Lee Krasner: A Critical Portrait

A stylized set of portraits of painter Lee Krasner, in standard color, blue, then green, in front of a painting.

For this article I’m going to be looking at a number of paintings by the Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner in an attempt to give an overview and critical portrait of her career. With that said, the difficulty in re-describing Krasner’s development as an artist arises from a personal resistance to many of the tropes popularized by contemporary feminist criticism. Is it possible, after all, to write an article about Krasner that doesn’t devolve into some sort of homily about gender and patriarchy?

Now let’s be serious – we’ve all seen the Ed Harris biopic. Jackson Pollock pulling a James Dean and wrapping his muscle car around a tree. Krasner alternating between muse, mother-figure and martyr in equal measure. Peggy Guggenheim lugging her Pomeranian up several flights of stairs. If you’re into mid century modernism then this sort of trivia should be second nature. (On a sidenote: why did they choose to represent de Kooning as a grinning idiot?)

So I’m going to try and resist going into any extraneous biographical speculation, because frankly, that sort of stuff just isn’t interesting to me. And I don’t think it would be worthwhile for me, a man, to tie myself up in knots speculating on Lee Krasner’s status as an Icon of Feminism. It would also be fairly ghoulish to constantly stress how a woman artist may or may not have been victimized, at the expense of actual discourse about her merit as an artist.

So, pedantry aside, let’s get stuck into her work.

Hans Hofmann, Life Drawing
Hans Hofmann – Life Drawing
Lee Krasner, Life Drawing
Lee Krasner – Life Drawing

Let’s start in the thirties when Lee Krasner was a student of European modernist Hans Hofmann. We can see at this time an awareness of both cubism and fauvism, typical of the most fashionable styles from the school of Paris. Hofmann insisted that his students work from nature, from an objective model, as it provided them with a sufficiently plastic framework from which they could begin abstracting. Plastic stress and three-dimensionality were the key themes of these lessons. At the time it must have seemed like a very radical way to think about painting, but soon everyone was describing modern art in Hofmannesque analytical terms like ‘push and pull’ and ‘give and take’.

Lee Krasner, 'Untitled Nude Study' (1938)
Krasner, ‘Untitled Nude Study’ (1938)

We can see from the title of this piece that Lee Krasner is still working from a model, but the nude is only barely discernable, appearing to more closely resemble a landscape, or a nosegay. For an early work it shows a remarkable facility for colour, albeit in the context of a very French and genteel style of composition.

Lee Krasner, 'Untitled' (1940)
Krasner, ‘Untitled’ (1940)

In this work the influence of Picasso and his 1930s period is especially obvious. It’s a handsome still life showcasing a lot of the typical cubistic quirks of biomorphic distortion, geometrical drawing and harsh interior lighting. It doesn’t, however, have the same level of sexual euphemism and genuine oddness that we find so regularly in Picasso’s work. Instead this work feels much more sober and analytical: the work of a student attempting to get to grips with a key influence. It’s a brilliant piece of imitation, and even a little more abstract than what we typically find in Picasso but still suffers from looking a bit mannered.

Pablo Picasso, 'Still Life With Pedestal' (1931)
Pablo Picasso, ‘Still Life With Pedestal’ (1931)
Lee Krasner, 'Abstract No. 2' (1947)
Krasner, ‘Abstract No. 2’ (1947)

Now we get on to the Pollock years. What started as a mutual interest in surrealist automatism evolved into a new kind of abstract mark-making retrospectively labeled as post-painterly abstraction or action painting. This involves flinging or pouring medium onto an unstretched canvas rather than using the traditional brush-and-easel approach. In Pollock’s case, the ‘drip’ method frees up linear elements, or instances of line from their nominally descriptive function of contour-drawing into something more lyrical, as well as increasing the likelihood of accidental or spontaneous material. In ‘Abstract No. 2’, we see Krasner using this strategy but on a less monumental scale than her husband. The effect is incredibly stark and immediate. The accretion of layers, of different, looping screens of paint creates the sense of light shining through a jagged hedgerow. The lattice of black accents is graphic and powerful, especially with the peppering of white, yellow, and red that makes it seem as though the different elements are floating across one another. The resulting effect is atmospheric, which is to say, naturalistic, but undeniably glamorous and a huge step forward from her early work.

