PRINT November 1984


LEE KRASNER, WHO DIED June 20, 1984, and whose traveling retrospective began at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and will open at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in December 1984, was a painter with a wide range of themes and techniques. Collage compositions, however, were one of her favorite media. She took a keen interest in how she titled her pictures, but like many artists she sometimes ran out of ideas as to what to call what. “Come for dinner,” she would say, “I’ve some new things I want you to see.” And I knew we would be having a delicious and hilarious conversation about naming the latest work. In recent years this occurred twice, once in 1977 and then again in 1981. On each of these occasions she had completed a suite of large-scale collages. We would sit and stare at the work in her studio on 79th Street talking about each piece, “freely associating” with the image before us to see if an arresting phrase or word would come forth. Sometimes this happened.

Our first collaboration began in 1946, when I suggested the title The Mouse Trap for one of the “Little Image” paintings. We were sitting in the kitchen; her husband, Jackson Pollock, was with us, when suddenly a wood rat scampered into the room. Pollock grabbed a broom; the rat headed toward the doorway to the living room, across which was placed the painting we had been looking at. The painting stopped the creature, down came the broom, and the rat was exterminated. I was reminded of a picture Meyer Schapiro had lectured on, a 15th-century triptych called The Mouse Trap, by Robert Campin. It had something to do with Christ and the trapping of souls. Since it wasn’t a big rat we decided “mouse” would be more appropriate for the title. Perhaps the picture would “trap” the imagination of viewers.

Krasner’s two remarkable suites of large-sized collages done in 1977 and 1981 were occasions for further titling sessions. The following dialogue between Lee and myself is accurate in spirit but not to the letter, since neither of our conversations was taped nor did I take notes in any detail. It was a marvelous game which we played for weeks.

It is a little difficult to reproduce Lee Krasner’s tone in writing. Her wit, humor and fantasy were a fusion quite idiosyncratic to herself. Sometimes acerbic, even harsh, her way of speaking or arguing flashed, sparkled,went always straight to the point like a laser beam. Those of us who danced or laughed with her know that conversation with her was a sheer delight. I hope that the follow ing dialogue catches in some way her presence.

John Bernard Myers: Why do artists fret about the titles they feel must be attached to their work?

Lee Krasner: It would be pleasant if we didn’t have to worry about which picture was which, and if, somehow, each piece of work found its name through the public, looking at it. However, the public is often not precise. Imagine a picture becoming known as “Whistler’s Mother” if you were Whistler.

JBM: The worry, then, at bottom, is identification and the confusions that can easily occur if an identification is vague or insufficient.

LK: Or misleading. This is one of the problems brought about by titling with numbers, Arabic or Roman, or with letters, capital or lower case; confusion often erupts. The confusion can be confounded by clerical errors, incorrect file cards, look-alike photographs of closely related work, and false memory. Numbers and letters tend to create snarls, perhaps because they are so disembodied. But worse, suppose a large number of artists were to thus identify their work—let’s not think of it. What a headache it would become!

JBM: During the organization of Jackson Pollock’s catalogue raisonné, a process that went on for many years, the editors had to keep their wits about them vigilantly to make certain number 10 was not number 23, and so on. Did you like Pollock’s taste for utilizing numbers?

LK: It would seem to be an ideal solution for abstract paintings to be abstractly titled. I am often tempted to do so, but do not, to avoid the perplexities already mentioned.

JBM: Have you considered naming a canvas by naming the major color or colors?

LK: If, as some scientists have argued, there exist over three million colors within the spectrum, most of them undetectable by the human eye, I suspect the results would be more vexing than ever.

JBM: What do you think of the titles of the Dadaist and Surrealist artists? Many of them, to say the least, are memorable.

LK: That is true. and perhaps more memorable than the works attached to them. Max Ernst’s The Little Tear Gland That Says Tic-Tac [1920] is a great one-liner, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it looks like. Paul Klee’s titles, are, of course, delightful little poems; the images accompany them nicely, for he was a bona fide fantast.

