Lee Krasner

There should be no doubt that the body of Lee Krasner’s work deserves public notice and thorough critical examination. A Krasner retrospective has been long due; she is, after all, a veteran painter of fifty years. But whether she and her work embody the significance curator Barbara Rose claims, or whether Rose’s representation of Krasner is an excessively reified construction, is open to question.

Rose assembled a major exhibition containing 120 paintings and works on paper; a smaller, highly didactic, ancillary exhibition which traced Krasner’s educational development; a 30-minute film comprised of interviews with Krasner and visits to her studio; and a 184-page glossy catalogue cosponsored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In terms of volume alone, the show unmistakably announced that Krasner should be included prominently in the history of the Abstract Expressionist movement along with her better-known male contemporaries. Rose’s method of asserting eminence for Krasner, however, by way of prolepsis and rhetorical supplementation, tended to preempt the important process of critical assessment that has been denied the work for so long.

The didactic section of the exhibition, an allegorical drama entitled “The Education of an American Artist,” cast Krasner as the female protagonist in the birth of the New York School. We should make no mistake in our reading of this innocent art play: Rose was writing history here, or, rather, correcting it to her image. Krasner would appear to have been the beneficiary of Rose’s historicism, but in truth she may have been simply the occasion for it. As a curator Rose has no light touch. She overdraws her case that Krasner achieved success the old-fashioned way—earning it by diligent labor, traveling studiously along the path that led logically out from tradition to the mentors of Modernism, bringing her finally, in the late ’30s, to the inner sanctum of pure abstraction.

For Rose this educational process is the hinge on which Krasner’s mature art revolves. Simultaneously attached to and separated from historical tradition, the artist must turn, in a liberating act that releases the primal power of origins, to the Authentic Self. So goes the catechism of Abstract Expressionism. In the ’40s Krasner took up this creative imperative (along with Pollock and the other “Irascibles”), that is, the search for an energetic conjunction of painterly structure and psyche. The exhibition proper documents Krasner’s production from 1945 to 1982, and gives a clear sense of her dogged commitment to the notion of estheticized action by which the human image in painting became displaced by the artist-body that inscribed the work.

The metaphysics of gesture, which changed painting from picture to performance, are the first principle of nearly all Krasner’s work after 1955. Prior to that time most of her efforts were intentionally structural or architectonic, deriving from the cubist sensibility well-known to students of Hans Hofmann. The moments when this building process takes command in Krasner’s painting—for example, in Gothic Frieze, 1950; Bird Talk, 1955; Diptych, 1977–78; and Vernal Yellow, 1980—are the sharpest, most visually dense the work offers. When it does not, Krasner often falls victim to the fact that gesture and psychic truth are not identical; moreover, even the potential mediation of the latter by the former is in doubt. But then, the mythology of the subject no longer sustains us today.

Insofar as this exhibition amended the injustice of Krasner’s omission from most previous histories of the period it achieved a supportable revisionist purpose; at the same time, to the extent that it was overly deterministic, it served neither the public nor Krasner well. Establishing Krasner’s place of historical or theoretical import is problematic, if for no other reason than because the convoluted tangle of influences that thoroughly characterize the New York School will not confirm any facile analysis.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom