Like Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner painted in the shadow of her more notorious husband. Only recently, in the wake of the Kahlo phenomenon of the 1980s, have artists such as Susan Rothenberg and Nancy Rubins begun to acquire critical status independent of their husbands (the artists Bruce Nauman and Chris Burden, respectively). After the Pollock revival of the last few years, it thus couldn’t be timelier for the remarkable Brooklyn native Krasner to get her share. A beautiful retrospective of her work, organized by Robert Hobbs, is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. This exhibition definitely provides a fine opportunity for many of us to look at Lee Krasner’s work in a new light.
Right from the beginning of Krasner’s career, dating from the 1930s until she met both Pollock and painter John Graham in the early 1940s, Krasner displayed a precocious and competent draftsmanship. Much to her credit, because of her strong growing interest in Modern art, Krasner moved quickly from academic Realism to Surrealism. This transition can be seen in “Self Portrait” (1935), and “Gansevoort II” (1935). Following were the crucial years with Hans Hoffman, where Krasner learned about Cubism. “Untitled” (1940) shows Krasner’s thorough grasp of synthetic Cubism, which, in this case, linked her, along with de Kooning, Gorky, John Graham, and perhaps Byron Brown, as one wing of the AAA (American Abstract Association). The other included, among others, Harry Holtzman, Fritz Glarner, and Burgoyne Diller, all of whose work was under the influence of Mondrian. This body of work clearly separates Krasner from Pollock’s drastic turn from Thomas Hart Benton’s regionalism to Surrealism, via Mexican muralists and Picasso’s Surrealist phase. Cubism never interested Pollock, but Krasner’s profound acknowledgement of his obsession with Surrealist psychic automatism proved to be crucial in his development. And while she was urging him on with his work, Krasner also began to experiment in the same direction.
The result was the Little Image Series—a more personal response to Pollock’s all-over canvases done prior to the drip paintings. Several pictures, including “Untitled (The Mouse Trap)” (1949), and “Untitled” (1947), are comprised of Krasner’s unique network of highly restrained thin white lines over a field of packed and flickering color. Unlike Pollock’s landmark drip paintings and even Mark Tobey’s white writing, in which the field of the pictures’ all-over activities appears to be more or less contained within the canvas, Krasner deliberately carries on across and over all of the boundaries.
Krasner’s intellectual curiosity and analytical aspects have always been pronounced in her work and can be traced consistently throughout the different stages of her development. As curator Robert Hobbs argues in the show’s catalogue, her iconography reveals an emphasis on language. “Krasner’s hieroglyphics celebrate continuity over originality, and longevity over innovation.” This dimension derives from Krasner’s family and cultural background, and also from her close friendship with the art critic Harold Rosenberg. It would make sense that her relationship with Rosenberg had a lot to do with their common Orthodox Jewish heritage and rather intense commitment to art. While Rosenberg introduced Krasner to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, whose verse remained inspirational and important throughout her life, Krasner’s intellectual knowledge of painting probably helped to widen Rosenberg’s vocabulary of art criticism. (It has always been true that critics are the ones who learn from artists—just recall Clement Greenberg sneaking into Hans Hoffman’s class, where art historian Sam Hunter was already enrolled.)
The idea of utilizing letters or words became full-blown in Cubist collage, and it was widely practiced among the Abstract Expressionists, but for both, it was treated as a formal issue. In de Kooning’s black-and-white paintings of the late 1940s, for example, the occasional use of letters or numbers was a mere pretext for him to exercise his Cubist lexicon. Krasner’s deployment, on the other hand, is a function of self-searching process. Consider her paintings from the Little Image series of the late 1940s as well as some pictures of the late 1950s such as “Listen,” “Black, White, and Pink Collage,” or “Equation.” These pictures later led to a group of works that seemed to synthesize her preceding preoccupation with signature image as compositional device with her early ’50s collage, namely “Majuscule” (1971), “Rising Green” (1972), and “Mysteries” (1972). Though painted with oddly simplified forms suggesting the most obscure of the late Matisse cutouts, they are loaded with mixed references to Islamic scripture, Near Eastern calligraphs, and late Middle Ages illuminated manuscripts. Then, finally, follows her highly Conceptual and radical reconstruction of old drawings from Hans Hoffman’s class: “Eleven ways to use the words to see” (1976 – 1977) is a series of monumental collages that evoke the collision between what Krasner had been taught and had known about modernism and her keen insight and openness to the pervasive significance of postmodernist dogma from the ’60s onwards. Included are such titles as “Imperative,” “Imperfect Indicative,” and “Present Subjunctive,” all of which were done within two years. They provide an alternative and an ongoing dialogue between past and present in art history as well as in art criticism.
What is ultimately so staggering about Lee Krasner’s work is not simply her intellectual concerns, but the ongoing and explosive nature of her intuitive domain. Without a doubt, some of her best pictures were painted in this vein: “The Seasons” (1957), “Celebration” (1960), “Gaea” (1966), and “Uncia” (1967). Looking back, it is not that surprising to most of us that these more passionate paintings came after Pollock’s death in 1956. Together they constitute a sense of renewal in spirit. The paintings blossom with sensual forms that were painted with the speed of urgency. For Krasner, to make them was a matter of necessity rather than contemplation.
After seeing this wonderful exhibition, many of us will still come away with questions regarding Krasner’s remarkable career. Some of us might feel that her marriage to Pollock was a one-sided relationship—it appears that Pollock was the one who got the better half of that bargain.
Since Pollock’s death in 1956, precisely as he became an American cultural icon, Krasner continued to be seen as his widow first, and as a painter second. Nowadays, post-’60s feminism, one is more inclined to interpret Krasner’s work solely on her own terms. In so doing, one will be overwhelmed by her resolute self-determination and sheer energy. Indeed, every viewer who comes to the exhibit will likely see his or her opinion change, or, at least, will be inspired by Krasner’s endless self-transformation. As the artist herself said: “I have to change to remain the same.”
The Lee Krasner Retrospective continues at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through January 7, 2001.