Lee Krasner: A Brushstroke Biography
Abstract artist Lee Krasner once said in an interview, “I think all painting is biographical. I think you can read any artist if you take the trouble to.” Reading Lee Krasner’s work, we discover a highly-intelligent, vibrant woman whose art depicts both sadness and joy. She survived the tragic death of her famous husband Jackson Pollock, sexism in the art world, and a challenging childhood, as the daughter of working-class Jewish immigrants from Russia. She was strong, independent, inventive, and direct. At her memorial service in 1984, playwright Edward Albee, a friend of Krasner’s, said “She looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch.”
Krasner was born in 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents fled Russia to escape anti-Semitism and the Russo-Japanese War. Her family practiced Orthodox Judaism and spent a lot of time studying their religion and observing its rituals. Krasner identified as Jewish her entire life, but didn’t practice Judaism as an adult. She did appreciate certain aspects of Judaism, including Hebrew script and religious stories, and included Hebrew symbols in some of her art.
Lee’s mother, Anna, never learned to read and write in English. Her father, Joseph, spent much of his time studying religious texts. He also ran a fish, vegetable, and fruit stand. His work required him to wake up early and travel to Manhattan’s wholesale fish market, buy fish packed in wooden crates, haul it by horse and wagon to his small retail stall, and try to sell the fish before the ice melted and the fish spoiled. The business left the Krasner family little free time, and the children had to help both at home and in the market. According to Lee, they were very poor. (Levin, Gail. “Beyond the Pale: Lee Krasner and Jewish Culture”, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 28, No.2, Fall-Winter 2008.)
Krasner was determined to become an artist. This choice was going against the grain of her working-class upbringing, where she wasn’t exposed to art, and her gender. The famous artists of the time were almost all male. She applied to Washington Irving High School for Girls in Manhattan, as they offered an art major. She was originally denied entrance, but after six months, she reapplied and was admitted. After graduating high school, Krasner attended the Women’s Art School of The Cooper Union on a scholarship. From there, she continued her art education at the National Academy of Design.
At the National Academy of Design, Krasner learned to paint like the European virtuosos from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Dutch Golden Age eras, becoming skilled at painting the human figure and scenes from nature. She anticipated the life-drawing requirement at the academy, and painted her 1930 self-portrait before she was required to. She worked outside her parents’ home, who had moved to Long Island. Members of the admissions committee for the life-drawing curriculum falsely accused her of merely pretending to be working en plein air, but they let her into the class on probation, nonetheless. She graduated from the academy in 1932.
By placing the self-portrait outdoors, the painting is an homage to 18th-century naturalism, further emphasizing her skills in traditional European techniques. Like other artists before her, including the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, she poses as the Allegory of Painting. It was an audacious choice to make herself the image of the concept of painting.
After Art School
In 1928, the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York City and highly influenced Krasner. She was especially impressed with Post-Impressionism and started to grow critical of the academic styles she had learned at the National Academy. In the 1930s, she began to study modern art, learning about composition, technique, and theory. She took classes from renowned painter and teacher Hans Hofmann and was influenced by his beautiful use of neo-Cubism and Fauvism motifs.
Krasner supported herself as a waitress while studying art but it was hard to make enough money due to the Great Depression. In order to provide for herself, she joined the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in 1935. She worked in the mural division where she enlarged other artists’ designs for large-scale public murals.
During World War II, she supervised the production of nineteen shop window displays in New York to promote the war effort. The artwork in these displays used collage and montages to advertise training courses in fields from cryptography to chemistry.
Marriage to Jackson Pollock
In 1940 Krasner joined the American Abstract Artists, an organization that artists formed in 1936 in New York City to foster a public understanding of abstract art. There she met other Abstract Expressionists and first saw the work of her future husband, Jackson Pollock. She was intrigued by him because she had never heard of him, even though she knew many artists, and because she saw promise in his work. She showed up at his studio unannounced and introduced herself. The two became friends, lovers, and critics and supporters of each other’s work.
Jackson Pollock had studied with Thomas Hart Benton, an American painter and muralist who was at the forefront of the Regionalism art movement. Krasner’s extensive knowledge and training in modern art helped bring Pollock up to date with contemporary art. Likewise, Pollock helped Krasner break free from the rules she had learned from her mentors.
According to art historian, Barbara Rose, “The greatest thing Krasner and Pollock did was to free each other from the dogma of their respective teachers, Hofmann and Benton, the leading art theoreticians of their day. Jackson helped her to be free and spontaneous and she helped him to be organized and refined.” (Rose, Barbara. “Lee Krasner: A Retrospective.” New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1983.)
