Reborn Yesterday

John Haber
in New York City

Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner learned slowly. She always did her homework, adored the teacher, and never forgot a thing. Everyone knew a girl like that back in fourth grade. It has made her easy to respect but difficult to like. One knows her, if at all, as Jackson Pollock's wife. However, it also made her Abstract Expressionism's great survivor.

A retrospective in Brooklyn traces her furious independence. It shows that Krasner was able to reinvent her art again and again. In its final serenity, it became an act of rediscovery and release. As a postscript, five years later her gallery places her career once again in context of her life with Pollock. Lee Krasner's Milkweed (Abright-Knox Art Gallery, c. 1955)

After the drip

As a committed ironist, I meant to start with a sexist metaphor, honest. One hates dutiful little girls, but one calls a boy like that just plain smart. These days, he is already building his portfolio and getting his picture in the magazines. Her husband set that media precedent for art himself. Meanwhile, leave it to Lee Krasner to handle the guests after his outbursts. Leave it to her to work away in the tiny studio he gave her.

The retrospective offers a chance to see her instead in a long series of departures, each one haunted by the past. Start with perhaps the toughest of all, the moment of Pollock's death.

For months she felt unable to work. And then a second death almost before she could begin, her mother's, left her an insomniac facing the night. She said later that she could hardly handle color in that darkness. So she took up a brush in a plain brown, on a scale that she had never attempted before.

The mural dimensions come with the discovery of her own themes, just as they had for the "American century" of Thomas Hart Benton, Mark Rothko and his breakthrough rectangles, or Pollock himself. For the first time, her titles and broad arcs refer to figures in a landscape. The dimensions signal as well her true entry into Abstract Expressionism. They also show her refusal to let go. She fills every corner, as if determined to leave nothing to chance. By holding to a brush, not Pollock's stick, she turns back to the School of Paris. At the same time, she rediscovers Pollock's relationship to his art.

A brush turns those drips into a fine spray, a final layering over painting's larger outlines. Abstract Expressionism always gives the viewer two scales—the fineness of the hand and eye, the huge scale of the body and the sublime. So, too, she draws big with her arm small with what her hand and brush can let loose. Living alone, after the drip, she cannot get away from her roots in early Modernism. In it, however, she can look freshly at a style so close to her that it could easily stifle her art.

Spray also infuses a texture of moisture and leafy growth over her big, broader traces of hum figures. Krasner is finding a personal recovery from death, just as her titles point to rebirth or the seasons. She is also finding again in abstraction the subject of one of her earliest works, a self-portrait out-of-doors. Then she played the stubborn student, proving that she could tackle two genres at once. Now she shows at last their relevance—to a viewer's experience and to her identity as a woman.

The overachiever

She is also finding freedom in what lies right in front of her. Abstract Expressionism asked art to take its life from its materials. What you see is what you get. Now what she sees is in darkness, one more constraint for art to take seriously. And she gets it, as the night through which she has to live. Her brown is the muted color of my dreams.

Brown paint, too, makes one aware of the color and texture of the light brown canvas. It becomes not only a ground for painting but also an element of the work, like the nightmarish brown fur lining Meret Oppenheim's teacup. Krasner never got along well with color anyway.

She finds freedom in another constraint, too, the space around her. Pollock had lived an artist's life in public. After his death, that fame started to translate into greater financial freedom and a ticket to good galleries. His death also released her from the little room in the house, where she painted small works while he was alive. Out in his shed of a studio, her work could explode. Nature, a bare canvas, the studio at night, living on, art itself—all presented one more wonderful found object.

Krasner always made most progress in the same way—with modest means, a backward glance, love for those near her, and persistence in a sexist world. The combination has made her hard indeed to see. For many people, too many people, Krasner always tried way too hard, in her art and in her loves. A woman of her time and ours, she has long suffered from both her dogged independence and a suspicious deference. Call her the New York School's Hillary Clinton, only home grown, a kid from the city. At least one state art curriculum that I know lists every well-known Abstract Expressionist but her.

