Lee Krasner: Creative Cohort, Artist in Her Own Right
By Tara Mae
Lee Krasner’s career as an abstract expressionist artist was at times overshadowed by that of her husband and fellow artist Jackson Pollock. It was her consistency and steadfastness that, for a time, enabled his creativity to translate into consistent productivity. Her stability is what enabled him to work; her dedication to her art is what allowed her to thrive. More classically trained than Pollock, her knowledge balanced his experimentation.
By the time Krasner met Pollock, she was already a working painter in her own right. Born Lena Krasner, on October 27, 1908, to Orthodox Jewish immigrant parents, Krasner grew up in Brooklyn and pursued art from a young age. She studied at the Washington Irving High School for Girls specifically because it offered an art major. Krasner then studied at the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union College and finished the coursework necessary for obtaining a teaching certificate in art. She also studied art education at the National Academy of Art, from which she graduated in 1932. Krasner had more formal art instruction than Pollock, taking classes on the Old Masters, human anatomy, etc.
She was very adept at rendering anatomically correct figures and was impacted by post-impressionism. Well-versed in different types of art, especially cubism, the progression of her work reflects her life’s journey. As her form and style evolved, Krasner critiqued methods she had learned at the academy. She studied with Hans Hoffman, who had been friends with artists such as Matisse, whose work Krasner deeply admired, and Picasso. He encouraged her to explore abstract expressionism, and mused that her work was so good that “you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.”
Abstract artists were generally an inclusive group, but many critics and galleries were not: they preferred the work of men. She mused, “I was considered a ‘dame’ even if I was a painter too.” Established in the art scene and friends with many impressionists, she did not meet Pollock until the early 1940s when they each exhibited at the McMillen Gallery. They married in 1945 and purchased a home in Springs Long Island, on the outskirts of East Hampton, with money loaned to them by Pollock’s patron, Peggy Gugenheim. This home and converted studio, now the Pollock-Krasner House and StudyCenter, would be the scene for artistic triumph and personal strife.
Their artistry thrived in their new environment, enveloped in the natural outdoor beauty of their new home. Krasner and Pollock maintained ties to New York City, but preferred the tranquility and inspiration found in East Hampton. They enjoyed a domestic routine of cooking, baking, maintaining the house and grounds, gardening, and frequently hosting friends who sought a temporary reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
Krasner managed Pollock’s career and nurtured her work. Their art influenced each other. Krasner believed in his talent but did not sacrifice her interests for his career; she sought to balance them. Pollock benefitted from her technical expertise and business savvy. Pollock converted a spacious barn on the property into his studio, which is where he constructed his most famous splatter paintings.
She had use of the house: the much more confined upstairs until it got too cold, and then the somewhat cramped downstairs, which limited the scope of her creativity for practical purposes. Always interested in collages and murals, some of the art she created was based on artistic expression combined with pragmatic reality. The space Krasner used downstairs had no privacy, so Krasner adjusted accordingly. Pollock suggested she compose a mosaic. They each contributed materials: bits of tile, broken glass, etc. Krasner incorporated collages into the work.
Throughout her career, she would revisit mosaics and collages. Krasner had a specific way of moving on from certain works: she would destroy them. From remaining scraps, she then would then occasionally fashion something new. Pollock and Krasner’s marriage was visited by issues of alcoholism and infidelity. Both his. A brilliant artist, he was his own worst enemy. Krasner channelled her frustration and upset into a project begun shortly before Pollock’s death in a car crash. The Earth Green Series (1956-1959) includes themes of anger, pain, guilt into this project. These large-scale action paintings depict the processing of her grief.
Lee Krasner, Prophecy, 1956. Private Collection. Source: https://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/pkhouse/our-story/krasner.php
Arguably all artists’ work contain biographical elements. Krasner felt her work should be viewed through the lens of her biography. The fluidity of how she moved through mediums and styles is reminiscent of how she calibrated her life before, during, and after her time with Pollock. His creative output in Springs was documented from the onset, Krasner’s projects remain less known. Krasner helped Pollock develop his technique and exposed him to the credos of modern art. She was a primary contact for critics, collectors, and other artists. Pollock trusted her opinion above all others.
The two artists supported each other artistically, if not always emotionally. She taught Hoffman’s approach to art to Pollock, and he shared with her the philosophy of American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he had trained. These views of painting were largely in contrast, but Krasner and Pollock excelled at combining disparate philosophies to create one artistic thesis.
Krasner welcomed Pollock’s advice and insights into her work. Pollock had the advantage of Krasner’s input, acumen, and education. Having so thoroughly studied different art forms, Krasner was his esteemed guide into the world and nature of modern art, Her network of friends and acquaintances was utilized to advance Pollock’s work. They partnered with Clement Greenberg, an up-and-coming art critic, who counted Krasner as an ally. Guggenheim continued to be an active sponsor.
While Krasner fostered a stable environment and was a champion of his work, she was neither Pollock’s fixer nor keeper. His demons did not relinquish their hold. By 1955, their marriage was falling apart due to his drinking problem and affair with Ruth Kligman. In 1956, when Krasner was in Europe visiting friends, he was killed in a car crash that resulted from his drunk driving. One of his passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed.
Now embodying the role of artist’s widow and guardian of his legacy, Krasner strove to protect and preserve Pollock’s image while pouring herself into her art. Krasner’s productivity alludes to her mourning period and its effects. The Earth Green Series strains against conventional definition, embodying multiple genres. The color palette consists mainly of pink
“flesh tones” with blood-red accents. Figures are hybrids of female and male body parts and plant-esque structures.
The Umber Series (1959-1961) was constructed during a time when she was suffering from insomnia, still working through Pollock’s death, and dealing with the recent death of her mother. Utilizing the method of “action painting” which involves spontaneously splashing, dribbling, or smearing paint on a canvas, a practice Pollock certainly embraced, Krasner painted in artificial light and traded vibrant colors for muted grey, black, white, and brown hues. The Primary Series sees a shift to bright colors as well as plant-like and floral shapes.
In 1962, Krasner had an aneurysm, fell, and broke her wrist. As she recovered, she painted with her nondominant left hand. To compensate for this, she would frequently apply paint directly onto the canvas from the tube. Here, her physical being overwhelmed the emotional state, since she had less control over her creations. As she healed, her work became more nuanced.
Her career remained intertwined with that of Pollock, but as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and the feminist art movement became more mainstream, critics and art scholars began to better appreciate Krasner and her work, separate from her deceased husband. Krasner continued to create and exhibit her art while promoting Pollock’s. She died on June 19, 1984, at the age of 75.