TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1968

Lee Krasner in Mid-Career

THAT LEE KRASNER WAS THE wife of Jackson Pollock has been at once the greatest single advantage and the greatest handicap to her career as an independent painter: an advantage, because the experience of living and working intimately with Pollock served as a crucial catalyst to her own work—a disadvantage, especially since his death in 1956, because in one sense, she has had to labor against her relationship to Pollock. To the extent that Miss Krasner has increasingly expunged from her paintings an allegiance to his style, without giving up basic sympathies and conceptions about the process of art, which she and Pollock shared, her recent works read as among the most solid achievements of a prolific and surprisingly impressive production.

There is a group of artists—Jack Tworkov, John Ferren, Robert Goodnough—of the same artistic generation, who, along with Lee Krasner, gained some amount of recognition during the 1950s. Since then they have been largely overlooked by the public and press. While their work, like Krasner’s, appears to be outside current frames of reference, it is still possible—and necessary—to acknowledge it, not only for its ambition, but also for its recognizably high quality. If Krasner’s painting does not enter into a “dialogue” with the vast amount of (often uninspired) work being turned out by newcomers, this is not to say that the issue of its merit is not relevant to the current scene. Since relatively little of this work has been shown publicly in the past decade (her last New York exhibition took place five years ago)1, it is in order here to recount its development, and the heritage to which it refers. In this way, her present work can be located in its own proper perspective.

Lee Krasner has been painting since the mid-thirties, when she was a student at the National Academy and with Hans Hofmann in New York. Her first contact with Matisse and others of the Paris School of painting came in 1929 at the Museum of Modern Art, and she recalls being hit very hard by this experience.2 Although as a student she was greatly inspired by Hofmann’s enthusiasm and seriousness about painting, it was Matisse and Picasso who served as her two stylistic rallying points during this period. In part, this resulted from the fact that Hofmann’s pupils never saw his paintings until 1944 (long after many had left his classes), and also because he himself “swung the pendulum between Picasso and Matisse” in his teaching and criticism. Nevertheless, Krasner’s own interpretations of Cubism were not concurrent with her teacher’s, and by the time she did get to see his paintings, Pollock had already wrought too great an effect on her concepts for Hofmann’s style to be significant as his ideas and methods had been previously (Krasner and Pollock met in 1941 on the occasion of a gallery show in which they were both participating.) In fact, even while she studied under Hofmann, Krasner, with her typical wry independence, had passed through a phase strongly influenced by Mondrian (ca. 1938–9), as a sharp break from the other masters to whom she had been looking. This manner would later be reflected in her first completely personal style, which crystallized around 1946–50, in what she has called her “little image” paintings. By the time this series began Krasner had already left the Hofmann school, and it had taken about three years before a dissatisfaction with her work evolved into this new synthesis, based on an understanding of Pollock’s painting.

In these small canvases (none exceed two feet in dimension) Krasner effected her first important transition from the Hofmann taught Cubist mode of working from models and nature, to Pollock’s method of working directly on the canvas, without recourse to any intervening subject matter. These paintings are heavily impastoed, mostly black and white grids, often with an overlay of hieroglyphic markings or dripped continuous squares. The dripping was a very controlled situation, sustained through many sessions, and it frequently has a visual effect of self containment—that is, the concentricity of the trailed lines suggests a tunneling inward from the surface of the canvas. Paradoxically, and at the same time, the laced webs or checkered patterns behind these dripped or drawn configurations can close off the background space, projecting the whole picture forward to an extent that few of her paintings since then have done. There is a certain amount of improvisation within this grid framework, and with their syncopated rhythms, these fine little paintings call to mind Mondrian’s late works, such as the Broadway Boogie Woogie.

By 1951 Krasner abandoned this intricate structuring and began to paint more thinly and broadly, concentrating on a balance between vertical and horizontal tensions;3 but many of the canvases from this period were later torn up and reworked into collages. Miss Krasner tends to paint in four to five year stretches using one particular approach, then a break will occur, while the imagery and manner of working will develop into something quite different. Unlike so many who painted in the Abstract Expressionist vein she has not allowed a resolved style to degenerate into a mannerism. Although at times her production has been uneven, with periods of evident faltering—where the emotional impetus is felt to be less in check, or the formal will seems somehow more tentative and scrambled—she has always been able to capitalize upon past achievements, to move on more assuredly, without resorting to mere “feeling,” or slipping off into painterly “expression” for its own sake.

Perhaps, in some measure, this ability to retain clarity has to do with the way in which she and her husband were accustomed to respond to each other’s work. Curious as it might seem, they never engaged in formal discussions about European painting (of which both had an acute awareness), nor did they go into detailed esthetic analyses or criticism of their own paintings. As Krasner has maintained—they just didn’t do “art-talk.” Instead, the kind of mutual encouragement which came from living together, and her husband’s unabashed impatience with emotional “bellyaching,” from the beginning of their relationship to its end, seems to have been an important factor in steadying Krasner’s approach to her work. Likewise, at certain points she was asked to bring her eye to bear on Pollock’s paintings, and although she would be the first to admit that she never redirected his thinking per se, it is evident that some part of her painterly and personal response was essential to him, as well as it was to herself and to her art.

