October 27, 1908
|Died||June 19, 1984 (aged 75)|
New York City, New York, U.S.
National Academy of Design
|Known for||Painting, collage|
(m. 1945; died 1956)
Lenore "Lee" Krasner (October 27, 1908 - June 19, 1984) was an American abstract expressionist painter, with a strong speciality in collage, who was married to Jackson Pollock. This somewhat overshadowed her contribution at the time, though there was much cross-pollination between their two styles. Krasner's training, influenced by George Bridgman and Hans Hofmann, was the more formalized, especially in the depiction of human anatomy, and this enriched Pollock's more intuitive and unstructured output.
Krasner is now seen as a key transitional figure within abstraction, who connected early-20th-century art with the new ideas of postwar America, and her work fetches high prices at auction. She is one of the few female artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Krasner was born as Lena Krassner (outside the family she was known as Lenore Krasner) on October 27, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York. Krasner was the daughter of Chane (née Weiss) and Joseph Krasner. Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, from Shpykiv, a Jewish community in what is now Ukraine. Her parents fled to the United States to escape anti-Semitism and the Russo-Japanese War. Her mother Chane changed her name to Anna once she arrived in America. Lee was the fourth of five children, including her sister, Ruth, and the only one to be born in the United States.
From an early age, Krasner knew she wanted to pursue art as a career. Krasner's career as an artist began when she was a teenager. She specifically sought out enrollment at Washington Irving High School for Girls since they offered an art major. After graduating from high school, she attended the Women's Art School of Cooper Union on a scholarship. Here, she completed the course work required for a teaching certificate in art. Krasner pursued yet more art education at the illustrious National Academy of Design, completing her course load there in 1932.
By 1928, she enrolled in the National Academy of Design. By attending a technical art school, Krasner was able to gain an extensive and thorough artistic education as illustrated through her knowledge of the techniques of the Old Masters. She also became highly skilled in portraying anatomically correct figures. There are relatively few works that survive from this time period apart from a few self-portraits and still lifes since most of the works were burned in a fire. One of the images that still exists from this time period is her "Self Portrait" painted in 1930. She submitted it to the National Academy in order to enroll in a certain class, but the judges could not believe that the young artist produced a self-portrait en plein air. In it, she depicts herself with a defiant expression surrounded by nature. She also briefly enrolled in the Art Students League of New York in 1928. Here, she took a class led by George Bridgman who emphasized the human form. Krasner was highly influenced by the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. She was very affected by post-impressionism and grew critical of the academic notions of style she had learned at the National Academy.
In the 1930s, she began studying modern art through learning the components of composition, technique, and theory. This initial investigation into modern art formed her work throughout the rest of her career. She began taking classes from Hans Hofmann in 1937, which modernized her approach to the nude and still life. He emphasized the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane and usage of color to create spatial illusion that was not representative of reality through his lessons. Throughout her classes with Hofmann, Krasner worked in an advanced style of cubism, also known as neo-cubism. During the class, a human nude or a still life setting would be the model from which Krasner and other students would have to work. She typically created charcoal drawings of the human models and oil on paper color studies of the still life settings. She typically illustrated female nudes in a cubist manner with tension achieved through the fragmentation of forms and the opposition of light and dark colors. The still lifes illustrated her interest in fauvism since she suspended brightly colored pigment on white backgrounds.
Hans Hofmann "was very negative" she said "but one day he stood before my easel and he gave me the first praise I had ever received as an artist from him. He said, 'This is so good, you would never know it was done by a woman". She also received praise from Piet Mondrian who once told her "You have a very strong inner rhythm; you must never lose it,".
It eventually became too difficult for Krasner to support herself as a waitress due to the Great Depression. In order to provide for herself, she joined the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project in 1935. She worked on the mural division as an assistant to Max Spivak. Her job was to enlarge other artists' designs for large-scaled public murals. Since murals were created to be easily understood and appreciated by the general public, the abstract art Krasner produced was undesirable for murals. While Krasner was happy to have a job, she was dissatisfied since she did not like working with figurative images created by other artists. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, she created gouache sketches in the hopes of one day creating an abstract mural. As soon as one of her proposals for a mural was approved for the WYNC radio station, the Works Progress Administration turned into War Services and all art had to be created for war propaganda. She continued working for War Services by creating collages for the war effort which were displayed in the windows of nineteen department stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan. She was very involved with the Artists Union during her employment with the WPA but was one of the first to quit the organization when she realized the communists were taking it over. By being part of this organization, she was able to meet more artists in New York City and enlarge her network.
