Lee Krasner Is Finally Appreciated for Being More Than “Mrs. Pollock”
Lee Krasner, c. 1938. Unknown photographer.
Lee Krasner, Desert Moon, 1955. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. © 2018. Digital Image Museum Associates / LACMA / Art Resource NY / Scala, Florence.
In Lee Krasner’s best paintings, juicy swaths of color swirl around the canvas in unexpected hues: teals and mochas, hot pinks and purples. These alternately bright and somber tempests resolve into natural and biomorphic shapes. An eye emerges from the maelstrom, a flower petal, or a set of waves. What at first looks like elegant chaos eventually transforms into a masterfully composed series of abstract gestures. Krasner’s “paintings are no relaxed picnics on the grass,” critic and art historian Barbara Rose once wrote. “They are direct, vigorous, demanding encounters between the psyche of the artist and that of the viewer.”
Krasner’s particular genius was hard-earned and remains difficult to classify. She painted for decades before arriving at a mature style, cycling first through self-portraiture, Cubism, mosaic, and collage. Her reputation as a painter was, for most of her life, dwarfed by that of her husband, Jackson Pollock. Within the past few years, however, appreciation for Krasner’s work has soared at both the market and institutional levels. Last month at Sotheby’s, her 1960 painting The Eye Is the First Circle sold for $11.6 million—a record for her market. On May 30th, the Barbican in London opened “Lee Krasner: Living Colour,” the first major European survey of her work in over 50 years.
Lee Krasner, Self-Portrait, c. 1928. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, New York.
Lee Krasner, Mosaic Table, 1947. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York.
From the beginning, Krasner demonstrated unwavering devotion to art. Born in Brooklyn in 1908, as a young teenager, she elected to study art at her high school. At 17, she enrolled in the art program at Cooper Union in Manhattan. Krasner’s most formative art education began in 1929, when she enrolled at the National Academy of Design.
It was an exciting time for American art. That year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened in midtown Manhattan. Over the previous two decades, American curators had begun to show European avant-garde artists like Constantin Brâncuși, Marcel Duchamp, and Pablo Picasso. A critical mass of enthusiastic aesthetes and leftist thinkers began to gather in Lower Manhattan in the early 1930s. In a second-floor loft in downtown Manhattan, a group of artists and intellectuals formed the Artists Union, which connected artists with job opportunities. Krasner joined, along with painter Arshile Gorky and Harold Rosenberg, the latter of whom became one of the 20th century’s most prominent art critics.
A 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative further solidified this nascent group of radical thinkers. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s program helped artists during the Great Depression by employing them to illustrate books (Krasner drew pictures for marine biology textbooks), create murals, and complete other art-related public works projects throughout the country. Through the WPA, she became friends with soon-to-be-major Abstract Expressionist artists including Stuart Davis, Ad Reinhardt, and Willem de Kooning.
In 1937, Krasner enrolled in art classes taught by German émigré Hans Hofmann at his School of Fine Arts in New York. Under Hofmann’s tutelage, Krasner began making abstract paintings inspired by Picasso’s Cubist efforts and Piet Mondrian’s geometric compositions. A work in another vein from around this period, Mosaic Collage (ca. 1942), demonstrates Krasner’s early facility with color. Deep reds mingle with swaths of serene blues and a small, potent spot of marigold. Despite significant shifts in her practice over the decades, Krasner’s colors always remained vivid and evocative. Hofmann admired her paintings, though he was guilty of the misogyny of his day: “This is so good you would not know it was by a woman,” he once remarked about her work.
Krasner’s destiny took a sharp turn in 1942, when she visited Jackson Pollock’s studio in advance of a group exhibition they were both participating in at the McMillen Gallery. She’d met the painter before, but seeing his roiling, emotive canvases in person inspired her aesthetically—and romantically. The pair married three years later and moved to a farmhouse in Springs, New York, after receiving a $2,000 loan from gallerist Peggy Guggenheim. The newlyweds devoted themselves to their painting.
