Her Own Woman

A fine retrospective demonstrates that Lee Krasner was far more than Jackson Pollock's wife

Lee Krasner
"Birth," by Lee Krasner, oil on canvas.
"Birth," by Lee Krasner, oil on canvas.
Lee Krasner lived long enough to see her stock rise substantially in the art world. By the time she was 70, her position as one of America's major post-World War II artists was secure. It wasn't always so, and this had less to do with the quality of her work than with what she represented. Indeed, for many years, Krasner had three strikes against her: She was a woman, she didn't suffer fools gladly, and she was thought of as "Jackson Pollock's wife." Any one of these factors might have ruined the career of a less resilient personality, but the compelling new exhibit Lee Krasner at the Akron Art Museum, the first full-scale retrospective since her death at the age of 75 in 1984, demonstrates that Krasner was something of an artistic force of nature. She packed several artistic lives, literally and figuratively, into one career.

The 60 paintings, collages, and drawings trace a journey that started from parochial roots in rural Brooklyn (where her parents supported themselves by running a greengrocery and fish market) and proceeded with thorough training at the National Academy of Design, experience painting WPA-sponsored murals, and exposure to avant-garde ideas through her membership in the American Abstract Artists Group. From there, Krasner began to forge new paths in abstract art, with her intuition and individuality as guides.

What about the 11-year marriage to Pollock (the last six years darkened by Pollock's steadily worsening drinking problem)? Some of the work at Akron may have been inspired by him, but Krasner has usually managed to filter Pollock's methods through her own individuality, and the results are seldom mere clones. Krasner's "Little Image" paintings, of which there are eight in the exhibit, are dense mosaics which unfold for the viewer at a contemplative pace. For example, in a fine work such as "Abstract #2" (1946-'48), thick black swirls punctuated with brief dabs of red and yellow establish a rhythmic pulse, while thread-like arabesques, variously colored blue, cream, and gray, are like melodic fragments that soar above the rhythm. There is energy aplenty in these works, but it's Krasner's, not Pollock's. Even though these pieces have their origin in the art Pollock completed immediately preceding his drip period, Krasner goes for delicacy where Pollock, in similar work, went for rambunctious good spirits. Indeed, one here recalls a distinction once made by Edward B. Henning, a former chief curator of modern art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He termed Pollock's vigorous gestures as "total body" movements, like those of an athlete. By contrast, he continued, the gestures of Mark Tobey (an artist whose delicate thread-like forms recall Krasner's in these little images) were "of the wrist and hand," like a calligrapher's. Thus, Krasner took parts of Pollock, but expanded on them to create work which had its own expressive profile.

By embracing the art of others (such as Pollock) as a source for her own creativity, Krasner was actually rejecting the abstract expressionist conception of the self as the wellspring of expression and thus the final destination in artistic exploration. Instead, as Robert Hobbs, the author of the essay that accompanies the catalog puts it, Krasner's art is characterized by "its lack of closure" and its "open-endedness." Krasner's refusal to settle into an artistic groove -- her lifelong restlessness -- is not, under these circumstances, the sign of an undisciplined imagination. Rather, this willingness to experiment reflects the artist's conception of herself as a work in progress.

Continually in this exhibit, one senses Krasner attempting to confront her past, present, and future simultaneously. Perhaps another way of describing her approach would be to imagine oneself standing on an escalator, but instead of facing forward, one instead faces the steps that have already passed. In such a circumstance, one simultaneously has the sensation of being in place, of moving forward, and also of being able to assess the distance already traveled. That may initially appear to be a strange way of experiencing reality (dangerous, too; you would have no way of knowing when to get off the escalator, unless someone were facing forward to help you out), but that was Krasner's way. Although she understood that the synthesis she was searching for would forever be elusive, the remarkable thing is that, sometimes, she was able to bring everything together and create work which seemed solidly anchored in the present, but which looked backward and forward at the same time.

A fine painting from 1956 called "Prophecy" demonstrates that achievement vividly. Krasner created it shortly before Pollock died in a car crash. There is something undeniably creepy about the disembodied eye at the top right and the flesh-colored masses which are periodically tinged with smears of lavender. Krasner was not a soothsayer, but the morose tone of this work, with its oblique suggestion of human flesh stained with blood, does make one think of the way Pollock died. The eye, as Hobbs suggests, recalls a superstition traceable to Krasner's Orthodox Jewish upbringing: One must beware of the evil eye. In "Prophecy," Krasner explores a feeling of unease (Pollock was drinking heavily at the time, and she was thinking of leaving him) and perhaps an inchoate sense that something was deeply wrong in the present. Consequently, it's a work in which the artist ranges freely across her entire life and seems to conclude that difficult times are ahead. Although the Picasso of "Guernica" and the De Kooning of the "Woman" series are never far off, Krasner's forms are compelling, not derivative. Knowledge of the work's biographical subtext is not a prerequisite for appreciating its disturbing force.

The same might be said of the paintings that Krasner executed in the year and a half following Pollock's death. Works like "Birth" recycle forms used in "Prophecy." This might suggest that Krasner was here attempting to exorcise demons of the past by placing old images in a new context. To wit, the prominent greens and curves in her work (the painting suggests a series of unfoldings and unfurlings) might serve to neutralize the ominous rumblings of "Prophecy." The earlier work was about the evil eye and death, while this one is about rebirth.

Krasner really hits her stride in a series of powerful works dating from the early to mid-'60s. This was the time of Warhol and his pop-art colleagues. It's ironic that Krasner was strongest at the moment when the art world was least sympathetic to her brand of abstract expressionism. Paintings such as "Fledgling" and "Triple Goddess" (both executed in 1960) achieve a rare sense of balance. There is a dense interlacing of lines, and the thickness and texture of each part are orchestrated into a unified whole. In "Night Watch" (again 1960), the disembodied eye is back. In fact, there are several of them here. The ominous mood is gone, though. Here, the eyes are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the work, whereas in "Prophecy," the eye was a detached commentator on action occurring elsewhere.

In Krasner's early '60s work, one rarely wonders what was happening in the artist's life; instead one is drawn solely to the explosive quality of the forms. The surfaces pulse with movement, and the artist wrings the maximum effect out of the repetition and development of a few primary gestures. This is an artist in command, who makes form vibrate with feeling.

It hardly matters that all the pieces here are not on this exalted level. Krasner's experiments with surrealism and cubism early on may have been important way stations on her journey toward the '60s work, but seen by themselves, they make a pale impression. Also, the collages from the early '50s, in which she ripped apart pieces of her own and combined them with some by Pollock, seem impressive, not because of their intrinsic power as images, but rather because the process undertaken to create them furnishes further clues about her mindset as an artist.

This retrospective has been long overdue. It demonstrates for the doubters that Lee Krasner was not merely Jackson Pollock's talented widow, but an always evolving creative presence on the postwar American art scene who was responsible for some of its shining moments.

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