After she quit the Artists Union, she joined in 1940 the American Abstract Artists. This marks the end of her educational career. While she was a member, she typically exhibited cubist still life in a black-gridded cloisonne style which were highly impastoed and gestural. She met future abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Bradley Walker Tomlin through this organization. She lost interest in their usage of hard-edge geometric style after her relationship with Jackson Pollock began.
Krasner is identified as an abstract expressionist due to her abstract, gestural, and expressive works. She worked in painting, collage painting, charcoal drawing, and occasionally mosaics. She would often cut apart her own drawings and paintings to create her collage paintings. She also commonly revised or completely destroyed an entire series of works due to her critical nature. As a result, her surviving body of work is relatively small. Her catalogue raisonné, published in 1995 by Abrams, lists 599 known pieces.
Her changeable nature is reflected throughout her work, which has led critics and scholars to have very different conclusions about her and her work. Her style often goes back and forth between classic structure and baroque action, open form and hard-edge shape, and bright color and monochrome palette. Throughout her career, she refused to adopt a singular, recognizable style and instead embraced change through varying the mood, subject matter, texture, materials, and compositions of her work often. By changing her work style often, she differed from other abstract expressionists since many of them adopted unchanging identities and modes of depiction. Despite these intense variations, her works can typically be recognized through their gestural style, texture, rhythm, and depiction of organic imagery. Her interest in the self, nature, and modern life are themes which commonly surface in her works. Krasner is often reluctant to discuss the iconography of her work and instead emphasizes the importance of her biography since she claims her art is formed through her individual personality and her emotional state.
Throughout the first half of the 1940s, Krasner struggled with creating art that satisfied her critical nature. She was highly affected by seeing Pollock's work for the first time in 1942, causing her to reject Hofmann's cubist style which required working from a human or still life model. She called the work produced during this frustrating time her "grey slab paintings." She would create these paintings by working on a canvas for months, overpainting, scraping paint off, rubbing paint off, and adding more paint until the canvas was nearly monochrome from so much paint build up. She eventually would destroy these works, which is why there is only one painting that exists from this time period. Krasner's extensive knowledge of cubism was the source of her creative problem since she needed her work to be more expressive and gestural to be considered contemporary and relevant. In the fall of 1945, Krasner destroyed many of her cubist works she created during her studies with Hans Hofmann, although the majority of paintings created from 1938 to 1943 survived this reevaluation.
Beginning in 1946, Krasner began working on her Little Image series. She created around forty of these types of paintings until 1949. They are commonly categorized as mosaic, webbed, or hieroglyphs depending on the style of the image. The mosaic images were created through the thick buildup of paint while her webbed paintings were made through a drip technique in which the paintbrush was always close to the surface of the canvas. Since she used a drip technique in creating her webbed images, many critics believed upon seeing this work for the first time that she reinterpreted Pollock's chaotic paint splatters. Her hieroglyph paintings are gridded and look like an unreadable, personal script of Krasner's creation. These works demonstrate her anti-figurative concerns, allover approach to the canvas, gestural brushwork, and disregard of naturalistic color. They have little variation of color but are very rich in texture due to the buildup of impasto and also suggest space continuing beyond the canvas. These were her first successful images she created while working from her own imagination rather than a model. The relatively small scale of the images can be attributed to the fact she painted them on an easel in her small studio space in an upstairs bedroom at The Springs.
Many scholars interpret these images as Krasner's reworking of Hebrew script. In an interview later in her career, Krasner admitted to subconsciously working from right to left on her canvases, leading scholars to believe that her Jewish background affected the rendering of her work. Some scholars have interpreted these paintings to represent Krasner's reaction to the tragedy of The Holocaust. Others have claimed that her work with the War Services project caused her to be interested in text and codes since cryptoanalysis was a main concern for winning the war.
When she completed the Little Image series in 1949, Krasner again went through a critical phase with her work. She tried out and rejected many new styles and eventually destroyed most of the work she made in the early 1950s. There is evidence that she began experimenting with automatic painting and created black and white hybridized, monstrous figures on large canvases in 1950. These were the paintings that Betty Parsons saw when she visited The Springs that summer, causing Parsons to offer Krasner a show for the fall. Between the summer and the fall, Krasner again had shifted her style to color field painting and destroyed the figurative automatic paintings she made. The Betty Parsons show was the first solo exhibition Krasner displayed her works at since 1945. After the exhibition, Krasner used the color field paintings to make her collage paintings.
By 1951, Krasner started her first series of collage paintings. To create these images, Krasner pasted cut and torn shapes onto all but two of the large-scale color field paintings she created for the Betty Parson's exhibition in 1951. This period marks the time when Krasner stopped working on an easel since she created these works by lying the support on the floor. To make these images, she would pin the separate pieces to a canvas and modify the composition until she was satisfied. She then would paste the fragments on the canvas and add color with a brush when desired. Most of the collage paintings she created recall plant or organic forms but do not completely resemble a living organism. By using many different materials, she was able to create texture and prevent the image from being entirely flat. The act of tearing and cutting elements for the collage embodies Krasner's expression since these acts are aggressive. She explored contrasts of light and dark colors, hard and soft lines, organic and geometric shapes, and structure and improvisation through these collages. These collage paintings represent Krasner's turn away from nonobjective abstraction. From this period onwards, she created metaphorical and content-laden art which alludes to organic figures or landscapes.
From 1951 to 1953, most of her works are made from ripped drawings completed in black ink or wash in a figurative manner. By ripping the paper instead of cutting it, the edges of the figures are much more soft in comparison to the geometric and hard-edged shapes in her previous works. From 1953 to 1954, she created smaller sized collage paintings that were composed of fragments of undesired works. Some of the discarded works she used were splatter paintings completed by Pollock. Many scholars have expressed different interpretations about why she used Pollock's unwanted canvases. Some assert that she simultaneously demonstrated her admiration for his art while also recontextualizing his aggressive physicality through manipulating his images into a collage format. Others believe that she was creating a sense of intimacy between the two artists, which was lacking in their relationship by this time period, by combining their works together. By 1955, she made collage paintings on a larger scale and varied the material she used for the support, using either masonite, wood, or canvas. These works were first exhibited by Eleanor Ward at the Stable Gallery in 1955, but they received little public acclaim apart from a good review from Greenberg.
During the summer of 1956, Krasner started her Earth Green Series. While she started painting these images before Pollock's death, they are considered to reflect her feelings of anger, guilt, pain, and loss she experienced about their relationship before and after he died. This intense emotion she felt during this time caused her art to develop into a more liberated form of her self-expression and pushed the boundaries of conventional, developed concepts of art. Through these large-scale action paintings, she depicts hybridized figures that are made up of organic plant-like forms and anatomical parts, which often allude to both male and female body parts. These forms dominate the canvas, causing it to be crowded and densely packed with bursting and bulging shapes. The pain she experienced during this time is illustrated through the principal usage of flesh tones with blood-red accents in the figures which suggest wounds. The paint drips on the canvas show her speed and willingness to relinquish absolute control, both necessary for portraying her emotions.
By 1957, she continued to create figurative abstract forms in her work, but they suggest more floral elements rather than anatomical. She used brighter colors which were more vibrant and commonly contrasted other colors in the composition. She also would dilute paint or use a dry brush to make the colors more transparent.
In 1958, she was commissioned to create two abstract murals for an office building on Broadway. She created two collage maquettes which depicted floral motifs for two entryways of the building. Later, these murals were destroyed in a fire.
Krasner's Umber Series paintings were created during a time period when the artist was suffering from insomnia. Since she was working during the nighttime, she had to paint with artificial light rather than daylight, causing her palette to shift from bright, vibrant hues to dull, monochrome colors. She also was still dealing with the death of Pollock and the recent death of her mother, which caused her to use an aggressive style when creating these images. These mural sized action paintings contrast dark and light severely since white, grays, black, and brown are the predominant colors used. Evidence of her animated brushwork can be seen through the drips and splatters of paint on the canvas. There is no central spot for the viewer to focus on in these works, making the composition highly dynamic and rhythmic. To paint these large-scale images, Krasner would tack the canvas to a wall. These images no longer imply organic forms but instead are often interpreted as violent and turbulent landscapes.
By 1962, she begins using bright colors and allude to floral and plant-like shapes. These works are compositionally similar to her monochrome images due to their large size and rhythmic nature with no central focal point. The palette of these images often contrast one another and allude to tropical landscapes or plants. She continued working in this style until she suffered an aneurysm, fell, and broke her right wrist in 1963, the wrist she used to paint with. Since she still wanted to work, she painted with her left hand instead. To overcome working with her non-dominant hand, she often would directly apply paint from a tube to the canvas rather than using a brush, causing there to be large patches of white canvas on the surfaces of the images. The gesture and the physicality of these works is more restrained since she is working with her left hand.