Lee Krasner, Palingenesis , 1971. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery, New York.
Krasner significantly influenced her husband’s practice. Her friend and fellow painter Elaine de Kooning once said that “it was almost as though Jackson took over something Lee had had.” Mary Gabriel, author of the historical account Ninth Street Women, writes: “The formative Pollock drew from all of Lee’s strength, even her strength on canvas.”
Throughout their first few years of marriage, Krasner worked on a series she called “Little Images” (1946–50). These paintings featured dense, flurried surfaces filled with small marks and symbols arranged in grids. Pollock, however, was getting all the glory for his drip and “all-over” painting technique. An article in the August 8, 1949, issue of Life magazine famously asked: “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
Although overshadowed by her husband, Krasner still earned the respect of her artistic peers. The era-defining “Ninth Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture,” curated by gallerist Leo Castelli in 1951, featured one of her works. She also showed alongside Reinhardt, both de Koonings, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and a list of other mid-century greats. At the same time, Krasner’s marriage—and Pollock’s career—were suffering from his severe alcoholism. In 1956, Pollock wrecked his car in a fatal crash that also killed Edith Metzger, a friend of his mistress Ruth Kligman, who was the only member of the trio to survive the incident.
Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, New York City, where she was working on a WPA commission, c. 1940. Photo by Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c. 1905–84. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Krasner responded to the tragedy, and her mother’s subsequent death in 1959, through her art. Discussing her grief, she once said: “Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking—do I want to live? My answer is yes—and I paint.” In her series of “Umber” paintings, executed from 1959 through 1962, Krasner made violent, swirling strokes in somber brown tones. The canvases are a beautiful evocation of darkness and mourning.
Krasner made her strongest paintings throughout the 1960s. “While Pollock lived, Krasner could not afford to float away into outer space because she, like her mother before her, took on the responsibility of dealing with the practical matters of daily life,” Rose wrote. The artist was simultaneously weighted and freed by her husband’s death.
Her tight symbols and busy compositions unwound into languid shapes with more breathing room. She rounded out her gestures, giving her work legibly feminine undertones. One of her most famous paintings, Gaea (1966), features a series of pink-and-white shapes that resemble eyes, breasts, eggs, and mouths, all set against a purple background.
Lee Krasner, Imperative , 1976. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Lee Krasner, Bald Eagle , 1955. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Jonathan Urban.
As her practice strengthened, the painter’s reputation slowly grew. In 1965, London’s Whitechapel Gallery mounted the first major international show of Krasner’s work. Marcia Tucker, then a rising curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, gave Krasner a solo presentation at the New York institution in 1973. If reviewers appreciated the paintings on their own merits, they also sought connections to Pollock’s work.
Since her days at the WPA, Krasner shied away from some of the big debates of the day on art and politics. She didn’t participate in the famous roundtables at the Cedar Tavern, where many of the Abstract Expressionists hashed out their aesthetic principles—and drank liberally. In 1972, however, she picketed at MoMA with a group called Women in the Arts in protest of the museum’s discrimination against female artists. Just over a decade later, Barbara Rose organized a major solo presentation of Krasner’s work at MoMA itself. The retrospective opened in December 1984, exactly six months after the artist died. Though recognition arrived late in her career, Krasner lived to see a celebration of her achievements.
Lee Krasner, Icarus , 1964. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery, New York.
Curators still face challenges in showing Krasner’s work. The artist was known for being a harsh self-critic who destroyed many of her own paintings. Some of her canvases are lost to history. This has made it more difficult to present a cohesive narrative of her practice. Yet it’s easy for viewers to absorb the artist’s own sense of wonder when they look at her canvases.“Painting, for me, when it really ‘happens,’” Krasner once said, “is as miraculous as any natural phenomenon—as, say, a lettuce leaf.”