TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1973

Lee Krasner’s Paintings, 1946–49

FROM 1946–49 LEE KRASNER produced a group of major works she calls the Little Image paintings. These works, whose originality and quality entitle their creator to take her place as one of the leading artists of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, have never been exhibited as a complete body.1 Moreover, the importance of the Little Image paintings in relation to the contemporary works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Tobey, and Bradley Walker Tomlin has never been acknowledged in official circles. This lack of acknowledgment has resulted in a serious underestimation of Krasner’s art.

The Little Image paintings are characterized by an allover format, a tendency to emphasize the actual two dimensionality of the picture plane by creating a surface tension through the illusion of forms moving backward and forward on the canvas, and an unceasing flow of movement sustained by a nonhierarchical organization of line, shape, and color. All these works manifest an intensely personal, highly distinctive kind of handwriting, or “a calligraphy of the soul.”

The works fall into three different categories which occasionally overlap to form new variations of the primary themes. There are the heavily stroked, allover paintings of 1946–47, the hieroglyphs that appear after the mosaic tables of 1947–48, and the skein or weblike formats of 1947–49 which are often combined with thick built-up dabs of colorful pigment or calligraphic-like brushstrokes of black and white.

Before discussing the Little Image paintings in detail, it is necessary to examine the circumstances that led up to their creation. In 1941, Krasner was a mature painter, who worked by abstracting from the object. Then she saw Pollock’s painting and openly acknowledged that she was deeply moved by it.2 From then on she became involved in another way of working and seeing. In 1942 she participated, along with Pollock, Maria and Robert Motherwell, and Ethel and William Baziotes, in automatist Surrealist games.3 Later on in the ’40s, when John Myers questioned Pollock and Krasner on the relationship of the Surrealist ideas to their own work, both artists affirmed that they had been influenced by automatism.4

Krasner, in 1943, began to retreat into herself, working hard to find her own way. She could no longer work as in the past, but had to go deeper into the sources of her own being. Through 1943–46, she was unable to release any imagery that would satisfy her; only massive buildups of gray slabs of paint resulted from her efforts, until, in 1946, the Little Image paintings emerged.5

What occurred was that the artist, inspired by Pollock and the prevalent automatist doctrines, had made the jump from the external to the internal world by “descending” into a deep abyss, which is what, one would surmise, her gray masses of 1943–46 represent. Ridding herself of all outside references, the artist delved into her own psyche, into the primordial. The painter went to the source, that exhilarating center flowing beneath all life, and returned enthralled but in control. Indeed the phrase “controlled chaos” comes to mind upon viewing Krasner’s Little Image paintings.

he first allover Little Image works of 1946–47 were created by applying a palette knife or a tube of paint directly to the canvas. In her earliest works such as Untitled, 1946, done in myriad color, Krasner dug into the paint with the back of her brush, making crosslike marks all over the canvas, prophetic of the hieroglyphs to come. Noon, 1947, with its effervescent surface, also reveals the same heavy allover application of paint and the incised pigment. Shell Flower of this same year, likewise evenly covered with rich thick globs of paint, brings to mind the vision of a heavily overlaid honeycomb, an open network that glows from within with brilliant fragments of color. In the same group stylistically is an untitled and undated painting composed of autumnal colors, deposits of red, green, and brown with shards of pink and yellow overlaying patches of blue. Both paintings imply an involvement with nature. These early works as well as the subsequent Little Image paintings were not usually painted in one sitting, but emerged slowly over a period of time.

Between 1947–48 the artist did several skeinlike paintings. These works consist of a mass of thin wiry lines, one overlaid on the other, with an undercoating of heavy palette knife dabs building and filling up the surface with endless activity, never allowing the eye to rest on any one segment for any length of time. The smallness of the format, on the average 28” x 30”, gives the painting a cohesive density of image, the restless nervous movement creates the illusion of an enlarged field of action that leads the eye beyond the confines of the canvas.