After recovering from her broken arm, Krasner began working on bright and decorative allover painting which are less aggressive than her Earth Green Series and Umber Series paintings. Often, these images recall calligraphy or floral ornamentation which are not blatantly related to Krasner's emotional state. Floral or calligraphic shapes dominate the canvas, connecting variable brushwork into a single pattern.
By the second half of the 1960s, critics began reassessing Krasner's role in the New York School as a painter and critic who greatly influenced Pollock and Greenberg due to the rise of the feminism. Prior to this, her status as an artist was typically overlooked by critics and scholars due to her relationship with Pollock. Since Pollock is such a large figure in the abstract expressionist movement, it is still often difficult for scholars to discuss her work without mentioning Pollock in some capacity. This reevaluation is reflected in her first retrospective exhibition of her paintings which was held in London at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965. This exhibition was more well received by critics in comparison to her previous shows in New York.
In 1969, Krasner mostly concentrated on creating works on paper with gouache. These works were named either earth, water, seed, or hieroglyphics and often looked similar to a Rorschach test. Some scholars claim that these images were a critique of Greenberg's theory about the importance of the two-dimensional nature of the canvas.
Starting in 1970, Krasner began making large horizontal paintings made up of hard-edge lines and a palette of a few bright colors that contrasted one another. She painted in this style until about 1973.
In 1976, she started working on her second series of collage images. She began working on these collages after she was cleaning out her studio and discovered some charcoal drawings mostly of figure studies that she completed from 1937 to 1940. After she saved a few of them, she decided to use the rest in a new series of collages. In these collages, the black and gray shapes of the figure studies are juxtaposed against the blank canvas or the addition of brightly colored paint. The hard-edged shapes of the cut drawings are reconstructed into curvilinear shapes that recall floral patterns. Texture is induced through the contrast of the smooth paper and rough canvas. Since the figure studies are cut up and rearranged without consideration of their original intention or message, the differences between the old drawings and new structures is highly exaggerated. All of the collages' titles from this series are different verb tenses which is interpreted as a critique of Greenberg's and Michael Fried's insistence on the presentness of modern art. These works are also considered as a statement about how artists need to reexamine and rework their style in order to stay relevant as they grow older. This collage series was very well received by a large audience when they were exhibited in 1977 at the Pace Gallery.
Although many people believe that Krasner stopped working in the 1940s in order to nurture Pollock's home life and career, she never stopped creating art.  In fact, while developing her relationship with Pollock, she shifted her focus from her own art to Pollock's art in order to help him gain more recognition due to the fact that she believed that he had "much more to give with his art than she had with hers".
Throughout her career, she went through periods of struggle where she would experiment with new styles that would satisfy her means for expression and harshly critique, revise, or destroy the work she would produce. Because of her self-criticism, there are periods of time where little to none of her work exists, specifically the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Krasner and Pollock both had an immense effect on each other's artistic styles and careers. Since Krasner had learned from Hans Hofmann while Pollock received training from Thomas Hart Benton, each artist took different approaches to their work. Krasner learned from Hofmann the importance of the abstracting from nature and emphasizing the flat nature of the canvas while Pollock's training highlighted the importance of complex design from automatic drawing. Krasner's extensive knowledge of modern art helped Pollock since she brought him up to date with what contemporary art should be. He was therefore able to make works that were more organized and cosmopolitan. Additionally, Krasner was responsible for introducing Pollock to many artists, collectors, and critics who appreciated abstract art such as Willem de Kooning, Peggy Guggenheim, and Clement Greenberg. Pollock also helped Krasner become less restrained when making her work. He inspired her to stop painting from human and still life models in order to free her interior emotions and become more spontaneous and gestural through her work.
