Lee Krasner

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Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner (1908-1984), American painter and collage artist, served as an important inspiration to contemporary women artists. A major figure in the Abstract Expressionist milieux, she successfully extended the New York School sensibility into the present.

Lee (Lenore) Krasner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 27, 1908, to Russian emigre parents, Joseph and Anna Krasner (Krassner). By the time of her graduation from public elementary school in 1922 she had shown strong inclinations toward the arts. She spent most of her secondary education at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, where she devoted three years to a major in art. Krasner attended the Women's Art School of Cooper Union from 1926 through 1929, followed by a short period at the Art Student's League. From 1929 to 1932 she continued working at the National Academy of Design where, upon her first trips to the newly established Museum of Modern Art, Krasner encountered and was deeply influenced by the School of Paris. It was then that she had the good fortune to meet such subsequently important figures in the New York art world as Parker Tyler, Harold Rosenberg, and Lionel Abel, all of them conversant with the problems of European modernism.

With these experiences behind her, she found brief employment with the Public Works Administration project in 1933 (first of the New Deal art projects) and with the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. In 1935, alongside Harold Rosenberg, Krasner served as assistant to Max Spivak in the mural Division of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Arts Project. Based on her concern for the problems of art and politics, Krasner began attending the meetings of the Artists' Union as early as 1936 and by 1939 had become a member of the organization's executive committee. Employed off and on as part of the WPA project through 1942, she found time from 1937 to 1940 to study with the widely known painter Hans Hofmann. During the same period she came to know the critic Clement Greenberg who, along with Rosenberg, rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.

Throughout the 1940s Krasner explored and assimilated a variety of modern idioms and internationalized her art attitudes. She began to exhibit in 1940 with the American Abstract Artists group, an important organization of American artists, famous for their reactions against social realism, regionalism, and other brands of aesthetic conservatism. Based on her modernist leanings she was invited by John Graham to exhibit at New York's McMillan Gallery in 1941 and 1942. The second of these shows, entitled "American and French Paintings," included among its American exhibitors Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Walt Kuhn and among the Europeans Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard, and Modigliani. In 1945, three years following this exhibition, Lee Krasner married Jackson Pollock and moved to The Springs, East Hampton.

By 1945 Krasner was painting full-time. The extent of her early success can be measured by her inclusion in the group exhibition "Challenge to the Critics" organized by Howard Putzel at his newly opened gallery in New York. Others exhibiting included Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Mark Rothko—all of them, including Krasner, later to be considered founding members of the New York School.

Following the so-called "Grey Paintings" of this period, Krasner began producing the famous "Little Image" paintings from 1946 to 1949, works highly graphic in their notation and frequently characterized by her critics as "hieroglyphic." In 1951 Krasner was given her first one-person show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. It was during this period that critics began to recognize her as a major contributor to the new American painting. Krasner's work was characterized by shallow space, a legacy of Cubism, reductive color, and an insistent concern with progress. Her position was fundamentally anti-formal and anti-ideological. Krasner's collage work can be dated from 1953, a period during which she began to extensively rework her earlier painting, a recycling process she continued to exploit throughout her life. In 1954 she exhibited in her first group show composed of all women artists, and the following year held her first one-person exhibition of collages at the Stable Gallery. On August 11, 1956, the year of Krasner's first trip to Europe, her husband Jackson Pollock died in an automobile accident.

By the late 1950s Krasner was widely exhibited (Martha Jackson and Howard Wise Galleries) for what she had by then achieved—a unique approach to painting. Never frozen into a style, strictly speaking, she nonetheless was consistently biographical in her approach to her art. Krasner inherited the "unfixed" image of Pollock and de Kooning and spoke persistently of "states of becoming," nature, and the spirituality of the "totality of nature." She greatly prized growth, change, and the involuntary surfacing of content, covertly symbolic, in her painting. Her collage mentality and her dedication to the concept of natural recycling (nature) never left her and was as apparent in her painting in the 1980s as it was 20 years previous.

