Have you heard of Jackson Pollock? Most probably: archetypal male, drink fuelled bohemian artist who splattered his way through the Abstract Expressionist movement dancing around his canvases, flinging pots of paint. He was to die in a car crash,having taken the wheel while drunk in 1956 at the age of 44.
Have you heard of Lee Krasner? Well I suggest that many of you may not have. Her story is a lesson in the way women have so often been airbrushed out of the story of modern art. A show at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, the first Krasner exhibition on this scale in Europe since the 1960s, sets the record straight. Krasner’s huge contribution to abstract expressionism was long overshadowed by her husband Jackson Pollock, but once you’ve seen this show I am sure you will come away convinced that she was just so much better.
In 1928, when she was just 19, she nailed a mirror to a tree in the garden of her parents’ home in Long Island, New York and set about painting herself against a backdrop of woodland. It’s a captivating portrayal of a young, highly serious, painter at work. She had just graduated from the Woman’s Art School at Cooper Union in New York City and was due to begin studying at the prestigious National Academy of Design-she was rather hoping that this self portrait would get her into the prestigious and highly selective life drawing classes. During her interview the assembled panel of male interviewers refused to believe she was capable of such detailed and accomplished plein air background. She said ‘they took one look at my painting and said ,”that’s a dirty trick you played-don’t ever pretend that you painted outdoors”’. She stuck to her guns and was accepted into the life drawing class but it’s an anecdote which highlights the struggles she endured throughout her career to gain recognition.
Born in New York in 1908, the daughter of Russian Yiddish speaking Jews who had fled the pogroms, she was named Lena Krassner, but in 1922 she adopted the more American ‘Lenore’ and later this would become the androgynous ‘Lee’. She also at some point dropped the second ‘s’ from her surname, not unusual in itself to change your name, but an element of reinvention in the pursuit of her artistic career. She wrote that her parents ‘didn’t encourage me, but as long as I didn’t present them with any particular problems, neither did they interfere’
In 1937 Krasner was awarded a scholarship to attend classes at the Hans Hofmann School on West 9th Street in New York City. Hofmann was a German modernist who had lived in Paris and worked alongside two of Crasher’s artistic heroes, Picasso and Matisse. Hofmann taught Cubism and was a teacher who was dynamic and unforgiving in his style and in his methods. He was known for making corrections directly onto students’ work-no room for discussion there! The charcoal drawing above shows how Krasner was making her first foray into abstraction at this time. Hofmann’s response? He said her work was so good ‘you would not know it was done by a woman’.
We know that Jackson Pollock was self-destructive, but Krasner was not. There are no stories of her drinking, as there are of other Abstract Expressionists. There are no tales of her losing control. Known for being highly critical of her own work, and for destroying many of her works, Krasner changed paths a number of times throughout her career, an arc that has divided critics but which makes her work exciting, enthralling and original.She didn’t internalize destructiveness, she externalised and embraced it, which goes against our romantic view of the angst-ridden Abstract Expressionists and their hard-drinking ways.
In these collages, Krasner’s decision to cut up examples of early work is both original and distressing. She refuses to be nostalgic. They are collages on a huge scale, and they are not collages at all, at least as we think of them. They explore the figure-ground relationship, they dance across our vision in ways which are unpredictable and exciting.
Krasner married Jackson Pollock in 1945. He was like a thunderbolt. She wrote later that when she saw his paintings, ‘I almost died. They bowled me over, then I met him and that was it’
Living with Pollock must have been like living on top of a powder keg. Krasner looked after him, respected him-the only thing she ever really refused him was the child he claimed he had always longed for. He was her child. After his violent death it was as if she was set free. Though Pollock and Krasner had by then become somewhat estranged, she was overcome with grief. Yet she went on to produce some of her finest and emotionally charged work. ‘Painting is not separate from life’, she wrote, ‘It is one. It is like asking-do I want to liv? .My answer is yes- and I paint’
Krasner wasn’t interested in a signature style. She had the courage to be critical of her own works, experimenting, innovating and destroying along the way. It was tough enough to be a woman artist amid the first generation of abstract expressionists. Maybe Pollock would have done the same, but he died before he could emerge out of his alcoholic impasse. Krasner kept going, making the work she felt compelled to make, never repeating herself, constantly exploring new directions.
It is an unmissable exhibition.