Then in 1947, Krasner produced a mosaic table embedded with bits of freely broken glass, tile keys, coins and jewelry along with tesserae. This work introduces a hieroglyph motif which Krasner developed in more depth in 1948, when she did several paintings composed of small squares that began her hieroglyph series. There is a Mondrianesque painting on paper in black and white, composed of heavy impastoed rectangular forms in which his plus and minus forms are transformed into the organic. Each rectangle is part of a system and related in shape; yet each area is completely unique, individual, and alive in the same way as each organism in nature is unique unto itself. Krasner speaks of this merging of the organic with the “abstract,” as she calls it, thus:

As I see both scales, I need to merge these two into the ever-present. What they symbolize I have never stopped to decide. You might want to read it as matter and spirit. The need to merge as against the need to separate.6

Along with this classical statement, the artist produced, in 1948, three more paintings of boxlike forms: Black and White Squares, Blue Squares, and White Squares. Each of these works consists of a series of built-up squared-off configurations placed in a gridlike arrangement. Each square is different from the other, but each is part of a legible sequence. Together these images create a total field of pulsating movement giving the illusion of activity backward and forward in space. Krasner has created a systemic structure to organize and control her images which dismisses the techniques of push and pull taught to her by Hans Hofmann to hold the surface of the canvas and to give the illusion of its being a living, growing, ever-changing entity.

From the totally abstract squares the artist went on to the so-called hieroglyph paintings of 1949. These calligraphic works are composed of geometric shapes such as squares, circles, triangles, diamonds, zigzags etc., all laid out side by side. Sign and symbol follow each other row after row filling up the canvas from edge to edge in a manner reminiscent of ancient writing, each sign resembling an undecipherable seal or cuneiform of the past. It is this serial presentation of the units which goes beyond Hofmann’s essentially push-and-pull theory of composition, on which Krasner’s importance is based.

At the same time that these clearly defined hieroglyphs occur, Krasner combines this kind of mysterious handwriting with the skeinlike webbing format of the 1947–48 paintings. In 1949 paintings like Continuum or Night Light, she synthesized the modes she had been investigating for the past three years. Both paintings are somber in tone and are created out of a labyrinth of crisscrossing drips of paint. There are multiple centers covering a thick underlaying of heavily applied paint. Night Light brings to mind a dew-laden spider’s web embroidered on the grass and seen at twilight. In contrast to Night Light, which has no recognizable symbols caught in its spinnings, Continuum contains manifold latticelike configurations suggestive of geometric structures. Continuum is indeed a masterpiece of this period combining all the innovative elements of Krasner’s explorations. James Brooks, speaking of the clear, sharp imagery of these paintings, observes:

The multiplication of it in small areas but with great infinite variation was quite wonderful. It never got monotonous. There was a fresh invention going through the whole thing—a kind of unconscious freedom. Stravinsky said “You can’t really invent without limitations.” Lee had the limitations that come with a strong knowledge of the way paintings have to be put together, but she had the psyche to move through that with her imagination.7

Krasner also in 1949 combined geometric or calligraphiclike motifs with the heavy impasto buildup of her earliest Little Image works of 1946-47. In the untitled painting of 1949, earth tones prevail, ocher and crimson, and the painting is composed of coagulated dabs of paint as in the earlier Noon painting. However, superimposed on the surface is a series of black, crosslike forms which simultaneously advance and retreat from the canvas surface on which they are placed. Another painting of this kind, the last of the Little Image series, is the Untitled of 1949 (owned by The Museum of Modern Art) covered with a thickly crusted pigment in somber tonalities with touches of red, blue, and pink and a white graffiti-type writing worked into the background colors.8 It is impossible to understand the true significance of the Little Image paintings until we place them in their historical context. This can only be done by relating the paintings to the works of contemporary artists with similar concerns, particularly Pollock, Gottlieb, Tobey, and Tomlin.

