‘Lee Krasner: Living Color’ Review: From Pain to Primacy – Wall Street Journal

Lee Krasner ‘Palingenesis,’ (1971)


Photo:

Pollock-Krasner Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Kasmin Gallery, New York

Frankfurt

‘While the painter’s mark indicates passion,” an artist I know recently said to me, “shape points to pictorial intelligence.” Lee

Krasner

(1908-1984) possessed an abundance of both. A superbly cool, concise, complete and—most important—compelling exhibition of her work,

“Lee Krasner

: Living Colour,” is now at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. And it makes the case for Krasner as not only a major Abstract Expressionist, but also an artist whose oeuvre—35 years after her death—argues for the continued vitality of abstract painting in an era of increasingly synthetic and electronic art.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, through Jan. 12, 2020

It’s been 20 years since a Krasner retrospective opened in Los Angeles, and over three decades since one in New York. Those shows preceded the veritable avalanche of social and aesthetic reappraisals of the work of women artists. ’Tis a different time we live in; that this show (which opened at the Barbican Centre in London in May) won’t travel to the U.S. is a terrible disappointment. (The exhibition will, however, make stops at the

Zentrum Paul Klee

in Bern, Switzerland, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain.)

The artist was born

Lena Krassner,

in Brooklyn, N.Y., to an immigrant Orthodox Jewish family from what is now Ukraine. She attended the only high school in New York that allowed girls to take its art curriculum, and later studied at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the National Academy of Design. The onset of the Depression forced her to quit school and earn a living as a cocktail waitress and an art-class nude model.

In 1937, she won a scholarship to

Hans Hofmann’s

famous art school on Ninth Street. Although Krasner couldn’t stand

Hofmann’s

confrontational method of reworking student drawings to look like his, she intuitively understood the value of his roughhouse Cubist pedagogy. Late in her long career, she even got out some old Hofmannesque drawings, tore them up in a way he might have, and used them to make the large, forceful collages “Imperative” (1976) and “Future Indicative” (1977). It’s a clue to Krasner’s keen intellect that this collage series was exhibited with the title “Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See,” with each work assigned a grammatical tense.

Lee Krasner ‘Imperative,’ (1976)


Photo:

Pollock-Krasner Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Krasner was a struggling artist in the avant-garde art world of lower Manhattan when she met

Jackson Pollock

in 1941. The two were married in 1945; but in 1956, his drunken car crash widowed her. I mention this only now for the same reason the Kunsthalle buries it deep in the publicity materials: “Lee Krasner: Living Color” (a semi-terrible title) is about her artistic, not marital, life. That said, it was Krasner who nudged Pollock’s art stylistically forward, introduced him to

Willem de Kooning

and the kingmaker critic

Clement Greenberg,

and supported him throughout his morose alcoholism.

Krasner’s first more or less independent works were the mosaic-like “Little Images” paintings she made after she and Pollock moved into a small house in Springs, on the eastern end of Long Island, in 1945. She put several of them into a 1951 solo show at the AbEx-o-centric Betty Parsons Gallery, but it was unsuccessful. Fearlessly self-critical, Krasner destroyed the paintings. A few years later, however, the artist created “Milkweed” (1955) and “Desert Moon” (1955), two large collage-paintings (one almost 7 feet tall, the other just under 5 feet). With their dagger-like shapes, rich deep blacks and vigorous mix of canvas and paper surfaces, they’re two of the most exciting modernist works you’re ever likely to see. Really.

Irving Penn, ‘Lee Krasner, Springs, NY, 1972’


Photo:

The Irving Penn Foundation/Irving Penn

Nothing was ever easy for Krasner. She continued to be haunted by Pollock’s death and suffered from depression in the wake of her mother’s dying in 1959. Plagued by insomnia, she began painting at night in the big barn in Springs where Pollock had made his iconic “drip” paintings, and produced some big umber and off-white “action paintings” (as one form of Abstract Expressionism was called). Greenberg didn’t like her newer work and canceled his plan to curate an exhibition of it.

She recovered. Indeed, the biggest gallery in the exhibition, containing work from Krasner’s “Primary Series,” is just about the best roomful of abstract paintings I’ve ever seen. The pictures—including the overall-ish “Chrysalis” and

“Icarus”

(both 1964), the chromatically minimal orange-and-raw-linen “Courtship” (1966), and the huge but mysteriously next-to-nothing “Kufic” (1965)—are individually and collectively breathtaking. (The gallery’s pairings and oppositions—curators call them “conversations”—are brilliant.)

No exhibition is perfect, of course, especially a museum show that means to document the youth-to-finality work of an artist. Krasner’s three small self-portraits from nine decades ago are honest—she knows she’s not a conventionally beautiful woman—but hardly precocious. Her requisite early academic figure drawings are competent but unexceptional, and a small room of small abstract works on paper is informative but uninspiring. All of which is to say that pictorially telling the story of a great artist—and Lee Krasner is a great artist—necessarily involves some baseline ordinariness in order to demonstrate how far she came.

In Krasner’s case, it was from earnestness through pain to a hard-won peak. In spite of her open, spontaneous method, Krasner’s pictures should each be looked at for a good while. The reward? Restore your faith in abstract painting, they do.

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