The titles of Salvador Dali are pretentious and essentially empty of serious meaning, since I don’t believe he understood Freud in the least. All of which would be OK if Dali were an interesting painter; except for a few of the early ones, he isn’t.

Ernst was a gifted artist, and his titles fit his work like gloves. The same is true of the best of René Magritte’s paintings. They are stylish and often humorous in unexpected ways. Truth to tell, I think most of the Dadaists and Surrealists were “idea” men and rather mediocre artists. The “ideas” have run thin. Duchamp has become so diluted that his work today looks both tired and passé. Few 20th-century artists have been so enthusiastically explicated.

JBM: Surely Picasso has been “explained” even more.

LK: Picasso needs no accounting for. The work says it all. Cubist titles are straightforward, even specific, and Picasso as well as Braque, Juan Gris, and other Cubists simply designated the objects or persons from which their images evolved: bottle and guitar, pipe and newspaper, head of Mme. X.

I may be wrong, but the problem of titling begins to get complicated with pure abstract art, starting as far back as 1906, and continuing with, say, the Rayonists in Kiev, and the nonrepresentations of Kandinsky.

JBM: Don’t you believe titles can be helpful to viewer and critic? To mention Pollock again, it seems to me many of his free-association titles are arresting and suggest clues for contemplation. The She-Wolf [1943]. for instance, and Lavender Mist [1950] both resonate in the mind.

LK: I agree. I also think certain modern works are given more presence. more projection through their titles. The Palace at Four A.M. [1932–33] by Alberto Giacometti would somehow not be the same without its splendid title. Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s very eccentric painting of a funeral door would be less than memorable if he hadn’t called it That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do [1931–41]. When one remembers how slowly the Albright brothers worked, the way life passed them by in many ways, the title is a whole little novel or autobiography in itself. Remarkable.

JBM: Are you convinced certain abstract paintings are made deliberately obfuscating by their titles? Examples, please.

LK: The most sensational example would be Barney Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” [1958–66]. Such a title can imply nothing but the Christian belief in the agony of Jesus Christ’s torture, his mortification. and then the resurrection. This is a shared belief among Christians; they have faith in the miracle of Christ’s ascension to heaven after the crucifixion, faith that he died on the cross to bring salvation to mankind. Newman, painting vertical bars and allowing no horizontals, destroys the potency of the symbol; the cross disappears along with the crucifixion. Thus the title becomes meaningless and the paintings pretentious. Modern artists who believe they have a direct pipeline to the Sublime ought instead to be teaching creationism in Arkansas. If the critics decide one’s work is mystical, religious, transcendental, there’s nothing one can do about it. But l think a rational understanding of life and the universe is more in keeping with what an artist of the 20th century can do. That’s quite a lot. The Sublime will take care of itself.

JBM: Titled or untitled, abstract painting tends to have a tone of ambiguity, don’t you think?

LK: I do, but so does good poetry and most of music. Ambiguity, however, is not the same as obscurantism, which, for me, is a sure sign of flawed intelligence.

JBM: Is it then a question of “reading” works of art—that is, that the maker wishes to be in touch with the receiver and offers a clue?

LK: All works of art must be “read,” but because they are nonverbal, and because seeing is harder than listening, the artist shouldn’t mind helping a little. I don’t try to be ambiguous; I simply do the work. But I am aware that abstract art is elusive for those who cannot “read,” or, shall I say, those who look but don’t see.

JBM: Your 1977 exhibition had the overall title “Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See.” In the next collage exhibition, in 1981, the whole show was called “Solstice.” In the first show who was supposed to be doing the seeing?

LK: Me.

JBM: No one else?

LK: The audience—of course—but essentially it was what I was seeing that made the overall title relevant. The pictures are not, however, didactic, and I hope viewers will enjoy seeing them as much as I did making them.

JBM: What did you “see”?