When Krasner’s Little Image paintings were emerging, Pollock too began to produce thickly coagulated, allover canvases. Francis O’Connor, in the catalogue of the 1967 Pollock retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, recalls a small Pollock painting of 1946 entitled Croaking Movement. It is a heavily congealed canvas, with graffiti scratched into the surface with the handle of the brush imposing the geometric on the organic, not unlike Krasner’s first untitled painting of 1946. Pollock’s Shimmering Substance, a small, light-keyed, swirlingly stroked-on painting, also parallels Krasner’s Noon, painted between April and December, 1946, and shown as a part of the Sounds in the Grass series at the Art of This Century Gallery in 1947.9 To further confirm the closeness of the dating of the Pollock and Krasner paintings, Krasner’s Night Life has been definitely dated May, 1947, by John Little.10 Going by this dating she remembers doing three Little Image paintings before Night Life, among them Untitled, 1946, Noon, and Shell Flower, 1947. There is also a simultaneous development taking place between Krasner’s skein and Pollock’s drip paintings such as Full Fathom Five and Cathedral, 1947. However, when one observes the Pollocks and the Krasners side by side, it is quite obvious that her thick crusty surfaces are dissimilar to his much looser thinner applications. Her field never thins out at the edges while his, at times, does and the scale of their paintings is entirely different. It is interesting to note that it was not until 1947, the year Krasner created her first mosaic table, that Pollock introduced into his painting Full Fathom Five, all sorts of extraneous material—nails, tacks, buttons, keys, coins, etc.

What then was the relation of Krasner’s work to Pollock’s during her crucial Little Image period? The exploration into the subconscious does not occur in Pollock’s work until 1946 when he and Krasner were living in Springs, East Hampton. Krasner it should be remembered, had worked abstractly from 1943 and after a torturous search for identity, she succeeded in releasing her inhibitions, her preconceived ideas, her ego. In 1946, the first of her Little Image paintings represent the fully realized depiction of her inner explorations.

It would seem, then, that Krasner and Pollock reached the same place simultaneously though their visions were very different. Yet since the two had been each probing into their own worlds at the same time and in each other’s company, it is not surprising that a certain esthetic overlap exists in their work. As James Brooks, who knew the two artists well during that time, states:

. . . considering the nature of the circumstances, two people, both strong-willed and highly intelligent, living in very close quarters and in comparative isolation, it was very natural that that should happen.11

Another artist to whom Krasner relates stylistically is Adolph Gottlieb, who had presented his pictographs in boxlike structures since 1942. However, Krasner does not remember seeing Gottlieb’s work during the period her squares and hieroglyphs were evolving (nor the paintings of Torres-Garcia). Moreover, her images despite nature traces are without the recognizable totemic signs that Gottlieb retained.

Attempts have also been made by critics Norbert Lynton and Guy Brett to associate Krasner’s work with that of Mark Tobey, who had achieved a seemingly allover calligraphic imagery as early as 1935.12 Tobey exhibited his work in 1944 at the Willard Gallery where it was seen by the New York art world (again Krasner does not remember seeing his paintings at that time). In any event, there are distinct differences between the paintings of Tobey and Krasner. Although Tobey’s calligraphy seems to be evenly distributed over the canvas, in actuality, it does not extend over the total surface but as it nears the edge tends to thin out along the border. Moreover, Tobey is not a nonobjective painter in the way that Krasner is. Indeed Tobey’s painting came out of a religious philosophy while Krasner worked out of her own individual psyche. The use of paint in Tobey’s thin tempera works is another point of contrast to the sensuous love of the medium expressed in the Little Image paintings of Krasner. As Robert Goldwater said of the West Coast artists, of whom Tobey was the best known:

Their forms and techniques are basically western but they have been influenced by a rather romantic reading of Eastern mysticism into underplaying their medium to the point of denial. This is one of the marks which distinguishes their works, characteristically pale and gentle, from the vitality and energy of the New York group.13

Another artist who has not been associated with Krasner but seems to have responded intensely to her Little Image paintings is Bradley Walker Tomlin. Tomlin, a great friend of the Pollocks, was a frequent visitor, and certainly saw Krasner’s Little Image paintings which were hung in the guest room where he slept. The artist remembers that Tomlin complimented her on these works on many occasions and others, including Betty Parsons, John Myers, James Brooks, and Annalee Newman, who knew Tomlin and the Pollocks at that time confirm his admiration for Krasner and her work.14

