New York

“Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship”

The notion that esthetic life went into the ark two by two underlies and finally undermines this exhibition. “Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship” was organized by East Hampton’s Guild Hall for its 50th-anniversary celebration; Barbara Rose curated it and wrote the catalogue, which acts as prelude to a forthcoming book chronicling the personal and artistic events in the marriage of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Covering the period from the early ’30s to Pollock’s death in 1956, the show provides entry to the New York School’s early history and to a complex, often turbulent, relationship. But through Rose’s writing and the tendentious hanging of works by pairs, it can also be seen as a personal vindication, aimed at redressing the notion that Krasner, as self-effacing helpmate to a famous husband, played a minor artistic role. Unfortunately, she doesn’t emerge from the comparison too well.

Center stage is set in progressively narrowing circles. We move from the mid-40s, time of heady artistic experiment, toward the Long Island village of East Hampton, then just starting to attract artists, to zero in on the tiny wood-frame cottage where Lee and Jackson moved after their marriage in 1945. There, Jackson took over the barn, whose scale made possible his broad gestural drips, while Lee was relegated to an upstairs bedroom and to a narrow work-space just off the kitchen. Photographs show her paint pots close by the kitchen pots, her painted canvases aligned with the framing windows. The installation by pairs of works that precede as well as synchronize with the alliance (Krasner and Pollock became acquainted in 1942) indicates the extent of their interchange and gives information on the period’s artistic climate. The matching often tends toward overkill: he makes a mosaic and she makes a mosaic; he works on a mural while she paints for the WPA mural project; we see his porcelain bowl covered with bacchanalian nudes juxtaposed with her early figurative studies. And together they print a Christmas card, manning the presses in tandem, although it is Pollock’s own webbed skeins that adorn its surface.

Elsewhere, however, the pairings permit us to judge the respective accomplishments of the participants. Thus we note that in the late ’30s, she far surpassed him: Pollock’s paintings of coal stokers and oil camps in the social realist style of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, are crude and clumsy exercises in muddy browns compared to the continental grace of Krasner’s works. And we note, too, that at this early time, Krasner was both a better known and more active presence—one involved in the politics of the Artists’ Union and in the American Abstract Artists, attentive to European art, and generally immersed in the developing scene—than was Pollock, who appears downright provincial. It was clearly Krasner who introduced Pollock to the modernist abstraction that made possible his innovations, just as it was Pollock’s drip technique that freed her from Hans Hofmann’s influence, with its geometric forms and largely Cubist syntax. But from the period 1943–46—the time of Pollock’s “breakthrough” and his widening fame—only one Krasner painting exists, as she destroyed work and basically languished, thrown out of step by her husband’s audacious production. Rose’s text makes much of such inhibiting factors—of Krasner’s self-doubts and excessive support of Pollock, and of the misogyny of the New York School that kept her from exhibiting until 1951. Yet the pairings from the late ’40s and early ’50s show Pollock and Krasner exploring abstraction together, he dripping and she dribbling paint in delicately controlled skeins that expressively demarcate the canvas. It’s only after you’ve passed through the entire exhibition, noting matchings like her Ochre Rhythm, (1951), to his Number 21, or the way her untitled vertical from 1951 is placed so as to upstage, chronologically, the verticality of Easter and the Totem, 1953, that you feel that certain retrospective rearrangements are being implemented so as to secure Krasner’s undeserved effect.

“Krasner/Pollock” would have been a remarkable show had it remained within the given compass of time and personal exchange. It contains much of historical and sociological interest in the form of paintings, photographs, letters, and documents; it sheds strong light on the period 1935–55——on the context of emerging modernist American art. And it does display the profound involvement that Krasner and Pollock each had in the other’s development—the sort of effect common not only to two people living together, but to two artists exploring a general period of esthetic experiment. But the assertions made for Krasner’s role and art are improper. Although phrased with the aim of remedying the ills of long and unjust subordination, this show ends up doing women—or this particular woman—in Krasner’s work can’t stand up to the broad licence of Pollock’s. There’s a tight and timid air to the way she fills the picture plane, in a very balanced, European manner that pales before his gestural assurance and verve. Even her later paintings, like Ochre Rhythm and Milkweed, 1955, are made to seem looser only by enlarging the internal scale of the elements, always retaining the imposed compositional balance. And these paintings can’t compare with what Pollock did with the identical notions. Krasner always seems to be passing the sugar bowl, or basking in the reflected radiance of a stronger talent. So one wishes that this show had remained on the level of the relationship instead of turning it into a race.

Kate Linker