Why Everybody Should See Lee Krasner: Living Colour
Barbican Art Gallery is currently hosting the first retrospective in Europe for over 50 years of American artist Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984). One of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, Krasner made work exploring the feeling of possibility and experimentation in post-war New York.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour features nearly 100 works – many on show in the UK for the first time – from across her 50-year career, and tells the story of a formidable artist whose importance has often been overshadowed by her marriage to Jackson Pollock.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Krasner refused to develop a ‘signature image’, which she considered to be ‘rigid rather than being alive’.
Celebrating Krasner’s spirit for invention – the collection includes striking early self-portraits, a body of energetic charcoal life drawings, original photographs of her proposed department store window displays – designed during the war effort – and her acclaimed ‘Little Image’ paintings from the 1940s with their tightly controlled geometries.
The exhibition also features collages comprised of torn-up earlier work and a selection of her most impressive large-scale abstract paintings. Working in cycles, Krasner continually sought out new means for authentic expression, even during the most tumultuous times, which included Pollock’s emotional vulnerability and his sudden death in a car crash in 1956.
“Painting is a revelation, an act of love… as a painter, I can’t experience it any other way.”
She destroyed her own work and then used the ruins to create new pieces of art.
After working on a series of black-and-white drawings in 1951, which she pinned floor-to-ceiling in the studio in the hope they would ease her in a new direction, she walked into her studio one day and decided that she ‘despised it all’ and tore the drawings up.
When she finally returned to it after a few weeks she discovered there were a lot of things that began to interest her. The strewn shreds became the beginning of a series of collages she layered over canvases and were well received.
“I am not to be trusted around my old work for any length of time”
Her painting ‘Prophecy’ gave an unnerving insight into the struggles of her marriage to Pollock, hinting at the life-changing events to follow.
In the summer of 1956, Krasner painted a work unlike any other she had made. The canvas was dominated by looping, fleshy forms, lined with black and with accents of pink that emphasise the bodily imagery. Prophecy was painted at a time when Pollock’s alcoholism was becoming acute and their relationship was coming under considerable strain. Krasner described how the painting ‘disturbed (her) enormously.’
On 12th August she received a phone call with the news that Pollock had crashed his car, killing himself and at the age of 47, Krasner found herself a widow. Weeks after the funeral, she returned to painting, making three works that continued the series she had begun with Prophecy: Birth, Embrace and Three in Two.
“Painting is not separate from life. It is like asking - do I want to live? My answer is yes - and I paint.”
This is not just an exhibition to admire her paintings and work - you truly get a feel for Krasner’s personality, character and determination throughout.
Krasner’s work is accompanied by rare photography and film from the period, giving you a true insight into the life and mind of the artist and it’s impossible not to come away feeling inspired. Her formidable spirit is felt throughout the body of work that she created for over fifty years.
As the playwright Edward Albee commented at Krasner’s memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in both her life and her work she ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’.
“I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”
Although she didn’t receive the recognition she deserved for many years, she was free to experiment and create without pressure.
Krasner acknowledged that, in some respects, the lack of attention throughout her career had been a ‘blessing’. Free from much critical pressure, she had made the work she felt compelled to make; without a coterie of controlling dealers or collectors, she was never forced to repeat herself but could flow with each new direction as it came to her.
We’re pleased to say that things are finally changing for Krasner and others like her – see Luchita Hurtado, Yayoi Kusama and Dorothea Tanning who are now being rightly celebrated. A whole host of exhibitions in London are re-examining the works of female artists, some of whom are still alive to witness this change.