Lee (Lena) Krasner was a pioneering first-generation Abstract Expressionist painter. She created abstract still life paintings and diagrammatic figure studies. Her abstract expressionism varied from repeating rhythms of hieroglyphic signs in the late 1940s to bold, gestural works in the late 1950s and 1960s and finally to collage paintings made shortly before her death.
She grew up in New York in a traditional Russian Jewish immigrant family where females were segregated when they worshipped in synagogues. She began her art education as a teenager and continued on to study at New York’s Cooper Union and then at the National Academy of Design. While a student at the Academy in the late 1920s, she was outraged that the female students were segregated and only allowed to work in the school’s basement.
In the 1930s Krasner worked for the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA), supervising the mural division in 1935. She studied with Hans Hofmann in 1937, who emphasized the two-dimensional nature of a painting. During her first critique with him, Hofmann ripped up her drawing and rearranged the pieces. He would later praise Krasner’s work saying, “This is so good you would not know it was by a woman.” She experimented with numerous styles from cubism to figurative surrealism. In 1942, she became involved with Jackson Pollock, and in 1942 the couple met with William Baits and Robert Motherwell to create collective automatic poems and drawings.
In 1945, Krasner and Pollock married. She was famous as his wife, a fact that has often cast a shadow over critics’ ability to appreciate her artistic talents independent of her husband. The couple moved to a farmhouse in East Hampton where they both set up studios. Breaking with her cubist roots, Krasner began to create her “Little Image” paintings, that incorporated both drawing and writing. They included grids of shapes that resembled cuneiform or hieroglyphics. She would work with her canvas flat on a table and would paint with sticks or a palette knife, dripping paint from a can or using it straight from the tube.
Between 1953 and 1955 Krasner created a series of black and white, paper-and-canvas collages by un-stretching, slashing, cutting up, and reassembling canvases. In her 1955 “Milkweed” ominous black orbs hovered and intermingled with elongated white planes on a quiet painted surface. She applied a new layer of oil paint to the pieces of recycled paper fragments and slashed canvas, which resulted in a layered composition.
Her gestural work “Earth Green Series” 1956-1959 was begun soon after her husband’s death in a car crash in 1956, which also killed a young, female passenger. Suffering from insomnia, she worked at night in the barn where Pollock had painted and created primal, gestural, emotional works. She expressed her pain in her frenetic “Night Journeys” series, which differed from her previous geometric compositions. She painted gaunt faces and eyes in broad strokes, using colors of brown, tan, and cream as seen in her 1959 “Messenger” and in her 1960 “Vigil.” Her 1960 “Polar Stampede” was painted in muted hues of white and umber. Transitional paintings, done in 1960, are “Seeded” and “Fecundity.” Both paintings have grasses and reeds in them. In her 1961 “Moontide” there are interactions of white and brown unfolding in a scroll-like form.
After her mother’s death in 1959 and an operation on an aneurysm in 1962, Krasner dealt with themes of birth and renewal as she pressed on with her creative life. She was most radiantly herself in a series of watercolor, pastel, and crayon works from 1962 on. In 1963, her broken wrist forced her to make finger-scale paint strokes in paintings “Bird Image” and “Flowering Limb.” This last painting had a blend of brown, orange, yellow, and pink in fantastic combinations.
Here the arcing shapes and exuberant colors call to mind her large, gestural masterpieces of the 1960s – paintings like “Another Storm”‘ 1963, an oversize red-and-white painting; “Gaea” 1966, a painting where she used her whole arm in making rolling gestures; and “Pollination” 1968.
Krasner died in 1984 just six months before her first U.S. retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, an event she had longed for. Her home in East Hampton became the Pollock Krasner House and Studio and is open to the public. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established in 1985 to give financial assistance to artists in need.
Her work is currently showing in a retrospective “Lee Krasner: Living Colour” at London’s Barbican Centre. Her work is found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco MoMA, and the National Gallery of Art.