She started early, but her work never took off till her husband's death, for all her primacy among women in postwar abstraction. And then it offers soft, earthen colors, reassuring themes, and more than a hint of Pollock's final drawings. Titles refer to traditionally feminine associations, in rebirth and the seasons. One sees her as one more "second-generation" Abstract Expressionist, only older and without the boldness of Michael Goldberg or the delicate, airy beauty of Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler. Stuck in the past, the old formalism of "all-over painting," she thought about every inch of the rectangle. More often than not, what looks like bare canvas holds washes of oil.

A show some years ago, at New York University, brought together works by her and her husband. It made a strong case for what they learned from each other. Take the rigor of Cubism, in the firm grid from her classes under Hans Hoffman, the painter of floating rectangles. Add in Pollock's Surrealist passion, and voilà—an American art at last. More than ten years later, after two great retrospectives, I can check the dates. I keep finding that Pollock got there first, just as his peers from Willem de Kooning on so often agreed.

Try and try again

She agreed, too, with gusto, starting with the wonder of first seeing Pollock's studio. She arrived unannounced, after hearing about this guy in the same group show coming up, in 1941. For once, the moody westerner answered the knock. They had met once before—danced together, in fact—but neither remembered. Now the stubborn New Yorker of immigrant parents took the initiative. She had shown the same determination in making it into that group show as a young woman.

Fifteen years later, she was just as determinedly nursing a dead alcoholic's reputation. At times she seemed all too dedicated to it, as if forever looking to him more than to her own work.

Krasner's art, no doubt, contributes to the case against her. She changed her format often, as if a little too unsure of herself. After eager-to-please Cubism in her school years, she covered easel-size canvas with tight rows of squiggles, like icons in a lost language. She had seen lettering in paintings by Bradley Walker Tomlin, not to mention Pollock, but she gives it a prim, obsessive demeanor.

After Pollock's death, she moved to his larger scale, cycling for decades between a few bold forms and denser compositions. Twice for good measure, she shifted to collage of their past work, all torn into strips. She could have been staking her claim on her own self-destruction. She could have been riding on Pollock's greater heritage. Even her trademark—grand figures in earth tones, midway between a plant and a human—derive from his poignantly subdued final paintings. A friend of mine is convinced that she herself painted Pollock's Two and Easter and the Totem.

Critics may actually prefer that Krasner seem a bit too familiar. If derivative counts as an insult to modernists, postmodernists see right through the "originality of the avant-garde." Robert Hobbs, in the catalog for the retrospective, wants her ahead of her time. In squiggles, he argues, Krasner took Abstract Expressionism as a language, an arbitrary system of signs. In her collages, art lost all pretense of immediate expressionism. It becomes just one more represented object, up there along with all the other totems. In an excellent, if less sympathetic review, Roberta Smith calls the collages a lost chance for greatness in a bland career.

Squiggles and cycles

The story sells her short. It writes off nearly thirty years of work, until her death in 1984, as too pretty for its own good. It demeans a smart woman's choices in an era that denied women many a chance to choose. Above all, it makes her roots all too distant, by contrasting her with a clichéd image of modernity.

It forgets that, just as Krasner took up squiggles, Pollock and others, too, had been using scrawls and formal design to revel in the arbitrary. A woman, Janet Sobel, may even have invented the technique—or at least learned quickly. (Be careful in describing Janet Sobel as outsider.) Hobbs invokes Julia Kristeva to put Krasner's scrawls in context of post-structuralism. Ironically, I had written about Kristeva myself, only to describe Pollock's retrospective a year ago!

The story overlooks, too, the steady vision in any artist's natural cycles between denser drawing and clearing out the undergrowth. No wonder that Krasner returned to collage around 1955, did even better than the first time, and then abandoned the technique once again.

Above all, the story associates her tactics with women in Pop Art and beyond, when she was really looking backward, to the vocabulary of European Modernism—and yet moving slowly forward. Krasner did use her head, and she did look back. And that is what bound her so strongly to the generation she loved. The Brooklyn choice of barely forty works makes her focus inescapable. Its exhibition space, in which one must go back through earlier rooms in order to exit, also helps.