An experience in the studio, around 1953, resulted in a group of collages and collage-paintings which were shown at the Stable Gallery in New York, in 1955. Dissatisfied with many of her drawings, which had been tacked all over the studio walls, Krasner ripped them up and strewed them on the floor. The effect of the overlapped fragments suddenly looked quite interesting, and suggested to her the idea of reapplying these scraps, along with pieces of her own and her husband’s old canvases4 to form a kind of collage. These works are dominated by slender, plume-like ascendant forms, or by rough, irregular swatches in raucous, bright colors combining the attached segments with overpainted areas. In some, the pieces float and jostle over backgrounds of interlocking horizontals and verticals (from older paintings), or mottled single hues, while in others, such as City Verticals (1953), the torn shafts are arranged to create a vertiginously perforated facade. They seem to fluctuate between a sheer, decorative flatness, and a shallow, Analytical Cubist type of space. Although Matisse’s late papiers découpés did not have a specific impact on her, Krasner’s general awareness of the French painter is registered in these collages. It is clear that her cut and pasted fragments are neither as deliberately simplified, nor in most cases, as spaciously disposed for the sake of decorative contrast as were Matisse’s forms. There is, however, a similarity between the sharply defined edges of her pieces, with their crisp, brilliant hues, and Matisse’s manner of “presenting colors in dense, glowing masses”5 of bold motifs.

The later and more flattened phase of the collages, seen in Bald Eagle (1955), served as the basis for two immense mosaic murals, commissioned for the Uris Building at 2 Broadway, New York, in 1958–9, where it was quite appropriate to the glittering opticality of the glass tessarae. Krasner realized here that a tightly-knit, hard-edged style, derived from her experience with collage, would be the necessary bridge to those who had to execute the mural for her. Had she been able to work on the mosaic herself, past the point of color sketches (union regulations prevented this), she claims that she would have designed it as freely as she had done two mosaic tables which were made in 1947. These tables were set on iron wheel rims, and consisted of bits of broken glass, discs, shells, coins, and jewelry cast into a cement ground. The glass pieces were a leftover accumulation of materials from a mosaic Pollock had done for the W.P.A. Federal Art Project (for which Krasner also worked). In his 1947 canvas, Full Fathom Five, Pollock, like his wife, included nails, tacks, keys, coins and buttons, and later (1950), he drew on this same supply of mosaic fragments when he did a painting on glass, Number 29. The use of foreign matter was not new to Krasner’s oeuvre, as even before she met Pollock she had incorporated sand into some paintings done during the late thirties. In contrast to Pollock, though, she has kept her mosaic and painting materials separated since this early period.

In 1956 and 1957 Krasner took another tack, and in a series of often mural scale paintings, beginning with a smaller one entitled Prophecy, she seems to have come closest to the style which appeared briefly in Pollock’s 1953 Easter and the Totem. In these works, large foliate shafts or animal like forms, staring eyes, disembodied limbs, and sac-shaped protuberances fill the canvas in swirling, bursting rhythms. They are both joyous and threatening, affirmative and atavistic in their treatment and effect. In some of the largest ones, open sprawling, and lyrical passages of arabesques in alizarin, yellow, permanent green, or cobalt violet are balanced against areas of greater density and detail. There is a major difference, however, between Krasner’s use of these suggestively figurative forms and Pollock’s use of totemic images. Whereas Pollock was quite involved with Jungian concepts about archetypal configurations, and with totemic or primitive symbols,6 especially in his work of the early forties (or after 1951), Krasner’s awareness of these principles, and her use of them in her own painting was, and still is, on a more intuitive level. It would be more in line to characterize, as she does, these vaguely connotative elements as “psychological content,” in only the most general, and certainly not symbolic sense. Furthermore, the images don’t exist nearly as explicitly as in either of Pollock’s partially figurative periods. The energies in her painting are based on nature in a very definite sense, but, “sometimes the painting takes over to the point where it dissolves [natural forms] more than at other times . . .” And, as Krasner herself has also pointed out, she doesn’t do “anything that isn’t related in some way . . . to nature.” In fact, in regard to her basic premises about painting, she says that she “can’t conceive of anything that doesn’t have this kind of organic, rudimentary form.”

She would never think in terms of a pre-planned abstract composition, either in the manner of Gorky, or like younger artists such as Larry Poons, Frank Stella and many others who map out a fairly specific blueprint for the final forms of the painting. Consequently, she never makes sketches,preferring to work directly. “There’s a . . . blank, and something begins to happen, and the hope is . . . that it comes through.”

