On ViewPaul Kasmin
September 13 – October 27, 2018
Eight gouache studies from 1940 for a proposed mural mark the second exhibition of Lee Krasner’s work at Paul Kasmin since it began representing the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s estate in 2016. There is no record for which space Krasner intended these works, but the evidence suggests Krasner had a specific location in mind given the two rectangular gaps—openings to accommodate window or door frames—that appear in the same positions along the bottom edge of each study. Krasner had taken over a WPA mural project begun by de Kooning in 1937. These gouaches reflect the influences in De Kooning’s abstract design for the 1937 project. The themes he borrowed for his work—Fernand Léger’s bold black outlines and swatches of primary colors, the carefully nested compositions of the British painter Ben Nicholson—also show up in these studies. To that mix Krasner added the biomorphic abandon of Joan Miró. These gouaches show Krasner compiling an abstract lexicon, which she would subsequently deploy across the length of her protean career. We also see her coming to grips with composing works at the heroic scale that would come to define so many painters of her post-war generation.
One of the pleasures of Mural Studies is taking in Krasner’s formal inventiveness as the studies cover an expanse of compositional variations. Untitled Mural Study, 1940, borrows from the interlocking geometry of Nicholson’s abstraction. With the exception of a yellow kidney-shaped outline floating over a white background, Krasner divides the entire surface into rectangles. Planes of white, blue, and red converge in a tight embrace. She adds bands of black and yellow that cross over and under the planes to add lateral and vertical tension. All those right angles make the yellow outline’s eccentric movement all the more energetic—a contrast Nicholson would never have countenanced. On the other hand, Untitled Mural Study, 1940 (PK 22380), hasn’t a single 90° angle, apart from the cutouts for the site. Krasner gives us a sweep of crazy curves blowing from right to left like so many leaves caught in a gale. With its vivid blacks and red shapes on a cobalt background, this work owes a debt to Miró’s Surrealist compositions of the ’20s and ’30s.
The rest of the studies split the difference between these two extremes, some with implied linear perspective to suggest an interior space, as is the case with Untitled Mural Study, 1940. It has the most pentimenti, an indication Krasner was thinking something through as she worked on it. Her process led her to pare down the composition to a white and grey background with just a handful of figures: a blue one at far left with a trapezoidal bite taken out of it; at center a red trapezoid stacked on a yellow organic form; and another green trapezoid just to the right. On top of the stacked forms at center is a lattice of Léger-like thick black lines that brings to mind an easel. With that and all the trapezoids suggesting canvases pitched at various angles, it is easy to read this study as an abstracted studio. Whatever the interpretation, in this study Krasner best integrated the site-specific gaps into the overall pictorial structure. At the same time, the image’s simplicity makes its internal scale magnitudes larger than its actual 7 ⅛” x 23 ¼” dimensions, and an excellent candidate for blowing up to a mural.
Aside from their particular merits, it bears noting that Krasner likely meant none of these gouaches for public consumption. While not juvenilia, they lack the power and originality of Krasner’s mature works. Nonetheless, these studies deserve our attention because they mark an important milestone on her path to large-scale abstraction. They also bring to light a synthesizing intelligence that delighted in pulling from multiple sources to arrive at a range of surprising results. Said trait would cement her reputation as a maverick during her later years, when, unlike her cohorts, she resisted developing a signature style. Today such a desire for stylistic consistency has lost its urgency, leaving us to appreciate, with less prejudice, the full breadth of Krasner’s talent.