One can see it even before her big paintings, in her very first titles alluding to birth and nature. They gave Krasner her first experience of continuing in the face of death. I mean those fascinating first collages.

Back on the bottle, Pollock pretty much quit painting well before his death. When push came to shove, she did it for them both. The collage technique shows her schooling in Cubism, a belief in European traditions that others around her seemed to have burst. She used it, however, to keep going when he could not.

The rough edges

At the same time, however, she could cast aside at last the fussy grid of her sign paintings and encounter gestural abstraction. Abstract art, for all the monolith it speaks of today, could shift its implications in culture and history. Think again of her twin scale. The strips of canvas and paper outline shapes echo and yet swing across the big rectangle of paint. The strips also hold a finer, more private language within, in the delicate oil and charcoal drawings now shorn of immediate coherence.

The strips add texture without, too, in their frayed edges. Perhaps a woman would know about life's rough edges. Perhaps she would know, too, to see a fabric as a substance, not just as surface.

Like her hand-lettering, the collage turn back to Cubism really does suggest a truth in that old show at NYU. She brought to Abstract Expressionism a rigor and a woman's vulnerability to the demands of men, and in turn it gave her gesture, depth, and form. Seen in light of the collage paintings, her earlier lettering foretells the obsessive grid by which critics would long judge her entire generation.

I want to hold onto Krasner's ambivalence—about her past and about her independence. It defines her creativity so well. Perhaps it makes sense that I shall always associate her big, quiet last paintings with the acid smell of a hair salon, down the hall from the old Robert Miller gallery, in the Fuller Building. I want never to forget that she was a woman among men. I want never to forget, too, the Jew born Leonore Krassner who had no use for religion, the New Yorker in a fast intellectual scene dominated by immigrants, the formally trained, art school type in a circle all too willing to teach. I want to remember her as all the calmer and more self-assured the longer she sacrificed to others—and the longer others sacrificed her to second-rate status.

She left an all-woman's art school for Hans Hoffman's classes on Matisse and Picasso, but she never got Picasso's lessons out of her system. She sought out Pollock, but then she cleaned up after him. She had the sharpest mind for theory and the sharpest tongue among budding painters after Barnett Newman, but she shut up once he started talking. She signed her work LK, without taking Pollock's last name, but she kept to initials only, as if unsure whether a woman could ever remain impersonal.

Ann Middleton Wagner takes the initials as a reminder of the simple signs and gestures in her work. All, Wagner argues, served both as revelation and as mask. Yet even in ambivalence, Krasner articulates the concerns of the artists around her. I think of that vibrant intellectual scene then—how it dictated to artists more than they could stand even as it helped them thrive.

Give and take

I am glad that critics can see continuities between her and today's art scene. They might see her even better if the Brooklyn retrospective had kept fully to chronology. I only wish that they could stop and question the discontinuities that they had imagined before. If Krasner was exceptional, it was a role that she never craved.

Krasner associated her early squiggle paintings with the unreadable Hebrew letters of her childhood. In the same way, artists listened to the tough debates around them and took what they wanted. She herself borrowed a title from a lecture by Meyer Schapiro, without worrying much about the historian's topic, medieval doctrine and a Renaissance masterpiece now at the Cloisters. Similarly, much as Pollock and the rest, she looked for inspiration to what they considered—or imagined—as primitive art that turns on the West, but as one more discovery in a thoroughly urban art world.

She would stick up for her generation anyhow if she were alive. Asked about Pollock as "a life force," she called that

intellectual snobbery of the lowest sort. I go on the assumption that the serious artist is a highly sensitive, intellectual, and aware human being, and when he or she "pours it on" it isn't just a lot of gushy, dirty emotion. It is a total of their experiences which have to do with being a painter and an aware human being. . . . The painter is not involved in a battle with the intellect.

