New York

Lee Krasner

Robert Miller Gallery

Lee Krasner’s “Umber Paintings,” 1959–62, are somber and sometimes violently gestural. Since they were painted not long after her husband’s death, they have been viewed, almost exclusively, in terms of “tragedy,” “catastrophe,” and “mourning.” It has even been suggested that their restricted coloring is related to the brownish coat of Jackson Pollock’s dog. I do not think this is a helpful way to look at art. There is nothing elegiac about the “Umber Paintings.” Most of them were painted more than three years after Pollock’s death, and in the interval she produced a number of works so brilliant in color and so full of rhythmic élan as to be positively festive. If we were to follow the crude, biographical approach, logic would demand that we find her guilty of callousness, which would be both ridiculous and impertinent. Rather than speculating about the varieties of anguish that these paintings may or may not express, wouldn’t it be better to begin with what we know of Krasner’s character as an artist?

She was uncompromising, often impatient, and she hated to repeat herself. Once she had perfected one approach she would radically disrupt it, or abandon it altogether, much to the discomfort of the art world’s arbiters, who had great difficulty keeping up with her. (Naturally, they assumed that it was she who was lagging behind them.) By the late ’50s, she had already proven that she was an inspired colorist. Though suffering from insomnia, with typical tough-mindedness, she decided to put her affliction to good use and accept a technical challenge: since she felt she could not deal with color in artificial light, she would spend her nights painting on the grandest scale without it.

Of course, we can legitimately ask what was keeping her awake, and certainly no one could mistake the “Umber Paintings” for technical exercises. Something decisive and difficult is going on in these works. In the huge and vertiginous Polar Stampede, 1960, Krasner seems to be descending into a private maelstrom. The sheer, swirling force of the brushwork is such that if you look steadily into the painting for a few minutes, you begin to feel that you are falling into it.

Krasner had read Carl Jung and had a healthy respect for the unconscious origins of her art. She was also familiar with the work of Rimbaud and had written lines from his A Season In Hell, 1871, on a wall of her studio. A painting of 1961 takes its title—What Beast Must I Adore—from one of these lines, and she must have been aware of the letter in which he proclaims that in order to “arrive at the unknown” the poet must embark on “a long, prodigious and reasoned disordering of the senses.”

The key word here is “reasoned.” Both poet and painter would have been horrified by the idea that they were simply pouring out their feelings. In Krasner’s case, of course, this quest for “the unknown” took the specific form of a search for non-figural imagery. The turbulence and strife that so many viewers see in this work may have more to do with the arduous nature of this search than with events external to Krasner’s art.

From her restricted palette she wrests extraordinarily rich and varied tonalities (especially in the densely contrapuntal Charred Landscape, 1960), and in Assault on the Solar Plexus, 1961, she displays such an improvisational mastery of gesture and line as to suggest that in another time and place she might have been a great calligrapher. There is surely no longer any reason to doubt that she ranks among the commanding presences of postwar American art, and stands in no one’s shadow.

John Ash