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Lee Krasner (American, 1908–1984)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter. She decided at an early stage to become an artist, and in 1926 she enrolled at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science in Manhattan. In 1928 she transferred to the National Academy of Design, and although her tenure there was unpromising (her teachers considered her incorrigible), she painted her first important work there, a forthright and psychologically revealing Self-portrait (1930; artist’s estate, see 1965 exh. cat., no. 1). Due to the Depression she was forced to work at menial jobs by day and attend art classes at night. In the early 1930s she experimented with the prevalent style of social realism and the enigmatic imagery of Giorgio De Chirico and Joan Miró, but it was not until 1937, when she entered the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts, that she found an environment in which her art could flourish. Immediately grasping the most radical tenets of Fauvism, Cubism and Hofmann’s own theories, she began to create powerful abstract still-lifes (e.g. Still-life, oil on paper, 1938; New York, MOMA) and diagrammatic figure studies.

Around 1934 Krasner was employed by the Works Progress Administration on one of the art programmes and was rapidly promoted to a supervisory position in the mural division. She was eventually allowed to design her own composition for WNYC radio station of New York; combining the influence of the synthetic Cubism of Picasso and the architectonic simplicity of the work of Piet Mondrian (whom Krasner had met through the American Abstract Artists group), she developed a non-objective triptych design for WNYC in 1941–2 (see 1983 exh. cat., p. 36). This mural was never executed, however, because of the USA’s entry into World War II.

By the time the WPA converted to War Services, Krasner had met Jackson Pollock, with whom she had taken part in an exhibition in 1941 organized by John Graham to demonstrate that American art was now equal in stature to European art. She responded immediately to Pollock’s work, believing that he was ‘a living force’ with whom others would have to contend and introducing him to numerous artists and critics who could help him further his goals. Their involvement during the early 1940s in the Surrealist circle of Peggy Guggenheim was fruitful for both of them. Unfortunately, however, Krasner’s growing admiration for Pollock’s work and immersion in his career proved initially debilitating for her own art. She entered a protracted fallow period during which she produced overworked ‘grey slabs’ as she called them, with no recognizable style or imagery.

Krasner and Pollock’s marriage in 1945 and their move to the rural village of The Springs, near East Hampton, Long Island, turned out to be artistically rewarding: stimulated by Pollock’s development of his all-over poured style but painting in her own idiom, in 1946–7 she began to produce her first mature statement, the Little Image series, for example Untitled (1949; New York, MOMA). Three groups of Little Images emerged, all-over staccato dabs, thinly skeined, dripped linear networks and rows of tiny runic forms. In the latter she expressed her fascination with Hebrew and other alphabets that she found ‘calligraphic’ in style.

During the period of 1953–5, despite marital problems centred on Pollock’s alcoholism, Krasner made a significant technical move into the medium of collage. Using as a support colour field paintings such as Untitled (1951; New York, MOMA), which she considered unsuccessful, from her first one-woman show at the Betty Parsons Gallery (1951), she pasted large dramatic shapes cut from her own and Pollock’s discarded canvases in works such as Milkweed (oil, paper and canvas on canvas, 1955; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.). In these important works she celebrated her admiration for Henri Matisse, whose influence was to resurface later.

In interviews Krasner consistently maintained that her life and work were inseparable, and it was immediately after Pollock’s violent death in 1956 that she created her most memorable and truly autobiographical paintings, large gestural works generated by whole body movement. From 1959 to 1962, working in his barn studio, she poured out her feelings of loss in explosive bursts of siena, umber and white in works such as The Guardian (1960; New York, Whitney). By the mid-1960s, however, she had worked out her grief and anger and began painting lushly coloured, sharply focused, emblematic floral forms, taking a more lyrical and decorative Fauvist-inspired approach. During her last period of activity, the mid- to late 1970s, she returned to collage, this time using the medium to reflect directly upon her past. In the series Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See (1976–7) she cut abstract shapes from charcoal figure drawings that she had made at the Hofmann School and from their ‘ghost’ images on interlining papers, arranging them on oversize canvases, which she covered with expressive passages of paint, for example Past Conditional (1976–7; priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., p. 150).

The influence of Pollock was important in the development of Krasner’s mature style, in which her ability to give key modernist concepts a personal inflection finally emerges as the leitmotif of her work. Her will established the Pollock–Krasner Foundation, set up in 1985 to aid artists in need.

Ellen G. Landau
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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