And then she would tell about her embarrassment when she first introduced Hoffman to her future husband. Her old teacher started right in talking, of course, but he had to respect Pollock's answer. "Your theories don't interest me. Put up or shut up! Let's see your work."

For a woman in the art world, even one as bold as Krasner, those contrasting stories take on an extra meaning. She suffers from tidy categories and fatal stereotypes. She may even find herself living them. Her art becomes a "woman's work," in more ways than one.

At least if that means something intellectual and patient, demanding and giving, then so is art. It is not any one of its meanings—or even the sum of its meanings. It is a physical object to itself, and yet it ceases to exist if others stop responding and the painter stops giving.

A postscript: scenes from a marriage

Dealing with her husband, surely something always had to give. Five years later, Robert Miller gallery describes its pairing of Krasner and Pollock as a "Dialogue." One hears Krasner's voice everywhere, however, and it sounds wonderful. One hears it on entering, from a video of late interviews. One hears it resoundingly in the two largest rooms, toward the rear, with canvases from the 1950s and still larger and finer ones from the 1960s. They give up any lingering influence of WPA murals. They attain at last her near monochromes, of black, white, and earth tones—in the most striking of all, a blood red.

Over a scale of nearly fifteen feet, its leaf-like patches of warm color create an armature of interlocking X-shapes. They offer at once the structural integrity of steel beams and a Cubist exploration of a space no one eye could ever comprehend. The canvas appears from time to time as ground and as yet further patches of light brown. Over, under, and between them, Krasner adds more bursts of color and plain white, as if thickening the picture plane itself, again often in diagonals. On the very surface, the brushwork dissolves into not so much drips as a spray.

Pollock's drips weave where they will, with the end never clearly in sight. They strain toward an image, perhaps of nature or of a person, perhaps toward a signature or a mark in an unfamiliar language. They end up with a dialogue of surface and edge, of the viewer's eye and what it cannot fully penetrate. Krasner's great work after his death hardly defers to him for sheer force or for the trajectory of paint, but her confidence and her early modernist roots can make him seem to follow no rules at all. She pushes, and he responds by leaping off the edge. Perhaps the physicist who applied fractal geometry to Pollock could quantify the difference.

The show is covering familiar ground, especially after both their retrospectives. In that opening room, one can call it hauntingly familiar. Around the TV hang photographs and other recollections of their time together, mostly after they left the city for eastern Long Island. Arnold Newman famously poses them together, near an anchor that decorated their house, and it hangs high on the wall here, too, a reminder that nothing ever could quite anchor their lives. Then come sketches from similar years, including life studies, with Krasner the assured artist, Pollock the one who makes every nude, even with skin showing, into a flayed man. By the late 1940s, Pollock is diving into Surrealist signs, massive figures, and at last drips, while Krasner is chipping away at abstraction and the grid, square by square, until she gets it right.

Anyone has seen their histories before, in those separate retrospectives and a close look at their parallel development some years ago at New York University. One knows by now how much they supported one another—in Krasner's case, sometimes forced to look after a damaged soul at the expense of her career. One knows how she modernized him and how, in return, he changed what Modernism meant to her and everyone else. One knows no longer to apologize for her or to expect the intimate, parallel development of equals. I do not hear a dialogue so much as her voice and his looming silence.

One could compare them along with Barbara Rose, who writes the catalog, to Picasso and Braque. However, Krasner plays the role of both. She has Braque's equanimity, careful pace, and compositional grace, but also Picasso's ability to sop up everything. Pollock does not paint in tandem or rivalry with anyone, not even Rothko or Kooning. Maybe call them closer to Raphael and Michelangelo. The latter would have understand the rawness of Pollock's flayed man.

BACK to John's arts home page

Lee Krasner's retrospective ran through January 21, 2001, at its last stop, The Brooklyn Museum. Robert Miller's version of the "Dialogue" between Krasner and Jackson Pollock ran through January 28, 2006. A related review looks at Lee Krasner and Normal Lewis.


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