Neither Wife Nor Widow
Lee Krasner: A Biography
William Morrow (2011)
Artists, more so than most cultural figures, have a deeply ambivalent relationship to biography. In particular, women artists have historically confronted two categorical extremes: on the one hand, a dearth of material documenting their lives and work; on the other, identity overexposure, or reliance on artistic interpretation based solely on personal details. To compound the matter, telling the stories of women artists in full book-length form is only a very recent phenomenon, with ample room for expansion. One of the latest attempts to fill that void is art historian Gail Levin’s comprehensive book Lee Krasner: A Biography, which gives long-deserved credit and recognition to a definitive 20th-century artist. After a lifetime spent dealing with writers, artists, and curators ultimately only interested in her husband Jackson Pollock, Krasner became suspicious of the biographer’s task and intent. Her life has become the stuff of legend in the art world, yet it remains punctuated by inconsistencies and gossip. Setting out to rectify this situation, Levin’s book spells out all the pieces that come together to define Lee Krasner, which is additionally crucial toward understanding the historical underpinnings of Abstract Expressionism and the art world at mid-century.
How do we reconcile the utterly subjective project of biography with an artist’s tendency to want to be read “objectively”? Throughout the many interviews she gave, Krasner often wavered back and forth on the subject, wary of labels she was commonly assigned such as “feminist,” “widow,” or even “American.” Her work also reflected this ambivalence, in its allusions to Krasner’s own life and subjective experience, something she affirmed in a later interview, despite her commitment to pure formal abstraction. Regarding abstraction, she wrote: “the painting I have in mind, painting in which inner and outer are inseparable, transcends technique, transcends subject, and moves into the realm of the inevitable.” It bears repeating, though it is a hackneyed story by now, that the group of artists who believed most in abstraction’s potential for transcendence and universality were among the most intolerant and exclusive of the 20th century. Levin aims to “give Krasner’s qualities and achievements their full and accurate due,” in light of the chauvinism and cool reception she encountered, even from close friends Clement Greenberg and Barnett Newman. Levin acknowledges these various components that form the complex person Krasner was—for example tracing Krasner’s strong self-determination in part to her upbringing as the child of Ukranian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn—but she never allows any one of these pieces to inform how we understand the artist.
Krasner was an integral founder of Abstract Expressionism as it developed in New York, a longtime employee of the Works and Progress Administration in the 1930s and ’40s, a savvy, intellectual student of the avant-garde European modernists—and, of course, married to Jackson Pollock and thus subject to the overshadowing and overexposing of her own life that occurred as a result of that partnership. As far as Krasner’s 14-odd years with Pollock, Levin is highly conscious of the mythic, overdetermined nature of their relationship, and navigates it with elegance. She neither paints Pollock as a monster (more so a depressed, sick individual), nor glorifies or exaggerates Krasner’s involvement in his life and career, though the role she played in facilitating his career was integral, and is examined at length here. Though Pollock’s personal troubles were emotionally exhausting, Krasner materializes as restrained less by Pollock himself, or by comparisons between Pollock’s art and her own, but by the conditions for women in a misogynistic post-war culture. As Levin writes, Krasner “never envisioned being a housewife or accepted the restraint society imposed on women,” though she was highly conscious of the hostile art world in which she was participating. Krasner was characterized throughout her life as manipulative, pushy, and ornery, but Levin reveals her as far more complex than that: driven, confident, independent, politically active. Additionally, thorough research of oral histories, interviews, reviews, catalogues and articles emphasizes the independence and originality of Krasner’s art, and her ambitious, critical engagement with modernism.
Levin was one of the first scholars to examine Krasner’s critical engagement with abstraction prior to Pollock (her 1978 exhibition with Robert Hobbs at the Whitney Museum, Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years, included Krasner right beside her male peers). She continues this argument here, making the case for Krasner’s technical abilities and vision as an artist wholly autonomous from Pollock, dwelling on her training with renowned teacher Hans Hofmann, her passion for Mondrian, Matisse, andCézanne, and her skilled handling of paint stretching back to her days at Cooper Union. Some of the more instructive and eye-opening moments in the text are when Levin engages directly with Krasner’s artistic process and thematic interests, whether pointing out her interest in literary texts such as Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, or her fascination with language, symbols, and calligraphy.
Ultimately, Krasner wanted her work to be judged by the same aesthetic criteria her male peers were being held to. Yet as art historian Anne M. Wagner has written, “fiction depended on Krasner”—her testimonies have historically been selected and picked apart to serve any number of myths and agendas, mostly to serve Pollock. In Lee Krasner Gail Levin “restore[s] Krasner’s voice” as she puts it, and in the very telling of the story—the full story—validates Krasner within the art historical canon. Though biographies too often have their own agendas, they are most helpful, and powerful, when they consider every messy complexity of who a person is. Lee Krasner is evidence that biography can be one of the most powerful and radical tools artists can wield, if in the right hands.
ABBE SCHRIBER is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has a B.A. in art history from Oberlin College and works in the Curatorial Department at the Studio Museum in Harlem.