Turbulent, Colourful, Long-Overdue: Lee Krasner at the Barbican

The painter’s first European retrospective since the 1960s finally allows her to step out of Jackson Pollock’s shadow

In the winter of 1947, driven from her small studio to her living room to minimize heating expenses, Lee Krasner fashioned a table from a farmyard wagon wheel and a mosaic of keys and broken household ceramics. The table stands beneath photographs of flowers by her friend Ray Eames in the first room of Krasner’s largest European exhibition since the 1960s, presenting a bucolic vision of life at Springs, Long Island. Krasner moved there in 1945, early into her marriage with Jackson Pollock, yet her image of domestic harmony is as fragmented and fossilised as the mosaic. Her singular pursuit of painting – specifically abstraction – gave Krasner a language that enabled her to transcend her status as Mrs Pollock and speak on her own terms.

Irving Penn, Lee Krasner, Springs, NY, 1972. Courtesy: The Irving Penn Foundation 

Irving Penn, Lee Krasner, Springs, NY, 1972. Courtesy: The Irving Penn Foundation 

Some of the earliest paintings in the exhibition shock in their figuration. Self-portraits made between 1929 and 1933, when the artist was studying at the National Academy of Design, serve as markers of her transformation from Lena, the daughter of Russian orthodox Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn, to Lenore, before finally settling on the gender-ambiguous Lee. In one self-portrait painted around 1931–33, the far side of her face is in shadow, as if in anticipation of her reinvention. (In it, Krasner looks ‘you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’, as the playwright Edward Albee commented at her memorial.) Nearby life drawings, made during the same period, reveal her command for capturing the nude figure, which gradually descends into a cubist abstraction towards the end of the 1930s through her studies with the German modernist Hans Hoffmann. 

Hoffmann’s teaching style was direct: he would often tear up students’ work and make his own corrections on top. This method would remain with Krasner throughout her career, and is indicative of both her relentless invention and her deep pragmatism. Her first solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 – soft geometric abstractions – did not sell and, in the wake of this, she produced a series of black and white drawings, only to rip up the lot. Weeks later, when she finally felt able to return to the studio, she saw potential in these scraps and began to layer them with burlap and newspaper on top of the Betty Parsons works, saving on buying new canvas. Some of these are included here, in their tumultuous irregularity, layered and splintered like sentences in which each word is footnoted. Of the act of painting, Krasner once said, ‘I’ve always thought of it as a kind of crazy writing sent by me to I don’t know whom […] I’m not anxious to read it.’

Lee Krasner, Prophecy, 1956. Courtesy: © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Kasmin Gallery, New York; photograph: Christopher Stach

Lee Krasner, Prophecy, 1956. Courtesy: © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Kasmin Gallery, New York; photograph: Christopher Stach

The loose chronology of the Barbican’s upper galleries grounds Krasner’s approaches to painting. Downstairs, however, this explodes in a riot of scale and colour. In 1956, Pollock died in a car crash (his lover survived; another friend did not). Still in mourning, Krasner took over his large studio at Springs. Her work churns and bursts in perpetual motion – even when she broke her arm, the artist went on painting with her fingertips. In a later interview, she said the size of the painting is ‘generally determined by how much energy I have that day’; these works, some over four metres in length, attest to an unbridled rhythm, an unrelenting need to paint. Her mosaic approach – tearing, collaging, reinventing – simmers quietly underneath the canvas in some works, such as Kufic (1965) and Olympic (1974), and boils over in rhapsody in others, including Palingenesis (1971), which means rebirth. In a 1972 interview with curator Barbara Rose, Krasner explained, ‘evolution, growth and change go on. Change is life.’ And for Krasner, as this vital exhibition attests, life is indivisible from painting.

Main image: Lee Krasner, Palingenesis, 1971. Courtesy: © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation and Kasmin Gallery, New York

Phoebe Cripps is a writer and curator based in Hastings, and is Assistant Curator at the De La Warr Pavilion 

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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