Saturday, 30 May 2020


Barbican Gallery, London

“Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking - do I want to live? My answer is yes - and paint."

Artists Make Themselves

Lee Krasner’s ’Self-Portrait’ (1928, above) is a in genre we’re already seen with both Van Gogh and Tove Jansson- the artist’s self-portrait as mission statement, effectively creating themselves. In fact she up the ante on them by incorporating not just her clutching a mittfull of brushes but a corner of the canvas we’re now looking at.

And like them Krasner paints herself assertively. She’s looking into the mirror she worked from, but of course she’s as much meeting our gaze. And if there’s something androgynous in that overalled figure, it was about this time that Lena changed her name to the less gendered Lee. (Leading to one room here being titled ’Becoming Lee’.)

It was painted partly to get her accepted into the National Academy of Design. Which worked, initially. But not entirely sirprisingly she didn’t take well to rules or tradition, and found the place “congealed mediocrity”. The Depression forced her to leave. But by ’37 she’d won a scholarship to study under the Modernist Hans Hoffman, who complimented her work by saying “you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman”. Mmm…

And you can see why this show would start out in such a place. She’s perhaps best known through her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and whatever its other strengths the recent Royal Academy show of Abstract Expressionism sidelined her.

Breaking the Cult of Big

Like many Ab Ex artists, Krasner became involved in Roosevelt-era public artist projects, where she designed quite Constructivist collages for storefronts. (And through which met Pollock). But let’s fast-forward to ’45 where that style was established and they moved to Long Island.

(At which point we need to strike a familiar note of caution. Like most works of this era, thumbnails on the internet are not just a poor substitute for seeing the things themselves, they’re not a substitute at all. Try to at least find larger images of them where you can.)

Born in Brooklyn, Krasner was influenced by the abundant nature she found relocating to Long Island. The impetus for the vibrant ’Untitled’ (1946, above) seems to have been fields of flowers. (It’s displayed alongside photographs of the same, by her friend Ray Eames.) It’s small size gives you the feeling you’d get from a full-size painting, but one you can only see from across the room. You peer into it but it’s almost impossible to mark out any detail. Which seems reminiscent of the way flower filaments can fall apart in your hand as you hold them, as if what you see in the fields is some kind of shimmering mirage.

Krasner called these ‘little images’, commenting “you can have giant physical size with no statement on it… and vice versa, you can have a tiny painting which is monumental in scale.” And she’s not just right but pointing out a recurrent problem with American Ab Ex, where ostentation too often ruled the roost.

But the brute fact remains she used their bedroom as a studio while Pollock hogged the barn for his magnum opuses. His eponymous biopic (released in 2000) includes a dramatic scene where he impatiently busts the lock from it, the creative mind which can’t be kept from its work.

And this has an effect on their respective imagery; as if while she had her head buried in flower beds he gazed up at the night sky. It’s like the artist couple in the film ’Synecdoche New York’, where his work covers city blocks and hers verges on microscopic. Except not done as a parody.

Show the Shreds

Perhaps due to her insistence that she didn’t want to be confined to a ‘signature image”, Krasner was a highly self-critical artist. At some point in 1951, not for the only time, she became so frustrated she tore up her own artwork. She couldn’t return to the studio for weeks, but once she did the “strewn shreds” took her interest.

These led to the ’collage paintings’, made up from torn newspaper and other found materials and Pollock’s discarded drawings - but mostly her own work. She pasted these over her own canvases, sometimes ones she’d already exhibited. And colour field paintings, a style common in American Abstract Expressionism, proved to be ideal backdrops.

This came to be her best-known period, with ‘Desert Moon’ (1955) being used as the poster image here. But let’s take as our example ‘Blue Level’ (above) from the same year. They have the jagged verticality of her Ab Ex contemporary, Clyfford Still, as seen in that Royal Academy show.

But with their strong, bold colours and sense of spatial depth there also seems something of Malevich’s Suprematism.The large white rectangle, for example, seems a looong way behind that shard of navy. They also recall the Matisse who said: “With colour one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft.”

The roughness of their construction is unhidden. The browns are bare canvas, not just used as a material but foregrounded. But there’s an enticing dynamic between that roughness and the balanced composition, that leaves it looking simultaneously dynamic and poised. The theory of cut-up writing is that, by rearranging existing texts, it can create a more meta perspective out of them. These works suggest a similar notion. Fairfield Porter described them as possessing “a subtle disorder”, but it’s one which suggests at a greater order.

Night Sight

Then came the car crash.

Krasner’s marriage to Pollock was already troubled, given his alcoholism and philandering it could hardly not have been. She was already at work on what became ’Prophecy’ (above) when, in August 1956, she received the news of his death. Compounding the grief, her Mother died shortly after.

The title must have come later, and presumably from Krasner herself. But the popular notion that we’re seeing some subconscious premonition of that fatal accident is not just mystification, dressing art up as some Delphic Oracle, it simply doesn’t take you anywhere. And, most of all, it has little to do with the work itself.

Most significantly, this marks the return of the human form, but in so distorted a way that human flesh is made monstrous. (The Ab Ex contemporary most similar to her here is de Kooning.) With the feet on the base line, the head lowered and the knee pressing into its side, the figure looks as trapped within the frame as it would in a cage.

