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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

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APRIL 2021 Issue
ArtSeen

Lee Krasner: Collage Paintings 1938–1981

Installation view: <em>Lee Krasner: Collage Paintings 1938–1981</em>, Kasmin, New York. March 11–April 24, 2021. Artwork © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Diego Flores.
Installation view: Lee Krasner: Collage Paintings 1938–1981, Kasmin, New York. March 11–April 24, 2021. Artwork © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Diego Flores.

On View
Kasmin Gallery
Collage Paintings 1938–1981
March 11 – April 24, 2021
New York, NY

Lee Krasner, Reclaiming, Rediscovering!

Immediately—for what is collage but immediate?—I was seized by the very idea of Lee Krasner’s self re-examination. Good Lord, did this woman genius painter have courage!

Kasmin’s current exhibition is presented in collaboration with the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and although it includes a few works from the Krasner retrospective that travelled Europe from 2019 to 2021, it more importantly contains several (to my way of seeing, magnificent) masterpieces from the very debut of her collage paintings at the Stable Gallery in 1955. There they appeared as, in Clement Greenberg’s words, “a major addition to the American art scene of the era.” This was a tremendously successful show, in dramatic contrast to the meager reception of an exhibition at Betty Parson’s a few years earlier, which occasioned the artist’s depression and a temporary cessation of work. In thinking about the importance of the collage paintings, the term “American” in the Greenberg quotation is crucial, for it says we aren’t imitating the French scene, we are doing our own thing—not importing, but being ourselves.

Lee Krasner, <em>Untitled</em>, 1954. Oil, glue, canvas and paper collage on Masonite, 48 x 40 inches. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private Collection, New York City. Photo: Diego Flores.
Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1954. Oil, glue, canvas and paper collage on Masonite, 48 x 40 inches. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Private Collection, New York City. Photo: Diego Flores.

These 1955 works are particularly fascinating, because they emerge from Krasner’s own process of self-examination. She destroyed many works, and only later rediscovered them, along with some of Jackson Pollock’s laid-aside projects. Drawing on this recovered trove, Krasner presents us with a startling number of re-compositions, crafted from a disorder that can scarcely fail to intrigue us. So, the idea of reclamation, and several of these works, grabbed me today, and I write instantly, so as not to forget. Something about collage speaks of immediacy to us, obviously: the sticking on of the sticky term “coller.” What is sticking in my mind here are a very few things.

First (the very word brings up the problem: what is really first in a collage, what is glued or pasted on to what?) we have burlap—I love its texture—and paper and oil, all stuck on linen and cotton duck and Masonite and canvas. With what impact it strikes us! Two get-to-you-right-away vertical compositions drawn from the 1955 Stable Gallery show mark Krasner’s real takeoff and demand our full focus, like someone unknown entering a room and immediately commanding attention.

Onwards: Blue Level (1955). How the brightness of the blue leaps through, under the stuck-on black paper, with a few white inserts from the painting underneath. The idea of levels and transparency permeates every perspective we could take on this, and, next to it, the astonishing collage-painting called Stretched Yellow (1955). The very title gives us the opportunity to make this work stretch beyond where we were when we were looking. Right now, looking back so recently, I can scarcely remember the moment before I stepped—a big step—into this exhibition, itself layered carefully from 1938 to 1981.

And then the window in Stretched Yellow’s underpainting, as well as the very construction of the painting, recalls to us Joseph Cornell’s celebrated box with its bird perch and open window in Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson (1952). Meanwhile, extending our view, Krasner’s yellow, stretched out in another window-shape, pulls us in under black paper angelic wings, which then reminds me of Bird Talk (1955), created the same year. What a truly grand year—and also the year that Joseph Cornell’s “Night Series” was shown at the Stable Gallery!

Lee Krasner, <em>Imperfect Indicative</em>, 1976. Collage on canvas, 78 x 72 inches. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Diego Flores.
Lee Krasner, Imperfect Indicative, 1976. Collage on canvas, 78 x 72 inches. © 2021 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Diego Flores.

These works appeal to the various senses—not just vision, but touch, and even hearing. Bird Talk, for example, when you stand there before it, compels both listening and gazing at the open mouths, ourselves a bit open-mouthed as a kind of speech resounds in our own imaginations. At least in mine, for these collages call on the personal, and deeply, in no way simply on the surface. Nothing simple here, and I haven’t even mentioned the first work that comes in view, Krasner’s very first collage painting, Seated Figure (1938–39), “inspired by Picasso’s cubist style,” in the gallery’s words—this work would take us, truly, elsewhere.

As for literary references—and the painter’s friend Richard Howard may well have given a nudge to these—I am thinking that Krasner’s To the North (1980) may be hearing Elizabeth Bowen’s 1932 novel of the same title, as its forms point out the direction in a chill, lending a dangerous meaning to the title. Likewise, both Imperfect Indicative (1976) and Present Subjunctive (1976), which use early charcoal drawings Krasner made when working with Hans Hofmann between 1937 and 1940, belong to a series called “Eleven Ways the Use the Words to See.” This presumes a reminiscence of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” as one poetic sense leads to another.

It is in our minds, then, that the rediscovery by Lee Krasner of formerly put-aside and rejected piles of paper and drawings awakens a personal sense of collage in all its senses, collective and individual, but above all appealing directly to us.

Contributor

Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2021

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