Krasner struggled with the public's reception of her identity, both as a woman and as the wife of Pollock. When they both exhibited their works at a show called "Artists: Man and Wife" in 1949, an ARTnews reviewer stated: "There is a tendency among some of these wives to 'tidy up' their husband's styles. Lee Krasner (Mrs. Jackson Pollock) takes her husband's paint and enamels and changes his unrestrained, sweeping lines into neat little squares and triangles." Even after the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, her career as an artist was always put into relation to Pollock since remarks made about her work often commented on how she had become a successful artist by moving out of Pollock's shadow. In articles about her work, Pollock is continually referred to. She is still referred to as "Action Widow", a term coined in 1972 by art critic B. H. Friedman who accused the female surviving partners of Abstract Expressionist artists of artistic dependence on their male partners. Typically in the 1940s and 1950s, she would not sign works at all, sign with the genderless initials "L.K.", or blend her signature into the painting in order to not emphasize her status as a woman and as a wife to another painter.
Mary Beth Edelson's Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper (1972) appropriated Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, with the heads of notable women artists collaged over the heads of Christ and his apostles. Krasner was among those notable women artists. This image, addressing the role of religious and art historical iconography in the subordination of women, became "one of the most iconic images of the feminist art movement."
Lee Krasner died in 1984, age 75, from natural causes. She had been suffering from arthritis.
Six months after her death, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City held a retrospective exhibition of her work. A review of the exhibition in the New York Times noted that it "clearly defines Krasner's place in the New York School" and that she "is a major, independent artist of the pioneer Abstract Expressionist generation, whose stirring work ranks high among that produced here in the last half-century." As of 2008, Krasner is one of only four women artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art. The other three women artists are Louise Bourgeois (MoMA retrospective in 1982), Helen Frankenthaler (MoMA retrospective in 1989) and Elizabeth Murray (MoMA retrospective in 2004).
On November 11, 2003 Celebration, a large painting from 1960 sold to Cleveland Museum of Art for $1,9 M and in May 2008, Polar Stampede sold for $3,2 M."No one today could persist in calling her a peripheral talent" said critic Robert Hughes.
After her death, her East Hampton property became the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio, and is open to the public for tours. A separate organization, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, was established in 1985. The Foundation functions as the official Estate for both Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, and also, under the terms of her will, serves "to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need." The U.S. copyright representative for the Pollock-Krasner Foundation is the Artists Rights Society.
Krasner was portrayed in an Academy Award-winning performance by Marcia Gay Harden in the 2000 film Pollock, a drama about the life of her husband Jackson Pollock, directed by Ed Harris. In John Updike's novel Seek My Face (2002), a significant portion of the main character's life is based on Krasner's.
Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock established a relationship with each other in 1942 after they both exhibited at the McMillen Gallery. Krasner was intrigued by his work and the fact she did not know who he was since she knew many abstract painters in New York. She went to his apartment to meet him. By 1945, they moved to The Springs on the outskirts of East Hampton. In the summer of that year, they got married in a church with two witnesses present.
While the two lived in the farmhouse in The Springs, they both continued creating art. They worked in separate studio spaces on their property. Krasner worked in an upstairs bedroom in the house while Pollock worked in the barn in their backyard. When they were not working, the two spent their time cooking, baking, gardening, keeping the house organized, and entertaining friends.
By 1956, their relationship became strained as they faced certain issues. Pollock had begun struggling with his alcoholism again and was partaking in an extramarital affair with Ruth Kligman. Krasner left in the summertime to visit friends in Europe but had to quickly return when Pollock died in a car crash while she was away.
Krasner was brought up in an orthodox Jewish home throughout her childhood and adolescence. They lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn which had a large population of poor Jewish immigrants. Her father spent most of his time practicing Judaism while her mother upheld the household and the family business. Krasner appreciated aspects of Judaism like Hebrew script, prayers, and religious stories.
As a teenager, she grew critical of what she perceived as misogyny in orthodox Judaism. In an interview later in her life, Krasner recalls reading a prayer translation and thinking it was "indeed a beautiful prayer in every sense except for the closing of it... if you are a male you say, 'Thank You, O Lord, for creating me in Your image'; and if you are a woman you say, 'Thank You, O Lord, for creating me as You saw fit.'" She also began reading existentialist philosophies during this time period, causing her to turn away from Judaism even further.
While she married Pollock in a church, Krasner continued to identify herself as Jewish but decided to not practice the religion. Her identity as a Jewish woman has affected how scholars interpret the meaning of her art.
At a 2003 Christie's auction in New York, Lee Krasner's horizontal composition in oil on canvas, Celebration (1960), multiplied its presale estimate more than fourfold as it ended its upward course at $1.9 million. In 2019, Sotheby's set a new auction record for Krasner when The Eye is the First Circle (1960) sold for $10 million to Robert Mnuchin.