painted canvas. The shapes are hard-edge and triangular. The pattern is positive/negative with white triangular areas surrounded by dark charcoal drawings and painted canvas.
The image above is titled Burning Candles (1955), oil, paper and canvas on linen, 58×39 inches, Collection: Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, Gift of Roy R. Neuberger, © 2015 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS).
This collage shows a rhythmic and vertical thrust with hard-edge cut shapes that mimic the shape of candles and point to the top. The colors are natural-toned, soft browns, ochres, black, white and grey.
In her book titled Originals, American Women Artists, Eleanor Munro wrote “Lee Krasner was referred to by macho artists and art critics during her life as “Pollock’s wife who also paints.”
Krasner was always open to change and receptive to the possibilities for new directions in her work. In an interview, Munro asked the artist about her revisionist tendencies. Krasner said: I believe in listening to cycles.” She always trusted her preference for a connection to nature, and was always willing to wait for a return from a dead cycle to get started again.
With regard to her paper and canvas collages Krasner said: “Obviously I’m hauling out work (drawings) of 30 years ago. Obviously pulling that out. Dealing with it. Not ignoring, hiding it. I’m saying, here it is in another form. This is where I’ve come from: from there to here. It gives me a kick to be able to go back and pick up 30 years ago. It renews my confidence in something I believe. That there is continuity.”
Some artists focus on one particular style so that almost any art lover can easily describe typical examples of their works. Other artists, however, purposefully and constantly evolve their style, refusing to be limited by one aesthetic approach. Lee Krasner epitomized this approach. To describe a typical Lee Krasner painting would be impossible, because her work was never typical. Multiple times over the course of her career Krasner completely redirected her approach to painting.
Although she is normally associated with the Abstract Expressionists, Krasner’sdesire to revise her aesthetic – or what she called “breaks” – led to her innovative Little Image series of the late 1940s, her bold collages of the 1950s, and her large canvases, brilliant with color, of the 1960s.
Krasner was “rediscovered” by feminist art historians during the 1970s and lived to see the recognition of her art and career, which continues to grow to this day.