Interview with Robert Hobbsby Phong Bui
Dr. Robert Hobbs is the curator and author of the exhibitions catalogue on Lee Krasner’s work. His books include: Milton Avery, Edward Hopper, and Human Rights/Human Wrongs: Art and Social Change. Dr. Hobbs also holds the Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Chair of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Phong Bui (Rail) You did a show, Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years, with wonderful texts in the accompanying catalogue. It was, as I remember, a particular selection of artists and Lee Krasner was the only female painter included. What about Hilda Stern and Alice Trumbull Mason?
Robert Hobbs: Alice Trumbull Mason is a wonderful painter, but she was a member of the AAA rather than the Abstract Expressionists. My co-curator Gail Levin and I wanted, in that exhibition, to focus only on the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Even terrific painters like Philip Guston and James Brooks were not even included because their mature abstract work developed later. Although one of the radical choices regarding the show was to include Ad Reinhardt, I really do think his work during that period does fit in the context of the show.
Rail: How did both of these shows come about?
Hobbs In 1975, I was part of the Whitney Program downtown. We put together a show called Subject of the Artist and Lee Krasner was among the artists included, so I continued with a similar idea two years later for the Whitney uptown and Cornell University and that’s when Gail Levin came in on the project. When I was approached to do a book on Lee Krasner’s work for the Abbeville Modern Masters Series, it had to be written in such a way that it could be translated into several languages, therefore the format was fixed and somewhat restricted. Anyway, naturally, by the time the ICI (Independent Curators International) asked me to do this show, the text of course became much more elaborate. Actually Barbara Rose, Ellen Landau, and Marcia Tucker are among the curators and writers who have curated and written about Lee Krasner, but all of them look at Krasner as a formalist, seeing her work in relation to Pollock, and I decided that I wanted to study her work in terms of iconography. Lee made a statement once that no one was more surprised than she was when the breast forms started to appear in her painting. So the more I looked, the more I found other things. They were loaded with different images. There were body parts, a la de Kooning, but the signature was one of the things that I found—particularly in the paintings of the “Earth Green Series,” done in sepia or umber tone, is her own signature and that certainly took me back to John Graham.
Rail: Well, I really appreciate the fact that you have devoted a lengthy essay to John Graham.
Hobbs: Lee had the greatest admiration for John Graham and she loved “Systems and Dialectics of Art.” He was important to many other painters, including Richard Pousette Dart, Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith as well as Pollock, Gorky, and de Kooning.
Rail: Graham was an enigmatic figure who possessed a Gurdjieffian interest in esoteric philosophy. He had an immense influence on particular artists, like Gorky and de Kooning, not only because of his unique reading of art history, but also because of the whole romantic notion of recreating a new identity and seeing it as a creative process. Might he have had some impact on Krasner’s string of different names before deciding on Lee, or even the way that she sometimes signed LK as a sort of non-gendered initial? Was that a way of fronting her fictional masculinity?
Hobbs: Both Barbara Rose and Anne Wagner feel that Lee Krasner did that so that she wouldn’t be seen as a female painter. I believe this practice was fairly common. Grace Hartigan, a painter of the second generation, did actually take on a male name in the early ’50s, so it was a recourse for some women. They probably thought that, if the viewer was to be biased or prejudiced against their work, it would be better to disguise their gender under a pseudonym. I’m not sure that is entirely true in Lee’s case because she took on so many different names and even different personae. One might trace her name changes from Lena to a more anglicized Leonore and back to the biblical name Leah, which was Krasner’s way of returning to her Jewish background. At some point in the late ’20s and most of the ’30s, Krasner was living with a very flamboyant white Russian émigré, Igor Pantuhoff.
Rail: So you think that’s one of the reasons that she was so connected to John Graham?
Hobbs I think so. Graham was certainly among the artists and poets of that whole constellation. At that time, Krasner was rather glamorous and fashionable. She was very sociable and charming. After all, she was a silk-pajama-clad cocktail waitress at a Greenwich Village nightclub; that’s where she met Harold Rosenberg and Lionel Abel. Not until she was married to Pollock that she gave up the cultivation of her appearance.
Rail: Naming or tilting a painting can be an important issue for some painters. I am always quite intrigued that most of Pollock’s late works were named after his favorite book, Moby Dick; examples being, “The Deep,” “Ocean Grayness,” and “Blue Pole.” In your book, you elaborated on one of Krasner’s painting from the Little Image series, “Mouse Trap,” which was named after Meyer Schapiro’s essay on the Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin in the Cloisters. Would you retell the story and describe her relationship to Schapiro?
Hobbs: It was her friend, John Myers who suggested that title to her. What was so remarkable about that, was that she, like Pollock, would let other people help name her work. So when Myers was visiting them in South Hampton and while they were looking at one painting by Lee, a wood rat came out from nowhere and ran straight toward the painting between the doors. First Pollock killed it, then Myers brought up Schapiro’s lecture on the Mérode Altarpiece. The right panel shows an unusual depiction of Joseph making a mouse trap, which has something to do with the devil. Actually, that essay is published in his first volume on Early Christian and Medieval art. Lee had always been a devoted fan of Meyer Schapiro because of his writings of scholarship on illuminated manuscripts. Anyway, I developed a theory in the catalogue about the mousetrap and about what it was like to be a post-Holocaust Jew in reference to Joseph and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I personally don’t think she did read that much during her lifetime, but I know she loved to have people read to her. She had a wonderful memory and used to become very intense and focused when someone would say something interesting. Now, I couldn’t articulate this in the catalogue, but I feel that she might have been dyslexic. But I know that she went to practically all of Meyer Schapiro’s lectures.
Rail: Like a lot of artists, she probably attended Schapiro’s legendary lectures at the New School for Social Research.
Hobbs: Lee was fascinated by Schapiro’s lectures on the Romanesque manuscripts, especially with the beasty things found along the border.
Rail: How do you think her work reflected the rise in feminist consciousness seen during her lifetime?
Hobbs: I have been looking at her work for a long time and it’s not just the quality and the complexity of her work, but there is a sense of excitement. This show will reveal all of that. It will show that Lee Krasner was not afraid of change. She had so many cycles and went through so many different stages, but there was always an incredible sense of freedom, and in spite of all of those changes, she managed to develop her work in a productive way and still have room for the whole idea of relationship, family, and marriage. She serves as a pretty interesting model. She was a daring painter and a formidable personality. I think she loved the fact that the feminists did come of age.