New York

Lee Krasner

“Lee Krasner: Large Paintings” is an exhibition of 18 works dating from 1953 to 1973. These range in size from approximately 5’ x 7’ to approximately 7 1/2’ x 17’ with the widths usually between 10’ and 13’.

The paintings reveal Krasner’s involvement with the painting of Picasso, Miró, Matisse, and Pollock. I found the exhibition confusing in terms of historical and individual chronology. First because the paintings all seemed dated—they look as if they should have been done earlier than they were. Second, because there is no real sense of direction or development; Krasner has used various kinds of imagery and application, making none of them her own. At the same time, she does make paintings which are convincing and in which the references to other work are minimized by her own strength; unfortunately there are few such paintings in this exhibition, and they do not form any kind of cohesive group. Blue and Black, 1951–53, is the earliest, the smallest, and one of the strongest paintings. Its scale and biomorphic, abstract patterns refer to Matisse; its receding window-like central rectangle, bracketed by more forward rectangular areas, reminded me specifically of Matisse’s Piano Lesson at the Modern. But the painting is dense and considered; it is not an invention, but it has impact and complexity. The Gate and The Eye is the First Circle, both essentially dark brown and white paintings and both finished in 1960, are two others with enough power to transcend their influence—in this case, Pollock. The two paintings differ from each other as well as from Pollock. In The Gate the colors are applied in thick, wide brushstrokes accompanied by drips and splatters, while in The Eye the strokes are long and linear, more similar to the drippings and punctuated by elliptical eye-shapes, so the whole painting is relatively open. Krasner’s combinations of strokes and splatters and their swirling motion have a violence and rawness which echo early Pollock while being less allusive and more abstract. This violence and rawness are present in almost all the paintings in the exhibition, although most visual and interesting in The Gate and The Eye. The force is superficially distinct, and it is Krasner’s, but it is achieved without any kind of visual invention or accomplishment. It emanates on one hand from her ambition, the determination with which she takes on the major artists and ideas of the twentieth century. She has struggled with the idea of what great painting is and should be, and a sense of that struggle is palpable. On the other hand, the force has to do with touch and detail and the absence of Krasner’s feeling for them. The main point about the force in this work is that it is general; its visual source is almost always a vague roughness, a lack of development, not a real finished bluntness. Too many of Krasner’s paintings are thin, lack density, seem incomplete. Occasionally she can succeed with this, as in Kufic, 1965, a beautiful quiet painting of loosely drawn yellow forms on a lighter yellow ground. Too often the work seems formed in brusque inattention to the physical specifics of painting, despite an immense commitment to the idea. Only Blue and Black appears to have received real, complete attention, a point-by-point development of surface which gives painting its life. The Eye is finer and better than any of the more colorful paintings which follow. A number of works nearly identical to The Gate are turgid, completely dead and a world apart from it. Such similarities, particularly to The Gate, rather diminish these two, making them seem a little like flukes. Recently the paintings have become less abstract, and the influence of Pollock has disappeared, leaving that of Matisse prominent (a development presaged by Blue and Black, as Marcia Tucker points out). But these paintings are brittle; one kind of unconvincing-surface has replaced another.

My objections to Krasner’s work are different from my objection to this exhibition. Although I liked and could really look at only the four paintings named above, they indicate that this should have been a more interesting exhibition. In Artforum, December, 1973, Cindy Nemser discusses Krasner’s Little Image paintings, executed between 1946 and 1949; some of the illustrations to the article look interesting. In her catalogue essay, Marcia Tucker also traces Krasner’s development, noting that she was doing abstract work by the late ’30s. To my mind, they indicate that this could have been a more informative exhibition. I do not expect to have my qualifications about Krasner’s work drastically changed; I would simply like to know what she did from the beginning. Genius has never been a prerequisite for a retrospective, and a number of Krasner’s male contemporaries have been done the honor and looked less interesting for it. If Krasner’s artistic achievement merits a museum exhibition, it certainly merits a thorough and better one.

Roberta Smith