But it’s then convoluted beyond that. One eye is outside the head, sketched onto the black background, while the mouth is a downward slash of red. While the collage paintings were ultimately harmonious its this return to the human form brings with it disorder. Other pictures from this time look like a kind of lost property office of limbs and torsos, parts jammed in a drawer. This is the dark and disturbing Abstract Expressionism, the mood we most associate with the style, par excellence. Body in cage is body as cage.

The following year Krasner moved into Pollock’s barn studio, for the first time able to work at scale. Though he’d been drawn there by the natural light, beset by insomnia she painted at night. And in these dark hours she restricted her palette to white (normally off-white) and ‘umber’. (Dark brown. I had to look it up too.) Richard Howard nicknamed these the ‘Night Journeys’.

This bold new direction didn’t take everyone with it. Clement Greenberg, the critic who had championed American Abstract Expressionism, promptly cancelled a forthcoming solo exhibition. Which of course leaves you primed to rate this work. Yet in fact the sudden withdrawl of colour, so integral to the collages, is a little hard to take. And they can at times look a little too Ab Ex-ey, too much a collection of grand and sweeping gestures. Ironically, given her earlier critique of scale without statement.

(Intriguingly Pollock, also known for his use of colour, also had phases of painting in black-and-white, such as the ‘black paintings’ of the early Fifties. Popular response tended to be similar.)

The strongest work is ’Polar Stampede’ (1960, above) which uses a sandy brown as well as umber. Just one extra colour seems to make a huge difference. While a work like ’Blue Level’ showed layered flat surfaces, this is much more convulsive. Each of the three colours seems to be pressing forwards to upstage the others, like a firework display where the bursts keep coming to the point you can no longer conceive of them separately.

Return to Light

Krasner later said “I emerged again into the light and colour. I think that’s like life”. And certainly it gave her art it’s life back. ‘Another Storm’ (1963, above) is described by the show as “blazing alizarin crimson”. (An achievement more remarkable when you hear she made it while encumbered with a broken arm.) If the collage paintings seemed to have great spatial depth this seems to burst out at you.

Most Ab Ex works had definitively abstract titles, firewalls against unwanted narrative interpretations. Krasner sometimes went in for this, we’ve already had ‘Blue Level’. Yet many are are nature-derived. As well as ’Another Storm’ the afore-mentioned ‘Desert Moon’, there’s ‘Bird Talk’ and ‘Bald Eagle’. The nature of Long Island long held an influence on her.

And her interest in nature may have been as the main place where we see stuff created. Rather than suggesting anything being created, it seems to evoke the dynamics of creation itself. Nature less represents the subconscious, as it had in Romanticism. She spoke against “the separateness of nature”, the notion of “nature being out there and I’m here”. To her it was more the way it doesn’t create by building from blueprints but by generating, by letting things develop. Similarly she always launched herself directly into her canvases, without preparatory sketches.

A Rain of Scalpel Blades

In 1977 Krasner stumbled on some of her old life drawings from the Hoffman school. Being Krasner, she’d soon cut them to pieces and reassembled them. They got exhibited at the ‘Eleven Ways to Use the Word to See’ show, the same year, including ’Future Indicative’ (below).

The figure had dominated art since Classicism. If her Ab Ex contemporaries had separated from it, when it returned (as with Guston or De Kooning) it usually resumed its centrality. Like a King returning to his throne.

Here her diagonal slices are neatly aligned with one another, but mercilessly cut across the figures like a rain of scalpel blades. Dada collage had seemed savage when it reduced the figure to its components. (Heads, arms and so on, kit parts ready to be rearranged.) But Kranser doesn’t dismember so much as shred.

And the violence of the image is accentuated by the whiteness of the shard. It’s they who first attract attention, making the subject not the cut object but the act of cutting. While almost all her previous titles had been noun-based, all these take on verb forms.

Krasner was from a different strand of Modernism to Dorothea Tanning, but for all the lack of overlap in their content their careers followed a similar trajectory. Both married a giant of their style, and for too long had their output overshadowed by his. Yet at the same time, both were strong-minded and independent. Both continued to recklessly change their style, often to their advantage but also causing a mid-career dip.

So the show tells such a good yarn you become reluctant to pick at it. Not just a woman in a male art world but Jewish in a Caucasian society, she stuck to her brushes in the face of all adversity. In a filmed interview she says proudly “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent”.

Pollock was a great artist, certainly, but those who met him normally found him an insufferable jerk. While, in quotes and a filmed interview, she comes across as indomitable, a combination of overpowering and engaging. Somebody you’d love to have encountered, if accepting in advance you wouldn’t be getting a word in edgeways. Which cannot help but add to the sense there’s a wrong to be righted here. Notably, most mainstream reviews seemed to home in on this narrative, in the process saying nothing interesting about her art.

But, as always, distrust most the stories you most want to be true. It’s not wrong necessarily, the problem’s more the way a whole bunch of stray facts get shorehorned into a neat narrative. The radical intent of Self-Portrait’, for example, is almost literally not the whole picture. There’s other self-portraits in this show in which she’s more conventionally feminised. They just get less attention.

This show was not just welcome but a necessary correction to the Academy’s. Yet perhaps significantly the two poster variants were of ‘Desert Moon’ and a photo of Krasner herself. Which seems a little like a coin flipping. We should always see Krasner first and foremost as the artist, that “damn good painter”, before a poster girl for progressive values.

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