The Formidable And Innovative Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner: Living Colour, at the Barbican Centre, London (through 1 September)
Reviewed by Christopher P Jones

Sometimes a retrospective exhibition can abbreviate an artistic life into a series of airless high-peaks without taking notice of the lower-lying ground. This exceptional show at the Barbican Centre, London, achieves the exact opposite. The 100 or so works on display flesh out a life with all the territory — high and low — accounted for, so that every piece lends itself towards a greater whole. In doing so, the exhibition reveals why Krasner is rightly regarded as an artist of pioneering significance, whose development from cubist collage to expressionistic vigour accounts for an important story in 20th century American art.

Lee Krasner c.1938

Born in Brooklyn in 1908, by age 14 Krasner had already decided to become an artist. She applied to the only art course for girls available in New York, at Washington Irving High, where she enjoyed an exemplary artistic education. Three self-portraits, made in her late-teens, proclaim Krasner’s identity as a burgeoning painter. These are competent if unremarkable oil paintings, most notable for the way she represents herself gazing avidly out into the world with serious and quizzical eyes. A series of monochrome life drawings made a few years later reveal her fine abilities in draughtsmanship, where the handling of light, shade and the modelling of the human muscle structure is deft.

These early attempts at naturalism quickly gave way to theinfluence of her then teacher, Hans Hoffman, through a series of nude studies that capture all the geometric chatter associated with analytical cubism. Hoffman was a German painter-teacher who relocated his art school from Munich to New York, providing a vital link between the developments of European art and the American continent. Hoffman’s school built on the work of Cezanne, Kandinsky and the Cubists, placing emphasis on the overall unity of the picture plane as much as on the subject matter.

The impact of the economic depression of the 1930s drew Krasner into the orbit of the New Deal programme. Krasner’s commission, to produce department-store window displays for the War Service Project, allowed her to experiment with cut-and-paste collage techniques using clippings from magazines and newspapers. The Barbican exhibition draws a link between these early experiments and a series of abstract canvas-based works made in the early 1950s. In these, Krasner used torn up strips of painted canvas, old paper and burlap to further explore the Cubist principle of scattered forms and even spread of visual interest across the canvas.

Art at the time had been lingering at the juncture between abstraction and symbolism for several decades, unsure where the depths of expression were to be revealed: either through signs and symbols or within the material constituents of the picture itself. What had emerged were the potent and apparently endless possibilities of spatial ambiguity, the seesaw fulcrum between things rendered in paint and the paint as a thing with its own expressive value.

Blue Level, 1955
Desert Moon, 1955

As she developed, Krasner’s own immediate artistic aims revolved around the formal disruptions of Cubism. Her early experiments provided a bedrock to the high point of the mid-1950s, when she made some of the most sophisticated and impressive works on display here. A work such as Blue Level (1955) demonstrates how skilful she was at stress-and-strain compositions. The space is pure invention, where great ragged silhouettes of black spiral about columns of blue, overlaid with torn strips of bare burlap and highlights of orange. The layering here is impeccably tight, never wasteful or excessive. Other works of the same period, such as Milkweed (1955) and Desert Moon (1955), testify to her willingness to probe different colour palettes to draw out alternative effects.

Prophecy, 1956

A year later, Krasner resumed her affiliation with the paintbrush, producing torrid semi-figurative portraits in more free-flowing, gestural forms. A work like, Prophecy (1956) shows spooling globes of pinks outlined in black, and prefigures the direction her work would take over the next few years.

As for Abstract Expressionism, the key year in its formation was 1948, the year when Jackson Pollock exhibited his first set of drip paintings and, according to Willem de Kooning, “broke the ice.” Krasner’s fate has always been to exist in the shadow of Pollock, her more famous husband. For many artists’ wives/lovers, tradition has them switching roles between mistress, model and muse, elevating and deferring their importance in a chauvinistic sleight of hand. Yet Krasner’s influence over Pollock is perhaps more significant that in the opposite direction: Krasner’s academic grounding and her knowledge of modern art helped to expose Pollock to the dominant trends of modernist painting. Most of all, as this exhibition makes patently obvious, Krasner had her own set of preoccupations that seem to bear little relation to Pollock’s particular trajectory.

Prophecy (1956) was made during a time when Krasner’s relationship with Pollock was beginning to deteriorate, owing to his continuing alcoholism and infidelity.

Later that the same year Pollock was killed in a car crash near their home on Long Island. Following the crash, Krasner made three further paintings that picked up the biomorphic thread of Prophecy: Birth, Embrace and Three to Two. “Painting is not separate from life,” Krasner said about the period. “It is one. It is like asking — do I want to life? My answer is yes — and I paint.”

After Pollock’s death in 1956, Krasner moved into his studio in the barn at Springs. Her work now adopted a more expansive scale. Colour palettes simplified towards spare tawny-browns, apparently as a result of chronic insomnia: Krasner began working at night and disliked using colour under artificial light. Brush marks clatter about the picture space, leaping and sloshing with a degree of spontaneity absent from her earlier works. These are tightly coiled springs of energy, like the wing-beating energy of a flock of birds.

Colour returned in the early 1960s with a move towards vivid reds and greens, often using just one or two colours across a whole canvas. Due to the increased size of her canvases, it is tempting to say that the influence of Pollock was now in greater evidence — as if Krasner had stepped into a space vacated by him — but it would be a mistake. The paint from Krasner’s pot is hardly ever dripped; hers is a mark made with the deliberate thrust of a brush, allowed to scrape and bleed across the canvas. Chance and accident all play their role, but there is also a meaningful sparseness to the later works too, where bare canvas shows through in large arcs. Krasner was not trying to laden the canvas with colour — not trying to dissolve the picture space with paint as Pollock had done — but to discover spaces within it.

Palingenesis, 1971

The exhibition concludes with a selection of late paintings made in the 1970s (Krasner died in 1984). Of these, Palingenesis (1971) demonstrates most effectively the new set of possibilities in Krasner’s output. An expanse of fuscia pink spliced with geometric exclamations of green, the shapes now return to a more hard-edged mode, allowing a new tempo to accrue, one that is no less bold for being slower and perhaps a bit more stately. What is retained is Krasner’s formidable spirit of working towards new forms of expression, built on fifty years of discipline and experimentation, and crowning a career that deserves to be assessed on its own terms.

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