Robert Miller Gallery | April 21 – June 11, 2016
In the mid-’50s, Lee Krasner walked into a studio hung floor to ceiling with drawings. In a decisive moment of self-criticism, she tore her works from the walls until the floor was covered in fragments. “It wasn’t a decision. It happened, then I observed what I did. Murder,” she said in a 1978 interview. It was weeks before she opened her studio door again, fearing what she would see, but when she entered, the shreds on the floor seemed to show promise. They became the central elements in a series of collages shown at Stable Gallery in 1955.
About two decades later, Krasner revisited her collage technique as she carved up a series of charcoal drawings that were stored in her attic, Cubist remnants of her studies with Hans Hofmann between 1937 and 1940. In Past Conditional (1976), Krasner’s fragmented drawings are divided into an uneven triptych. The leftmost third, narrower than the others, depicts a face staring out a window. The two thirds to the right depict iterations of a female nude with an abstracted, box-like head and tangled legs. Krasner cut the drawings with scissors and knives, creating a second set of sharp lines and forms that interact with her earlier Cubist depictions of space. Large curving shapes of exposed canvas form another layer, a lattice that seems to float above the plane of the drawings. Her charcoal nudes lean diagonally from right to left, a motion echoed by the direction of charcoal lines and the cuts of her scissors. Exposed sections of canvas sweep the other way, creating tension and motion. Even as the scissor and knife cuts reveal gestural impulsivity, the collages as a whole show redemptive, analytical reason.
Along with other works at Robert Miller Gallery, which include an early figurative self-portrait, expansive drip paintings, and a painting from her “Little Images” series, the collages typify Krasner’s ambivalence: her willingness to destroy work in order to repurpose it, her reverence for history, her creativity and compulsive momentum. She was an eager student of history, soaking up lessons from Hofmann and others, as well as an agent of it. She was a member of the American Abstract Artists, a participant in the WPA. Because of her formidable wit, she was a source of intellectual nourishment to critics like Clement Greenberg as well as artists like de Kooning, Gorky, and her husband Jackson Pollock.
The works, which span more than forty years, show Krasner’s vast and frequent stylistic overhauls. Untitled (1949), of her “Little Images” series, is set up like a grid with Mondrian reds, blues, greys, and yellows. Hieroglyphic shapes, each confined to a block of color, animate the composition. Her symbols recall Greek meanders, zig-zags, and springs that emphasize irregularities in the grid. Just as the scissor and knife cuts of her collages added paradoxical impulsivity and deliberation, her gestural drip paintings like The Eye Is the First Circle (1960) show evidence of cerebral intervention. Ocular circles disturb an otherwise rigorous abstraction, and radial spatters of paint form arcs that translate her painterly gestures into a coherent depiction of eddying, organic motion.
In interviews, Lee Krasner was direct, even as she remained elusive. When asked how Mondrian, Matisse, or Pollock influenced her work, she’d often respond with something humorous like “I wouldn’t know,” as if someone were in a better position than she to make that judgment. She frankly admitted the importance of her influences, even as she asserted that they were not the decisive factor in any particular work. Firmly within a masculine generation of Abstract Expressionist painters that held originality in near-divine regard, her deep interest in the work of her contemporaries set her apart, and ultimately helped her to produce a rich and dynamic body of work.