LK: During a weekend visit, an old friend, the critic Bryan Robertson, while poking through the racks of my Long Island studio discovered several portfolios of drawings. I had done them so long ago I had quite forgotten them. They surprised me.

JBM: I gather Bryan liked the drawings and urged you to do something about them, perhaps to exhibit them in some sort of retrospective. But did you like them?

LK: What can I say? They did set me to thinking about my work—for instance, what it was I was feeling at the time I made the drawings; in what ways I, as an artist, differed now from then. They were, after all, produced between 1937 and 1940, while I was studying with Hans Hofmann.

JBM: There are three self-portraits from that early period done at least four years before which must also set you thinking when you look at them. They are concrete evidence of the changes in face and body, attitudes toward daily experience brought about by the passage of time. Do they disturb you?

LK: I don’t think “disturb” is quite the word. They have been interesting to me as clues to former work methods. and my search for a style. They reveal to me my desire about how I wanted to paint. Probably all painters learn something by casting a cold eye over early work.

JBM: But do they reveal what you wanted to paint?

LK: The self-portraits and the 1937–40 portfolios make it clear that my “subject matter” would be myself. The “what” would be truths contained in my own body, an organism as much a part of nature and reality as plants, animals, the sea, or the stones beneath us.

The words “subject matter,” let me quickly say, are a useful verbal ploy for discussion. There is no separation between style, or forms, and so-called ”subject matter."

JBM: Do you make no separation of mind from body?

LK: Never! Such a dualism is the curse of Western religions. It is unscientific and from my point of view the cause of much that is retrogressive in all civilizations.

JBM: In other words. you are attempting to express directly, without fuss, the essential unity of body-mind, the unity of man and nature.

LK: I hope so. But artists are not philosophers, and can only afford small doses of introspection. A little is surely forgivable. For instance, looking at the self-portraits, I am forced to think of time and its inexorable passage. Was I any different then from what I am now? The old drawings in the portfolios brought this home to me even more poignantly.

JBM: Are you the same? What does the title “Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See” mean to you?

LK: All of the pictures in that exhibition were collages, a recycling of the 1937–40 drawings. most of them nudes of a studio model. I used charcoal on paper approximately 31 by 25 inches. The first collage of the new work is called Imperative [1976]—meaning I experienced the need not just to examine these drawings, but a peremptory desire to change them; a command, as it were, to make them new. Past Conditional [1976] describes a pause, a hesitation in which I am asking myself, is there a precedent which must be fulfilled? What kind of bargain am I trying to strike? Am I being induced by habit to follow a stimulus other than a natural, spontaneous spur to action? Imperfect Subjunctive [1976] denotes an action going on, but not completed, and very dependent on other possibilities. The subjunctive, which we don’t really use in English, is the mood of doubt, uncertainty, feeling, will, or desire. It expresses something which is rarely a hard fact.

JBM: Are you trying to say you could not know what would happen to these drawings after tearing and cutting them up for use in collage?

LK: How could I help thinking it might be a mistake to slice them up? Why destroy perfectly good drawings? But the next title gives you a clue. I make the decision to go ahead. Present Conditional [1976], a big one, 72 by 108 inches, with lots of white, near-white. blurred over layers of white, is a signal that the action has occurred. but it is still conditional. Imperfect Indicative [1976] is replete with the past; you can see quite clearly much of how I worked in the early days. as it really looked then.

JBM: I am amused by the title Future Perfect [1976]. For instance, if we say, "I shall arrive at your house in the country, before you get started,” the meaning seems quite clear. Yet if you wanted to write a short story, all of it in the future perfect, it would boil down to a series of unfulfilled wishes. But in your Future Perfect, the future and the past seem to collide.

LK: I’m glad you got a notion of what I meant. Let’s hasten over Past Perfect Subjunctive [1976], Present Subjunctive [1976], and Future Indicative [1976–77]. Each of these titles is self-explanatory, denoting the continuous experimental nature of the whole series.