Jackson Pollock, 'Unformed Figure' (1953)
Jackson Pollock, ‘Unformed Figure’ (1953)

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Lee Krasner, 'Shattered Colour' (1947)
Krasner, ‘Shattered Colour’ (1947)
Lee Krasner, 'Shellflower' (1947)
Krasner, ‘Shellflower’ (1947)

With these next two paintings (‘Shattered Colour’ and ‘Shellflower’) we see Lee Krasner really engaging with the implications of a Pollockian all-over structure where nothing is delineated or described. It’s a real development from the cubo-surrealism of the early years. Yet for all the freedom and bustle there is a remarkable fluency and coherence between the marks – different degrees of slightness and density that keep the work from looking repetitive and boring. It’s the same kind of ‘optical’ flicker we get in Pollock, only now it’s been turned into a billowy ‘milky-way’ composition with an embroidered style of facture. Also, there’s an interesting correlation to pointillism in the mutual use of divisionist colour (like whites and creams) which mutes the slightly more high-key colours.

Lee Krasner, 'Little Image' (1947)
Krasner, ‘Little Image’ (1947)

Now we come to the ‘Small Image’ series, where Krasner pivots back to a more European style of geometric abstraction particularly in her use of tessellated grids. Often she would use symbols or glyphs to fill out the individual cells,in a manner reminiscent of the early ‘Oedipus’ works of Adolph Gottlieb. This small ‘study’ is a demonstrates just how pluralistic Krasner was in her use of modernist tactics as well as her aptitude for colour. One can observe a deceptively simple use of simultaneous contrasts- the sympathetic tones in her use of yellow and red. It recalls the Robert Delaney maxim that “To paint well is simply this: to put the right colour in the right place”

Adolph Gottlieb, 'Descent Into Darkness' (1947)
Adolph Gottlieb, ‘Descent Into Darkness’ (1947)

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Lee Krasner, 'Untitled' (1949)
Krasner, ‘Untitled’ (1949)

Now things are getting more complex with her ‘small image’ format. In ‘Untitled 1949’ the surface is much more densely textured- scraped, scoured and incised with different tools. The colour, rather than being imposed, instead develops from the eccentric mark making. There’s very little disjuncture in the movement of one plane to another as we observed in the previous small image study .There’s something more seamless and integrated about the individual tiles. To me, the white drawing feels a little contrived, and isn’t really subsumed into the rest of the content, like a kind of mesh cover.

Lee Krasner, 'Untitled' (detail, 1949)
‘Untitled’ (detail, 1949)
Lee Krasner, 'Composition' (1949)
Krasner, ‘Composition’ (1949)

‘Composition’ (1949) on the other hand is simply amazing in its complexity and integration. It would be impossible to single out one layer or one mark as being obtrusive or unresolved: everything seems to be knit together with such ruggedness and force. Although we have a similar grid of hieroglyphic forms, the symbols themselves appear to be disintegrating, in a way which makes them seem to move in and out of space. It almost reminds me of a woodcut with all the knottiness and scraping.

Lee Krasner - Untitled (1949)
Krasner, ‘Untitled’ (1949)

There’s some dispute over the dating of this one. Some say it’s from 1947. No matter – it’s gorgeous. A mosaic table of effervescent colour and wriggling marks. There’s nothing slick about the composition either. There’s very little patterning or literal repetition in the profligate spangling of forms. A strongly material surface with jewel-like filigree.

Lee Krasner, 'Collage' (1954)
Krasner, ‘Collage’ (1954)

What’s striking about Lee Krasner is how willing she was to explore different stuff. There doesn’t appear to be a single correct way to make abstract art. It’s simply a matter of preference, which, after all, is subject to change. Increasingly in the late forties she began incorporating collage techniques into her work. This is somewhat of an exception among Ab-Ex painters who tended to stay away from mixed-media ‘multidisciplinary’ practices. Krasner on the other hand really started hitting her stride when she began ‘constructing’ her paintings from different fragments such as in this beautiful example from 1954. It’s a collage recycled from splinters of previously abandoned paintings: like a sort of surrealist exquisite corpse. For something so literally built up in overlapping layers it has fantastic sense of space – somehow both frontal and aerial with smouldering colour. The composition is perhaps a little too imposingly vertical but the level of detail is exciting.