John I. H. Baur notes Tomlin as having seen and greatly admired Gottlieb’s Sounds at Night, 1948, and soon after viewing it changed his style. This may be so, but Tomlin was also viewing Krasner’s little square paintings in 1948 as well as her hieroglyphs of 1949. This interaction has never been acknowledged although Baur duly observes in his book on Tomlin that the artist visited the Pollocks on Long Island from 1948–50 and goes on to say that:

Tomlin needed to satisfy his innate sense of form which he felt he could not do through semi-automatic paintings of 1948. His problem was to keep something of his newly won freedom and spontaneity and yet to build pictures that would satisfy his instinctive feeling for harmony and order.15

Considering Tomlin’s dilemma, it is not surprising that Krasner’s Little Images of 1948 offered a way out for him. Here he saw the free flow of line and color organized and controlled in a beautiful organic system of its own.

To propose Krasner’s influence on Tomlin is certainly not to take away from his accomplishments and innovations, any more than to recognize Pollock’s initial influence on Krasner and then her reciprocal influence on him is to detract from their unique contributions. Too much has been made of who influenced whom during this period and as Robert Goldwater pointed out in Quadrum, 1960:

Members of the group have each other’s paintings and ideas under constant scrutiny. To recognize this unceasing give and take is to deny neither individuality nor creativity; on the contrary, it reaffirms both as it reaffirms a continuing awareness of an outside world.16

Krasner’s unique contribution in relation to those of her peers entitles her to a foremost position. Yet the Little Image paintings have received neither esthetic nor historical recognition. This inequity is directly attributable to the sexist attitudes rampant among the art-world establishment.

It was even more difficult in the late ’40s and early ’50s than it is today for a woman artist to get any extensive recognition for her achievements. Krasner’s name has been omitted from almost every important documentary and critical exegesis on Abstract Expressionism. Neither contemporary critics—Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Thomas Hess, Robert Goldwater, Dore Ashton—nor later commentators—Barbara Rose and Irving Sandler—have referred to her work of this period. Her close friends of that time, among them writers Greenberg who remarked of one of Krasner’s Little Image paintings “That’s hot; it’s cooking,”17 and Rosenberg, who refused to discuss the artist’s work with the author in connection with this article, did nothing to make Krasner’s name known to the public. When queried on the telephone as to the contribution made by Krasner as an artist, Green-berg’s reply was “I never went for her paintings. She immolated herself to Pollock. Lee should have had more faith in herself and more independence; but then that is the problem of all female artists.”18 This is in direct opposition to Greenberg’s earlier statement of 1971:

I evaluate women’s art exactly the same way as I do men’s, children’s and chimpanzee’s. I can’t conceive of there being more than one way of evaluating art under this aspect. I don’t react to works in terms of their provenance . . . nor do I take seriously the evaluations of those that do.19

Robert Motherwell’s treatment of Krasner in Art News, 1967, in his “homage” to Pollock is an example of the prejudice against women that pervades the art world. He refers to Krasner three times in his article, once as “Lee” and twice as “wife,” but does not acknowledge her existence as an artist by using her full professional name.20

Krasner sums up her position as a woman artist during that time very aptly:

It’s too had that women’s liberation didn’t occur thirty years earlier in my life. It would have been of enormous assistance at that time. I couldn’t run out and do a one woman job on the whole masculine art world and continue my paintings and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. What I considered important was that I was able to do my work and other things would have to take their turn. Rightly or wrongly I made my decision!21

While Pollock was being acclaimed the greatest living American artist, Krasner created between 35 or 40 Little Image paintings. The idea that Krasner was submerged in Pollock has no foundation in fact, but it has been used by a biased art world as an excuse to ignore her achievements throughout her professional career.

The Little Image paintings of 1946–50 are the seed beds containing all the stylistic and subjective themes which appear in the artist’s work right up to the present. The wild, rhythmic patterns, the mysterious hieroglyphic traces, the organic references to natural phenomena are all manifest in these small, but fully matured early works. Over and over Krasner has mined and multiplied and monumentalized all the elements she first gathered together in the Little Image paintings. These paintings must be investigated and given their due if art historians and critics are to have an accurate picture of the accomplishments of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. So far the only artists of that era whose activities and achievements have been carefully documented have been those who were politically as well as artistically outspoken. The existence of a major body of work by Lee Krasner, obscured by sexist discrimination, should lead art historians and critics into a reexamination of the entire period.