JBM: But I have not asked you about the most ambitious collage in the suite. It is your triptych, Past Continuous [1976], consisting of three panels, one 72 by 48 inches, the middle one 72 inches square, and the third, 72 by 60 inches. Again there is a grid, but the largest panel contains a square of flat, scuffed red, and irregularly placed rectangles broken by swooping arcs. The early drawings are visible, yet more than any other of the collages in this series they have been subsumed into the picture plane and form a neat unity. Is this a Proustian insight that the past has been recovered?

LK: It would be pretentious of me to compare my modest search with the grand revelations Proust experienced when indeed he discovered a way to recover the past, and made it into a work of art.

JBM: But this was a journey into the interior of the self.

LK: Actually, I’m not that subjective. I think this is apparent in my next series, where again I utilized old materials for new purposes, this time a bunch of lithograph discards.

JBM: What exactly was on your mind when you were producing the “Solstice” collages?

LK: What was running through my head was another title—alas, famous—The Rite of Spring.

JBM: Pictures to illustrate Stravinsky’s music?

LK: No. [Loudly] No. I don’t illustrate. I was thinking about the seasons and the ways they change. In particular, I was musing about the equinox, equinoctial transformations, the first day of spring, the beginning of autumn.

JBM: Are these pictures, then about weather, the climate?

LK: Again, no. What was on my mind was my same concern with old work, things I did years ago, things I’ve discarded—or thought I had.

JBM: What has that to do with meteorology or the movement of planets?

LK: Well, the year is divided into cycles, four seasons, and the cycles recur over and over—endlessly. Yet the weather, even the climate, is never exactly the same. As an artist I realize I, too, am always the same, and yet I am always different. I change, my work changes—but both remain within cycles that are peculiar to me.

JBM: Atmospheric change is one thing, art is another.

LK: Art is always about something, especially abstract art.

JBM: But isn’t abstract art basically concerned with forms and what you do with them, or colors as expressive in themselves?

LK: Abstract art in that case would be very much as E.H. Gombrich claims it is: designs that come from other designs. And since there are no designs or even patterns that don’t have a long genealogy, thousands of years of lineage—

JBM: [interrupting] But surely you don’t agree in any way with Gombrich when it comes to 20th-century abstract painting or sculpture.

LK: How could I agree and be an abstract painter? The good professor is right when it comes to dissecting the nature and impulses, psychological, social, or biological, behind designs and patterns. What he is incapable of imagining is that a contemporary artist, contemplating the forms which come to him or her, could arrive at highly personal and serious works, as inventive in their way as any other expression known in past art.

JBM: Do you mean by “contemplating” something like meditation?

LK: Let’s not get too heavy. As I’ve said, I’m not a mystic and not a philosopher. I deal with what’s in front of me—in this case a bunch of old pictures I’ve never quite put out of my mind, nor destroyed. They were very present for me.

JBM: Gertrude Stein never threw away a word of anything she wrote. She maintained that everything could be used in a lifetime.

LK: To tell the truth, I’ve painted a few stinkers I’ve gotten rid of. Is there an artist who hasn’t?

JBM: Plenty.

LK: [ignoring the remark] Perhaps, since you like to cook, you take delight in inventing new dishes with leftovers. There’s a little of that in me. “Waste not. want not.”

JBM: Let us be candid. Don’t you think your motive lies deeper than frugality? Your largest oil paintings in the past tend to be opulent, some even extravagant. May we confront your true motive, your deeper desire?

LK: If I reveal what that is, I’m sure to be misunderstood. Artists are better off when they keep their mouths shut. What do you suspect is my deeper motive?

JBM: Pleasure. I don’t think you like to do anything that doesn’t afford you a grand time while doing it.

LK: Well, that’s true. I see no point in grinding out work unless one’s heart is in it.

JBM: Another motive I think critics have missed in your work is the element of humor.

