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  • Rachel Owens

Lee Krasner: Emerging from Darkness

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Rachel explores the life and accomplishments of Lee Krasner, in attempt to celebrate the work of female artists typically overlooked.

Lee Krasner was one of the most talented, influential artists working during the Twentieth Century. She is known to many as Mrs Jackson Pollock, due to her marriage to Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, which has consistently overshadowed her artistic achievements. Krasner’s legacy is not her work, her being a feminist role model or her incredible self-belief as an artist, rather her marriage to Pollock. Let us remember Krasner was painting before Pollock, with Pollock and after Pollock.

This article will not argue Krasner is as talented as her husband and other Abstract Expressionists. It will not justify Krasner as worthy of writing about, when one could simply replace these words about Krasner with her male contemporaries. Rather, it will look at Krasner as an equal of Pollock’s, recognising her artistic abilities, by focusing on her ‘night journeys’ series, painted in the aftermath of Pollock’s death.

Krasner was born in New York in 1908, daughter of Russian, Yiddish speaking Jews who had fled their shtetl outside Odessa. From a young age she embraced the American way, even ‘Americanising’ her name from Lena Krassner, to Lenore Krassner to finally “Lee Krasner.” Krasner married Jackson Pollock in 1945, and moved from New York to the Springs, Long Island. Both practicing artists, Pollock worked in the large barn house next to the house, while Krasner worked in the couple’s bedroom, only able to afford to heat one room of the house.

While Pollock was building his legacy, later being known as the central figure of Abstract Expressionism, recognised all over the world for his vast drip paintings, Krasner was producing her Little Images, made on a tabletop in her bedroom. She produced these works by applying repetitive strokes of thick paint, squeezed straight from the tube. Krasner is frequently dismissed as a female artist for producing these small scale, decorative works along with her well known collage work and decorative arts pieces which she is best known for, while her husband produced his large scale, internationally acclaimed paintings. The reality of the situation is that Pollock had taken over the barn as his studio and this space enabled him to produce large scale works, giving him a space which belonged entirely to him. Meanwhile Krasner’s makeshift studio in the couple’s bedroom restricted the size of works she produced and meant she did not have the freedom to produce art whenever she felt inspired to do so.

Lee Krasner, Composition, 1949, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1956 Jackson Pollock was in a one car auto accident, where he was drink driving and overturned his convertible. He killed himself and an acquaintance, and seriously injured his mistress, Ruth Kligman. Two weeks after Pollock’s funeral, Krasner took over Pollock’s studio. Krasner always considered herself a practical person, she felt it was the obvious next step to abandon the tiny bedroom for the spacious barn which had the best natural lighting.

Krasner began producing a series of paintings made at night during bouts of insomnia and which her friend, the poet Richard Howard, called her ‘Night Journeys’. Rather than laying her canvas on the ground of the studio as Pollock had, Krasner tacked her canvases to the wall of the studio. Krasner abandoned colour when producing these works, which had always been central to her practice. She felt, working at night, in the absence of natural lighting it was necessary. These works are filled with emotion, they are raw, pure and true to themselves.

These paintings were the largest works Krasner had produced yet in her career. She gave them dramatic titles such as On the Solar Plexus, Polar Stampede and Assault. When viewing these canvases, the work of J.M.W. Turner and other Romantic artists springs to mind, with their shared notion of nature being greater than man, or woman. Krasner’s works function as abstract landscapes which the viewer becomes entirely consumed by. Krasner’s canvases can be described as ‘all over images’, there is no central focus to the canvas, the edges are as important as the centre, which challenges the tradition of painting, where a central focus exists. These works challenged Krasner in ways never demanded before. They involved her entire body, leaping from the floor with a long-handed brush in order to reach all areas of the canvas. One can only imagine the liberation of surging across the canvas in a time of such grief.

Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede, 1960, Photograph: The Jewish Museum.

J. M. W. Turner, Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalance and Thunderstorm, 1836/7, Frederick T. Haskell Collection, Art Institute of Chicago.

Krasner worked hard to protect Pollock’s legacy after his death, securing his works to major museum collections and organising exhibitions of his work. In the meantime, she fought for a retrospective of her own work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A retrospective of her work took place in 1965 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and at the Whitney in New York in 1975 and then finally, a retrospective of her work was secured at MOMA in 1984. Tragically, Krasner had passed away several months beforehand.

In a time of great uncertainty for everyone, as we all face challenges across the globe, let us celebrate these paintings which came as a result of insomnia, grief and mourning. Let us celebrate Lee Krasner and her incredible skills as an artist. We too can emerge from darkness by sharing in the catharsis that these works brought Krasner.


About the author: Rachel Owens is an Irish Art Historian living in London. Find out more about her here.

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