Krasner, Lee (1908–1984)

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Krasner, Lee (1908–1984)

Leading 20th-century American painter and one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism. Name variations: Leonore Krassner. Born Lena Krassner on October 27, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York; died on June 19 (sometimes given as June 20), 1984, in New York City; daughter of Joseph Krassner (owner of a small store) and Anna (Weiss) Krassner; attended Girls High School and Washington Irving High School, 1922–25, Women's Art School of Cooper Union, 1925–28, Art Students League, 1928, National Academy of Design, 1929–32; married Jackson Pollock (an artist), on October 25, 1945 (died, August 1956).

Worked as artist for Works Progress Administration (1935–43); met Jackson Pollock (1936); began to study with Hans Hofmann (1937); first exhibited paintings (1940); began to live with Pollock (1942); painted Little Image paintings (1946–49); presented first solo exhibition (1951); underwent psychoanalysis and presented collage exhibition (1955); painted Green Earth series (1956–57); held exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery (1958); operated on for aneurysm (1963); had first retrospective exhibition of her work at Whitechapel Gallery, London (1965); picketed Museum of Modern Art to protest the museum's lack of interest in women artists (1972); was awarded Augustus St. Gaudens Medal by the Cooper Union Alumni Association (1974); received Ordre des Arts et des Letters from French government.

Major works:

Self-Portrait (Miller Gallery, New York, 1930); Red, White, Blue, Yellow, Black (Marlborough Gallery, New York, 1939); Image Surfacing (Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1945); Composition(Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1949); The City (Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1953); Bird Talk (Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1955); Triple Goddess (Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1960); Gaea (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966).

Lee Krasner, a versatile and significant American painter whose works both reflected and helped to shape many of the most important artistic trends in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s, produced more than 600 works. She painted in remarkably varied styles over the course of her career, and her failure to gain major recognition until she reached her 60s stems in part from this factor and in part because of her gender. In addition, Krasner possessed a complex personality that exposed her to the domination of abusive men. Two of them hindered, to one degree or another, the growth of her talent and her independent reputation.

The first was Igor Pantuhoff, a fellow art student she knew in the 1930s. More notable was her relationship with Jackson Pollock, who became her husband in 1945 and who emerged as the central figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Thus, at various times over several decades she put aside her own artistic ambitions in order to meet the needs of her male companions. Her years of caring for Pollock, combined with her role as the executor and caretaker of his artistic legacy following his death in 1956, caused her to be identified widely as "Pollock's widow." Nonetheless, despite such distractions, she invariably returned to her own career with talent and gusto. By the 1960s, a decade following Pollock's death, Krasner began to receive clear recognition as a significant figure in her own right. She was praised for both her paintings and her collages, but she is best known for her important contribution to the style known as Abstract Expressionism.

Developed in the New York area in the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism has been hailed as the major American contribution to the development of modern art. Departing from the tradition-bound American art world of the 1930s, artists like Krasner took ideas from the modernist painters of Europe, such as Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, then explored their own subconscious impulses, thus creating Abstract Expressionism. As Clifford Ross notes, Abstract Expressionism developed "highly charged images which force the viewer to recall and experience a range of powerful emotions and feelings." Instead of presenting a recognizable reality, "Abstract Expressionist images evoke; they do not depict. They confront; they do not describe." With the development of Abstract Expressionism, New York became a lively gathering place for artists in the years after World War II. The new art, as Anne Harris and Linda Nochlin put it, "moved the center of the artistic avant-garde from Europe to America."

The future painter and pioneer in the growth of Abstract Expressionism was the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish family that had only recently immigrated to the United States from Russia. Her parents, Joseph and Anna Krassner , married in Russia, then Joseph left for the United States eventually to set up a grocery store. Anna joined him several years later. Lena—later to be known as Leonore, then Lee—was born on October 27, 1908, only nine months after her parents had been reunited in their new home. She was the fourth of her parents' five children, and she was the first to be born in their new country.

The Krassners showed the strains that characterized many such immigrant families. Her mother's hectoring nature and lack of patience, her father's emotional distance from his children, and the couple's continuing discomfort in American society created a tense, closed environment. Krasner later complained that she felt as if she had grown up in an atmosphere little different from a ghetto in Eastern Europe. In fact, she was surrounded by the languages that prevailed in Jewish communities there: Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. "Any member of the family could always break out in a language that I couldn't understand," she wrote.

Naifeth and Smith, Jackson Pollock's biographers, place heavy emphasis on the young girl's relationship with her older brother Irving in the shaping of her personality. Remote, brutal, and manipulative, he would attract the attention of his sister, then deliberately reject it. In their view, Lee "would always seek out men as remote, abusive, and implacable as Irving, and lose herself in them with the same guileless abandon." In general, her relationships with others were almost instantaneously antagonistic throughout her life.