Lee Krasner, 'Shattered Light' (1954)
Krasner, ‘Shattered Light’ (1954)

I prefer the Krasner pieces where she seems to get away from any kind of orthogonal predetermined, figurative scheme, more of a real discovery of structures in movement, turning and re-grouping. Shattered light is another brilliant instance of this, involving her off-kilter collage techniques. What should be obvious to even the most casual viewer is Krasner’s innate sense of rhythm and her ability to organise and manipulate materials. She brings everything together in an organic integrated way. The whole thing seems to flow and move.

Lee Krasner, 'Bird Talk' (1955)
Krasner, ‘Bird Talk’ (1955)

Her collage paintings are, in my opinion, her most radical and interesting work. In a piece like ‘Bird Talk’ there’s much more of a traditional ‘figure-ground’ composition that seems reminiscent of modernists like Matisse or Braque and almost appears to conclude an exploration of cubist techniques that began with her early nude studies. So there’s something about the forms that appear to be verging back towards the biomorphic and the appearance of a body in space. It’s important to restate that at this point Krasner was working in a territory pretty much of her own. So this is an ambitious work even if I think it is bit literally figurative. The black ground weaving in and throughout the fuschia and umber forms is particularly lovely as well as the implied movement of the paper fragments which sets an interesting challenge for the edge of the picture.

Lee Krasner, 'Bald Eagle' (1955)
Krasner, ‘Bald Eagle’ (1955)

‘Bald Eagle’ is much better, I think, albeit constructable in a very similar way. The paper leaves read like a ‘pile’ of plant litter or origami clippings. It’s brash, but very considerately arranged. The episodic elements – the cut-up ‘entities’ – are put together with an extraordinary sense of synergy. Apparently she’s thought to include some of her husband’s throwaway drawings in the mix (the bits of white blotched paper) which is arguably a prescient approach for an artist working in the fifties. Could we say this piece has multiple authors, then? Appropriation is, after all, a tactic more common to conceptual postmodern art than midcentury modernist abstraction.

Lee Krasner, 'Prophecy' (1956)
Krasner, ‘Prophecy’ (1956)

By the time she gets to ‘55 and later, there is a conspicuously high degree of figuration and graphics creeping in, with perhaps some of Pollock’s more dubious influences dominating a little too much, both just before and then after his death in ’56.

Jackson Pollock, 'Echo Number 25' (1951)
Jackson Pollock, ‘Echo Number 25’ (1951)
Lee Krasner, 'Siren' (1966)
Krasner, ‘Siren’ (1966)

Indicative of modernism’s overall trajectory in the sixties, Krasner’s painting began to degenerate into pattern and dowdiness. Her gestures became looser and more heavy-handed, while the compositions would modulate between flat pseudo-Matissean design-painting and figurative illustration. This might sound like a harsh, even vicious criticism of an intelligent painter whose head was in the right place. Yet compared to the valiant collage works or the sophisticated simplicity of the Small Image series, this sort of pompier can’t help but resemble a reverse-ferret.

Lee Krasner, 'Imperfect Indicative' (1976)
Krasner, ‘Imperfect Indicative’ (1976)
Lee Krasner, 'Imperative' (1976)
Krasner, ‘Imperative’ (1976)

Perhaps I’m revealing my own aesthetic bias by saying that I find her collage paintings the most intriguing and bold works of her late career. In ‘Imperative’ and ‘Imperfect Indicative’, we see Lee Krasner drawing from multiple different stages of her biography: the early cubist life drawing, the paper collages, the submerged grid-work of the ‘all-over’ Pollock paintings, etc. While there continues to be a troubling backslide into disguised figuration, the collage method helps to introduce a level of novel articulation that assuages those illusionistic triggers. There’s also a level of abruptness in the juxtaposition of media that produces a difficulty in re-description. Can we confidently describe these as paintings? Are they even intentionally abstract? It provokes questions, but questions that hold excitement and promise.

Lee Krasner’s authenticity and her drive for discursive development is what marks her out for me as among the very best of the abstract expressionists and not merely as some sort of secondary phenomenon. There are undeniably some failures and duds in her catalogue (the same as with Pollock) but she perfectly exemplifies a kind of abstract artist willing to explore different new technical effects and embrace rhetorical challenges to their working method.

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