Partially based on her mural work of 1959, Krasner monumentalized the scale of her 1960s work, simplified its form, and, in general, minimized the gestural nature of her handling, although not its personal and physical sense of the artist's "contact." Extensively shown throughout this period, she received her first retrospective in 1965 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The exhibition subsequently toured England under the direction of the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1967 Krasner moved to Manhattan.

The 1970s marked new work in collage and a partial return to the more gestural handling of her earlier career. Krasner continued to freely combine media such as painting, collage, and printmaking. Although her success was virtually assured as a pioneer of the New York School, she nevertheless continued to experiment and change.

Further Reading

To date discussions of Krasner are confined to periodicals and exhibition catalogues. Best accounts of her work may be found in the catalogues for her solo shows: Lee Krasner; paintings, drawings and collages, Whitechapel Art Gallery (1965), which includes an essay by B. H. Friedman; Lee Krasner, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery (1968 and 1969); Lee Krasner; Recent Paintings, Marlborough Gallery (1973); and Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, Whitney Museum of American Art (1978), which includes an essay by Marcia Tucker. The Art Index should be consulted for the periodical literature pertaining to her most recent work. □

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KRASNER, LEE (1908–1984), U.S. painter. Born Lena Krassner in Brooklyn, New York, to Orthodox, Russian immigrant parents, early on she studied art at the Women's Art School at Cooper Union (1922–25), Art Students League (1928), and National Academy of Design in New York (1929–32). Beginning in 1935 she worked as a Works Progress Administration artist. Although she designed one mural, for the wnyc radio station building, which was never executed, Krasner did work as an assistant to the muralist Max Spivak. During the 1930s she experimented with various styles and forms, including Social Realism and Giorgio de Chirico's mysterious perspectives.

Resuming her art studies in 1937 with the avant-garde, German expatriate Hans Hofmann, Krasner absorbed aspects of Pablo Picasso's Cubism and Henri Matisse's color. She showed her Cubist inspired still-lifes, semi-abstracted from nature, in the annual group exhibitions of the American Abstract Artists from 1940 to 1943.

In 1941 Krasner met Jackson Pollock, soon to be recognized as the pioneer abstract expressionist, when the pair were asked to show their work in a group exhibition. She and Pollock married in 1945. Throughout their relationship, Krasner and Pollock engaged in an aesthetic dialogue as Krasner schooled Pollock in European modernism while she adopted Pollock's synthesis of abstraction and automatism. Her Little Image paintings (1946–49) employed and reinterpreted Pollock's allover technique. The Hieroglyphs, one of the three cycles of Little Image paintings, have been interpreted by some scholars as influenced by Hebrew script.

Throughout the years Krasner engaged collage techniques, sometimes on a large scale. In Black and White Collage (1953, Hans Namuth Estate, New York), Krasner utilized her own cut up drawings rearranged in the new, abstract work. In the mid-1950s she also cut up several of Pollock's discarded canvases and used them in collages. Her collage paintings first showed at New York's Stable Gallery in 1955 to acclaim.

After Pollock's death in a car accident in 1956 Krasner began her Earth Green series (1957–59), a colorful and rhythmic group of images exploring growth and nature; and the gloomier Night Journey series (1959–62; also known as the Umber series), the latter promoted by her turbulent state and also bouts of insomnia. In these paintings she reduced her palette to gradations of blacks, whites, and browns so that the artificial light she was working in would not undermine her color choices. Throughout her career, Krasner continued to reinvent herself and her style. She consistently reacted to the current trends in the art world, absorbing and modifying the work of artists such as Morris *Louis, Philip *Guston, and Frank Stella, much as she had done with Pollock's example. Indeed, in the 1970s Krasner eschewed her spontaneous working method, instead creating hard edge paintings in the vein of Stella.


B. Rose, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective (1983); R. Hobbs, Lee Krasner (1993); E.G. Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné (1995); R. Hobbs, Lee Krasner (1999).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]