Central to her concerns are the irrational means by which a painting works itself out—the surprises which occur, even in the midst of a decisive pictorial or chromatic notion, and the necessity of then consciously dealing with the possibilities which this type of experience offers. This is about as far as Krasner’s personal definition of automatism goes: it refers to a point in her thinking and painting where freely associated images and a method which is based on a form of automatism overlap. This is tempered in turn by the painter’s formal knowledge and awareness. Yet one senses, in looking at these works from 1956, that there was something the artist was not able to resolve in this manner at the time; much of the splash and excitement generated in part by these paintings has now been incorporated into her current work, with a greater amount of sophistication, and an explosiveness that now knows its bounds.

The predominantly umber paintings which Krasner worked on around 1960, such as The Eye is the First Circle, began to combine a more all over rhythm with the rough calligraphy and centrifugal energy, which had become a consistent characteristic of her hand, alternating a sense of buoyant aeration with dense bursts and blooms of paint. Even within their fairly limited chromatic range—raw and burnt umber, egg shell, rust, touches of violet—more and more one apprehends Krasner’s strongly idiosyncratic palette, and a growing capacity to cope with complex pictorial situations. Actually, the use of umber, a relatively neutral tone, was a solution for a temporary need to work at night under artificial lighting, for which she has a particular aversion. The instinct, one might note, was for brown, rather than black, because of its affinities with earth and nature. These murals consolidate the lessons Krasner had absorbed through Pollock, yet it is clear that her independence was feeling itself more completely and more distinctly than ever before. What might have looked a bit aimless or scribbly, even reckless, in some canvases of around 1952 or 1957 was now converted into a heady, cursive tautness, which has marked the most successful of her paintings since 1960.

Lee Krasner’s most recent works (dating from 1962) might be situated somewhere between a toughness which she had in common with Pollock (even before she knew him this feature was evident in her Cubist-based paintings), and the “airborne,” infinitely extensive quality to which she has always been attracted in Matisse. From time to time she has reverted to a perhaps more feminine delicacy, which informed her “little image” paintings of the late forties—working with a stippled, tachiste manner, and covering a canvas with lacy dabs, short arcs and spiraling loops. Palm Garden (1964), a very strange, though likeable combination of salmon, deep viridian, and ivory is done in a less superficial version of this style, and as such, it approaches the full-bodied coherence and outrageously appealing coloration which makes for the excitement and strength in many of the paintings which have appeared since that time.

One of Krasner’s most inventive areas, and one on which she has staked a great deal in her current paintings, is her eccentric and inelegant combination of colors such as grape purple, carmine red, and Kelly green, or citrus yellow, rose-madder, olive, and cadmium orange. Typically, jagged scythe or crescent forms, ovals, and splattered energetic thrusts are woven into and around broad, amorphous areas of saturated, high-keyed color. There is an odd mixture of highly formal, tensely worked out sections with relaxed passages, and details imbued with both psychological overtones and an almost sprightly humor. Along with the widened range of colorism and this variegated formal vocabulary, Krasner has also worked with reduced, monochrome palettes, although still within the context of bright or resonant color. Jungle Lattice (1967), is confined to only two main colors (forest green and ivory), yet it derives its quality from a strange blending of subtle tonality and a sensuous, rich surface. Siren (1967), another new work, plays off a startling grass green against the natural wheat color of the canvas, and the creamy liquid spatters, which bind painted passages to elusive, barely described natural forms. This painting, like Courtship (1966), combines a crisp, almost brittle assurance with a lush, decorative scheme, defining Krasner’s matured style and personal vision as it stands to date.

As with most dedicated painters, she is always preoccupied with the latest painting she is working on, and yet is deeply involved in her ongoing artistic evolution, and a critical evaluation of her oeuvre. Although her work is still largely premised on the first major influences she experienced—Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Pollock—Lee Krasner is just as concerned with the future of her painting, and its independent expression, as one might expect from a woman of her awareness and culture. She has noted, in this respect:

You do have an individual who appears on the horizon, and opens a door, wide; we all live on it, for a long time to come, ’till the next one individual arrives, and opens another door. In that sense, with regard to the young painter, whoever she or he may be, it’s inevitable that something will come along.7

Emily Wasserman

—————————

NOTES

1. The last New York show was at the Howard Wise Gallery in 1962. However, a retrospective exhibition took place in 1965, at the White chapel Gallery in London. This is the only major exposure Lee Krasner has received anywhere, and the catalog is the only summary text (although largely autobiographical) to have appeared about her work so far. It contains a chronology, a selected bibliography of reviews, some reproductions of the paintings in the show, and introductions by Bryan Robertson and B. H. Friedman.

2. All direct quotations and personal recollections or references are from Lee Krasner, unless otherwise indicated.

3. B. H. Friedman, introduction, Lee Krasner, Whitechapel catalog, London, 1965, p. 11.

4. Ibid.

5. Jacques Lassaigne, Matisse, Skira publishers, 1959, p. 122.

6. Pollock was undergoing Jungian analysis at the time.

7. I want to express my gratitude here to Lee Krasner, who cooperated graciously during the preparation of this article.