Lee Krasner was one of the prominent American Abstract Expressionists, painter and collage artist, wife of Jackson Pollock.
Lenore Krasner (or Lena, like her relatives used to call her) was born on October 27, 1908 in a family of religious Chassides. Her parents, Joseph and Anna Krasner, had immigrated to the USA from Bessarabia – one of Provinces of the Russian Empire around 1906, trying to escape from the anti-Jewish pogroms. It was just a few years before Lenore (their sixth child) was born, so the girl was raised in Brooklyn, New York.
Lee Krasner decided to dedicate herself to art on her final year at Washington Irving High School. But not everyone were so enthusiastic about that idea: as she told in her interview for the Archives of American Art, the art teacher told Lenore he gave her the passing mark only because she did good in other disciplines. In 1926 the future painter entered the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, where she studied under guidance of Victor Perard. She later recalled, as Mr. Hitten, a cast drawing instructor promoted her to life drawing class, saying “I’m going to promote you to life, not because you deserve it, but because I can’t do anything with you”. Ironically, when Lee abandoned the Cooper Union and entered the National Academy of Design in two years, she had to return to cast drawing. And Mr. Hitten occurred to be her instructor there again.
The artist studied there about three years, training her skills and acquainting with the newest European vanguard movements and art of Henri Matisse, Juan Miro and Giorgio de Chirico in the Museum of Modern Art. She was captivated with their pieces, yet years would pass before Krasner would switch to the vanguard visual language. Because of the Depression, she was forced to combine her training with part-time jobs, working as a waitress, an artist’s model etc. Little of her pieces from that time remained, but at least her two self-portraits of 1929 and 1930 demonstrate rather direct, psychological and realistic manner Lee Krasner followed in the end of 1920s – beginning of 1930s.
Around 1934 the painter was invited to participate in the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (more known as FAP), which was meant to provide with financial opportunities the group of artists to support them in difficult economic situation in the country. The commissions were mainly large public murals, however, it wasn’t until the start of World War II that Lee was entrusted creating her own design of mural for WNYC radio station of New York (1941 – 1942, not executed). Before that she was just an assistant in others’ projects. Being quite an independent and restless personality, the young woman was arrested for participation in a protest against the dismissal of 500 artists from the WPA FAP and gave herself a fake name “Mary Cassatt”.
By the mid 1930s the impact of modernistic tendencies became more visible in the master’s paintings, as Lee Krasner started experimenting with coloring, making it more vivid and bold (untitled still life from 1935). In 1937 she enrolled the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. Hofmann was a German-born artist, who immigrated to the USA in 1930s and occurred to be one of the crucial person in the history of American Abstract Expressionism. Working with him, Krasner deeply encountered with Cubism (though she had already been familiar with Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s canvases since early 1930s). Cubism significantly affected her manner, as we can see in “Nude Study” (1938). Typical for that movement inverted perspective, schematism of forms the artist combined with expressive applying of paint and almost fauvist-like hues, achieving very authentic and original results (“Still life”, 1938).
Life drawing classes in Hofmann’s studio were the starting point of shaping up her vision of abstract art. Lee’s first abstract compositions were rendered exactly at that time – still with accent on geometric forms and thick black outline (“Blue square”, 1939, “Composition”, 1940 – 1943). Moreover, she got involved in the exhibitions, organized by “A.A.A.” – “American Abstract Artists”.
During one of such exhibitions – “French and American Painting”, held at the MacMillin Gallery in 1941 – Lee Krasner met her life-long love and future husband Jackson Pollock. She had a very strong feeling about him: “I was terribly drawn to Jackson, and I fell in love with him — physically, mentally – in every sense of the word”. Being already well-known in New York, Lenore introduced him to the vanguard artistic circles and particularly to Peggy Guggenheim and Clement Greenberg, both of whom played the key role in further development of Pollock’s career. She occurred under Pollock’s influence and at that point her creative activity significantly decreased.
The painter herself called the period between 1942 – 1945, when the couple rented an atelier on the East 8th Street, the “black-out period”, believing nothing significant was created then. The painter went through the temporal crisis, rejecting working from nature. In 1944 – 1945 the master produced the series of untitled abstract monochrome engravings (now – part of the MoMA’s collection).
It took Lee Krasner around three years to overcome that struggle. After the weddinge, in 1946 she and Jackson moved to the Springs Village on Long-Island, where they led quite a reserved life. Probably, such atmosphere finally promoted her recognizable style to “ripen”. Her first major breakthrough was a series of small abstract canvases called “Little Images” (1946 – 1950). As well, as Pollock, she distanced from easel painting, creating her pieces on the floor. That added those modestly sized pictures a flavor of spontaneity and improvisation.
In “Little Images” Lee Krasner overcame Cubistic principles, elaborating calligraphic-like patterns, which would gradually become more and more intense in coloring (“Shattered Color”, 1947). The works of the series, done in 1949 – 1950, are defined by a clearer structure, when the composition consists of squares, rectangles, circles, which shape a sort of “hieroglyphic field” (“Stop and Go”, 1949). Specialists connected the general visual conception of “Little images” with the painter’s interest in mysticism, rooted in her Jewish education in childhood.
In 1949 Lenore and her husband displayed their works at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, “Artists: Man and Wife”. In two years, in October 1951, Betty Parson organized Lee’s first solo exhibition. Unfortunately, it wasn’t financially profitable and the masters’ pieces were poorly sold, so Jackson decided to cooperate with more successful Sidney Janis. Krasner also had to decline partnership with Parsons.
Being tremendously exigent, uncompromising and impulsive author, Lee Krasner often used to destroy her old works she wasn’t satisfied with. In 1953 she started composing the pieces left from them into collages. For the artist it was a sort of dialogue with one of her favorite masters – Henri Matisse, who created a number of paper cut-outs during the war years. Krasner had tried her hand in collage technique earlier – in 1942, working for the War Service Project, but they had been still figurative (“Optics”, 1942). The general base of the new pieces was the idea of contrast of abstract forms: juxtaposing the biomorphic shapes and rectangles, colors and textures (“Blue level”, 1942). The critics highly praised the collages demonstrated during Lee’s personal show at the Stable Gallery in 1955.
Unlike many Abstract Expressionists, who preferred remaining “recognizable”, Lee Krasner never stopped searching for innovations in her art. Aspiring for the artistic self-sufficiency, she reached it only after the death of Jackson Pollock in the car crash in 1956. Trying to relief her terrible grief in works, she embodied her thoughts of universal dualism of life and death in organic forms of “Earth Green” (1956) and “Night Journey” (1959) series. In 1970s the artist again referred to collage technique (again from her old drawings and even from Pollock’s ones) in her series “Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See” (1976 – 1977).
Lee Krasner died on June 19, 1984 in New York.