In 1945, Krasner and Pollock moved together to Springs on the outskirts of East Hampton, New York, to a house that is now known as the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio. In the summer of that year, they got married. While the two lived in the farmhouse in Springs, they continued creating art. They worked in separate studio spaces with Krasner in an upstairs bedroom in the house while Pollock worked in the barn in their backyard. Pollock was an alcoholic and had a volatile personality, but at first, the marriage was a happy one.
Post World War II Art
The period after World War II was an exciting time for American artists. New York City became the epicenter of new ideas in art. The New York artists took the lead in advancing Cubism, Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism from European artists who had either died during the war or moved to New York City themselves. Lee Krasner, with her classical art education and Hofmann training, bridged the old and the new. She became a key figure in the transition from early-20th century art to postwar American art.
The era was a difficult time for women artists, however. The art world of the time was a male domain. Popular media emphasized the masculinity. Rudy Burckhardt’s photo of Willem de Kooning with his rugged Dutch-American handsomeness epitomized what the public thought of when they envisioned an abstract artist. The public was less aware of the work of his wife and accomplished artist, Elaine de Kooning. Lee Krasner faced the same fate, only becoming famous after her husband’s death.
In 1949, Life Magazine published photos of Jackson Pollock in his studio, his triceps bulging in his working-class denim jacket as he confidently poured paint on his huge canvas that he had placed on the floor. They titled the article, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The exaggerated praise probably made Pollock a little hard to live with. The article barely mentions Pollock’s wife, artist Lee Krasner, though she is in some of the photos, doing the dishes or smoking a cigarette, listening to the men talk.
The postwar era marked a return to traditional roles for women. After working in factories, military bases, and wartime efforts to break German encryption, women returned to traditional homemaker roles. Women artists broke through this barrier to a certain extent, but not entirely. They were still the primary caretakers of the home and often the caretakers of the men themselves. Men were allowed to paint all day, drink in bars all night with their colleagues, and reap praise from critics even when their art wasn’t very good. Women cooked, cleaned, promoted their husbands’ careers, and painted whenever they could. They lacked the support networks of their male peers, and were marginalized by the key influencers of the time.
During the 1940s, Krasner worked on her Little Image series. Her work needed to be small, as her studio was small. Pollock was working in the big studio in the barn, while she worked in a small bedroom studio. Perhaps if the rooms had been switched, her art would have been as monumental as Pollock’s.
She created about 40 works in this series, which, depending on the style, are categorized as hieroglyphs, mosaic, or webbed, which is a drip technique where the paintbrush is held close to the canvas. Pollock made the drip technique famous, though he poured lots of paint, whereas Krasner was more careful. Krasner worked on these images with tiny brushes, placing the artwork on a table or the floor, rather than an easel. She layered the paint, covering over images until she was satisfied with the results. She worked from right to left, as if writing Hebrew script, and added symbols that vaguely look like Hebrew letters or encrypted code. Her 1948 Untitled image isn’t particularly little, at 18 × 37 3/4 inches, but it fits the style of her other Little Image paintings.
Late 1940s to Early 1950s
In 1951, Krasner started work on her first series of collage paintings. To create these, she pasted torn shapes onto some of her earlier large-scale paintings. She didn’t use an easel and created the works by placing the supporting painting on the floor. To make the images, she first pinned the separate pieces to the canvas and modified the composition until she was satisfied. Then she pasted the fragments on the canvas and added color with a brush when desired.
Her 1951 Blue and Black oil painting isn’t a collage but it shows her interest in collage. The work has shapes and patterns that resemble a collage. The work was inspired by Henri Matisse who used similar colors and shapes.
In 1949, Pollock and Krasner displayed their work together in the “Artists: Man and Wife” exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan. The show paired the de Koonings, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. The critics were dismissive of the women’s work. One critic wrote,
“There is a tendency among some of these wives to ‘tidy up’ their husband’s styles. Lee Krasner (Mrs. Jackson Pollock) takes her husband’s paint and enamels and changes his unrestrained, sweeping lines into neat little squares and triangles.”
After the bad reviews of her work, Krasner stopped exhibiting her work for two years, though she did participate in the historic 1951 Ninth Street Show. The exhibition marked the formal debut of Abstract Expressionism. Sixty-one men and eleven women participated in the exhibition. Five of the women went on to have major careers and international renown. (Mary Gabriel, “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art,” Little Brown and Company, 2017.)
Krasner’s Untitled work from this time demonstrates Pollock’s influence. The black lines resemble the black paint that Pollock dripped on many of his paintings, although her lines are more deliberate. Also, notice that Krasner makes the painting assuredly feminine, with a splash of pink near the center of the composition, and a large abstracted symbol for the female (♀) in the right half of the painting.