Lee Krasner is a vital and influential member of the first generation of the New York School. Her early essay into total abstraction and her stylistic allover treatment of the canvas as a unified surface testify to her importance.

Cindy Nemser

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NOTES

1. Some of the Little Image paintings were exhibited at the Guild Hall, East Hampton, in 1949, 1950, and 1953. Others were shown in “The Modern Home Comes Alive, 1948–49,” Bertha Schaefer Gallery, New York City; “Man and Wife,” Sidney Janis Gallery, New York City, 1949; and at The House of Books and Music, East Hampton, 1954.

2. Krasner met Pollock at the time through their mutual participation in an exhibition organized by John Graham entitled “French and American Painting” at the MacMillan Gallery.

3. In 1943, Krasner remembers being clocked for speed in a lettering class to study drafting. She also did automatic writing which she read aloud while the class roared with laughter.

4. From a discussion with John Myers, June, 1973.

5. John Little does remember that before these small allover formations appeared, Krasner was doing linear paintings which were composed of large forms. They were not allover, but neither were they still lifes derived from nature. Unfortunately Krasner did not save any of these paintings.

6. Cindy Nemser, “A Conversation With Lee Krasner,” Arts Magazine, April,1973, p. 44.

7. From a taped discussion with James Brooks, July, 1973.

8. Unfortunately the lack of acknowledgment of the Little Image paintings has led to misleading assumptions about this work. In the recent rearrangement of the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, this painting, which comes at the end of the Little Image series, has been placed next to Pollock’s Shimmering Substance of 1946, done in a similar allover heavily brushed-on style. The natural reading for those with no knowledge of the Krasner Little Image series is to assume that she was imitating Pollock’s style three years later.

9. According to O’Connor, Shimmering Substance was probably painted toward the end of 1946 since The Sounds in the Grass series was done after the more realistic Accabonac Creek series of the same year. Furthermore, he agrees that Shimmering Substance with its entirely abstract imagery, was painted later in 1946 than Eyes in the Heat which still retains some references to Pollock’s ever-present archetypal symbolism. From a discussion with Francis O’Connor, July, 1973.

10. John Little, a fellow student of Krasner’s at the Hofmann School, visited her in May, 1947, when he first moved out to East Hampton. He was surprised to see how her images had changed and how small her format had become.

11. From a discussion with James Brooks, July, 1973.

12. Norbert Lynton, “Obstacle Race,” The Guardian, September 27, 1965, “London Letter,” Art International, vol. IX, November, 1965; Guy Brett, “The Abstract Art of Lee Krasner,” The Times (of London), September 22, 1965, The Listener, October 14, 1965.

13. Robert Goldwater, Quadrum, no. 8 (1960), p. 32.

14. Their testimony regarding the camaraderie and deep respect which existed between Krasner and Tomlin contradicts a statement made by Robert Motherwell in his preface to John Baur’s book on Tomlin. Speaking of the relationship between himself, Philip Guston, Pollock and Tomlin. Motherwell writes: “the three of us filled with a self torment and an anxiety that was alien to Tomlin but to which he must have deeply responded to have loved us so much in turn. He simply ignored our wives.” See John Baur, Bradley Walker Tomlin, New York, 1957, p. 11. One must indeed doubt the validity of this statement since during a large portion of the period to which he refers, Pollock and he were no longer on speaking terms as a result of a quarrel. Therefore he was in no position to comment on the behavior of Tomlin to Lee Krasner.

15. Baur, pp. 29–31.

16. Goldwater, p. 34. On this same point also see Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting, New York, 1970, p. 3.

17. Nemser, “Conversation with Lee Krasner,” p. 44.

18. From a discussion with Clement Greenberg, June, 1973.

19. Cindy Nemser, “Analysis: Critics and Women’s Art,” Women and Art, Winter, 1971, p. 1.

20. “Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part I,” Art News, April, 1967, p. 29.

21. Cindy Nemser, “An Unpublished Conversation with Lee Krasner,” March, 1973.