LK: I would hope there are a few smiles; I would like to think that what I do is as good-humored in approach as, for example, Miró and Matisse. Humor is an aspect of many Modern paintings, even the most abstract. But let’s draw the line there. Art is not entertainment; pictures tend to mean many things to different people.

JBM: Let’s get back to where we began, titling. How do you understand “Solstice”? What does it mean?

LK: The solstice means a turning point, a culmination; it indicates stopping points. It is the furthest limit, a crisis. It marks an interval of time between two appearances. This happens when the sun is farthest from the equator and appears to stand still, either June 21 or December 22. In the polar areas, you get 24 hours of sunshine, or 24 hours of darkness.

JBM: How did you learn all this?

LK: I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. I also read in this same dictionary two sentences which struck me as relevant to myself. The editors use quotations to illustrate word meanings and one is from a sermon by John Donne. “A Christian hath no solstice . . . where he may stand still and go no further.” I. of course, substituted the word “artist” for “Christian” and thought Donne was correct. But then there was another quote, this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There is in every constitution a certain solstice,” and I thought—that’s also me, I am my own solstice.

JBM: It seems to be that each aphorism contradicts the other.

LK: When Walt Whitman was accused of contradicting himself, he answered, “So does the universe.”

JBM: Are these verbal gymnastics what you mean by meditating on your work? How do these titles tie it up?

LK: My titles are simply part of an overall image. One title is the date of the solstice; two others are of the equinoxes. Two have to do with zones of the earth’s surface, degrees describing where the sun is at. Three titles refer to the drama of the solstice. I thought of what I was doing, making something new out of the old, as a parallel corresponding to renewal in nature, a reflection of it.

JBM: Is that why you are making collages instead of paintings?

LK: I long ago asked myself what collages can do. The Cubists made collages to emphasize the ambiguity of flat surfaces, to indicate volume, even depth, in order to abolish conventional perspective. The Surrealists used collage for purposes of surprise and irrationality, sometimes to fool the eye. Other serious artists, Kurt Schwitters for instance, composed abstract structures with refuse, Merz; and still others created lyric sensory images, as Anne Ryan did so enchantingly. My collages have to do with time and change, and are for me the appropriate means to express such experiences. I have other things in my head when I paint, or make new prints, or do a mosaic.

JBM: Once again, let’s get back to your titles. Don’t you think some of them are esoteric? For instance, Jonas Gourd [1979]?

LK: That refers to a short-lived herb described in the Bible which came and went during solstice. I also have The Solstitial Beetle [1980], an insect that becomes very noisy during this period. Button’s Parakeet [1980] is sometimes called the Sun or Solstice Parakeet, and lives exactly on the equator, near the area where Venezuela meets Guyana, at the upper part of the Amazon. He is mostly brilliant yellow, but is also marked with other very vivid colors. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to see a flock of such birds?

JBM: Do you think such titles will cause your audience to think of you as some sort of bookish bluestocking?

LK: Come, come. I’ve spent at least half my life in the country, near the ocean. I still sit on my back porch observing both sky and water, and I see a great deal of sky, the evening star at clear twilight. I can observe when the water is high and when it is low. I notice the colors of spring and fall; hence Vernal Yellow and Autumnal Red [both 1980]—Highest Tide and Lowest Tide [both 1980]—to mention more titles—are daily experiences for me.

JBM: Am I to understand, then, that these pictures are your metaphors for such observations?

LK: Yes. But as you can see, I’m an almost completely nonverbal type. I hope my pictures will carry my notions without further explanation. By the way, are you intending to make some sort of written “interview” out of our talks?

JBM: Yes, an imaginary one. You see, I don’t think you’re as inarticulate as you would like us to believe.

LK: But if this is an “imaginary interview,” remember that I’m responsible for nothing but my work, so write what you please. As I mentioned before, artists tend to talk too much.

John Bernard Myers is the author of the recently published Tracking the Marvelous (Random House), and’s presently lecturing at the Maryland institute of Art.