By 1956, Krasner’s and Pollock’s relationship had become strained. Pollock struggled with his alcoholism and engaged in an extramarital affair with Ruth Kligman, another abstract artist. Krasner left in the summer to visit friends in Europe but had to quickly return when Pollock killed himself and a passenger in an alcohol-related single-car crash. Pollock had been drinking all day, before speeding and losing control of the car in which Kligman and her friend, Edith Metzger, were riding. Pollock and Metzger died in the crash. Kligman was thrown free and suffered serious injuries.
A year later, Krasner moved into the barn studio that Pollock had used on their property, and the scale and energy of her paintings greatly expanded. Her 1957 The Seasons masterpiece painting, part of her Earth Green Series, stretches 17 feet wide and uses broad swaths of color and rhythm. She continued work on her Earth Green Series until 1959, using pink and green colors and bulging shapes. Art historian Barbara Rose notes that the paintings use flesh tones and blood-red accents that suggest wounds. Krasner was deeply sorrowed by the death of her husband and displayed her pain in her artwork of this era.
After the Earth Green Series, Krasner worked on her Umber Paintings. These paintings use large, swirling strokes in somber brown tones. The canvases are an evocation of darkness and mourning, created during a time when the artist was suffering from insomnia. She worked during the night, with artificial light rather than daylight, causing her palette to shift from bright, vibrant hues to monochrome, umber tones.
Krasner made her strongest paintings throughout the 1960s. She began to use bright colors again and to allude to floral and plant-like shapes. The title of her 1965 Combat painting makes the viewer wonder if she was still combatting her sadness from losing her husband under such terrible circumstances. However, the curator of the Australian museum that owns the work says here that the painting title refers to the struggle for dominance between the orange and crimson shapes.
In the 1970s, Krasner worked on another series of collage paintings. She began working on these after cleaning out her studio and discovering some charcoal drawings of figure studies that she had completed between 1937 and 1940. After saving a few of the drawings, Krasner decided to use the rest in a new series of collages. The figure drawings add an interesting dimension to the artwork, which includes paint as well as cut-up pieces of the drawings. This work is her most obviously autobiographical work, as she was literally using parts of her past to create a new work of art.
Also in the 1970s, Krasner worked on large horizontal paintings. In some of these paintings she used a hard edge style, and in others she stuck to her more famous style of swirling lines and Cubism-inspired shapes. During this timeframe, she used a palette of a few bright colors that contrast with each another. Her large-scale paintings from the 1970s are some of her most appealing work.
Although it’s risky to interpret her work only autobiographically, as it fails to do justice to her enormous skill and versatility, she herself said that “Painting is not separate from life. It is one.” She also said “I think all painting is biographical.” The title of her enormous 1976 painting, Celebration, makes us think of her biography and to hope that her later years were a happy time. She was able to celebrate life and to bring joy to her viewers.
While admitting that we shouldn’t read too much into the titles of her artwork and her biography, we also can’t help but think that Free Space might refer to her finally having a room of her own. After the tragic death of her husband, while working in his much larger studio, Krasner produced some of her best work.
Death and Legacy
Krasner died from natural causes in 1984, at age 75. At her memorial, which was held in the Medieval Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, art critic Robert Hughes called her the “Mother Courage of Abstract Expressionism.” Author Susan Sontag lauded her art and her “talent for friendship, her genuine vitality, and openness to experience.” Playwright Edward Albee said Lee Krasner was a friend who “demanded the quality she gave.” (“Lee Krasner Lauded in Memorial Service at the Met Museum,” The New York Times, Sept. 18, 1984.)
During her life, her work was often overshadowed by her more famous husband and interpreted as an adjunct to his work. She nurtured his career and demanded quality from him, while also demanding quality from her own work. Today, her work is judged on its own, separate from her husband’s work. There’s no doubt that she was a major player in the Abstract Expressionism genre and a polymath who demonstrated skill with collage, mosaic, and self-portraiture. Her energy, creativity, and determination comes through in her artwork.
Six months after her death, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective exhibition of her work. A review in the New York Times of the show noted that it “clearly defines Krasner’s place in the New York School” and that she “is a major, independent artist of the pioneer Abstract Expressionist generation, whose stirring work ranks high among that produced here in the last half-century.”
In 2019, the Barbican Centre in London held a major retrospective of Lee Krasner paintings, including collages and mosaics as well as paintings. “Lee Krasner: Living Colour” is expected to travel to the Zentrum Paul Klee museum in Bern, Switzerland and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao in Spain in 2020 or 2021. The show is a chance to discover Krasner’s “spirit for invention,” as the show notes say.