It remains uncertain where Krasner's interest in art originated. In Orthodox Jewish families like hers, the Bible's condemnation of graven images was taken seriously. But her rebellious nature was evident here and elsewhere. By age 14, she was sufficiently committed to becoming an artist to apply—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to Washington Irving High School, the only New York public secondary school where a girl could major in art. She had also dramatically announced to her parents that she was giving up Judaism.

Even when she succeeded in entering Washington Irving High School on her second try, Krasner was frustrated. Her grades in art classes were poor, and one teacher gave her a passing grade only because she was doing well in other subjects. Her continuing determination to become an artist led her to the Women's Art School of Cooper Union and then to the more prestigious National Academy of Design. These were institutions that promoted a traditional approach to painting, in which students had to proceed through a number of stages before they could even begin to work with live models, and she was notably uncomfortable at both.

Lee Krasner">

For me, I suppose that change is the only constant.

—Lee Krasner

Much of Krasner's early work, such as a number of still lifes, reflect this academic training. It imbued her with the principles of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists. But her potential as an artistic rebel was already on display in her 1930 Self-Portrait. She completed it in order to present it to a faculty committee empowered to advance her out of the sterile exercise classes in which she was so frustrated. Painted in the outdoors (she claimed she nailed a mirror to a tree at her parents' Long Island home in order to use herself as a model), the work shows her as a powerful but unidealized figure standing at her easel.

Despite the energies and sacrifices Krasner had put into her artistic training, she abandoned her career in 1932. Her need to support herself as well as her alcoholic boyfriend, Igor Pantuhoff, led her to work as a Greenwich Village cocktail waitress. At the same time, in another step away from her ambition to become an artist, she entered a teachers' training program at the City College of New York.

In 1934, Krasner returned to painting. Three years later, along with Pantuhoff, she began to study with Hans Hofmann in his avantgarde school, a one-room establishment in Manhattan. A devotee of European modernism, Hofmann had begun teaching in Munich during World War I. He was a key figure in bringing the world of European modernist painting to the tradition-bound circles of American artists. His comments, given half in English and half in German, were nearly incomprehensible to Krasner, and she often had to ask another colleague to translate. Nonetheless, the young woman absorbed enough of his influence so that she redirected her energy to work in the style of Pablo Picasso's Cubism that Hofmann promoted.

Meanwhile, Krasner's relationship with Igor Pantuhoff went steadily downward. He had given up much of his own artistic ambitions years before, supporting himself by becoming a portrait painter for the rich. He often taunted her with anti-Semitic remarks, and his personal life was increasingly dominated by his alcoholism. Nonetheless, the final break between them came only in 1939 when he simply vanished from her life, turning up later when he joined his family in Florida.

Starting in the mid-1930s, Lee Krasner went to work for the federal government's Works Progress Administration (WPA). The artists she met there helped shape her political allegiance to left-wing causes, and she developed a particular admiration for Leon Trotsky, the Russian leader recently defeated and exiled by his rival Joseph Stalin. Krasner admired Trotsky's insistence that artists need not be mere propaganda tools but should be free to take up abstract artistic techniques. Nonetheless, the WPA did not prove to be a favorable environment for truly experimental art. Krasner worked on murals under the direction of Max Spivak, and these scenes of factories and city locales appeared in the style of Socialist Realism.

During the late 1930s, Krasner was drawn into numerous left-wing political causes, and her role in public demonstrations led to several arrests. "I was practically in every jail in New York," she later recalled. By the close of the decade, however, she had become disenchanted with organizations that she now saw were dominated by hardline Communists. She took particular exception to their view that art was primarily a mode of propaganda. "Painting," she said, "is not to be confused with illustration."

Still in her early 30s, Krasner—who changed her first name to Lee and Anglicized the spelling of her last name as well around this time—had notable success in combining Cubist forms, such as triangles, in studies of the human body. Her surviving paintings from the late 1930s are dominated by such works. Nonetheless, she received only grudging praise from Hofmann for her achievements, and found his comment that one of her drawings was "so good you would not know it was done by a woman" hard to forget.

Krasner's important liaison with Pollock began in the early 1940s. She had apparently met him several years before but they first became acquainted when both were scheduled to contribute to the fourth annual exhibit of an avant-garde group, the American Abstract Artists, in January 1942. Pollock was the more isolated and lesser-known figure, and Krasner provided him with a valuable entry into New York's artistic world. Her willingness to subordinate her career to that of Pollock came after her initial visit to his studio: "I was totally bowled over by what I saw," she said. By the fall of 1942, they were living together, and, on October 25, 1945, they were married in Manhattan.

To the consternation of her friends who did not like either the raucous life Pollock led or his art, Krasner not only joined her personal life to his but abandoned her hopes for an independent artistic career. Her answer to their comments was that she felt he was leading the way in the direction she hoped her art could go: "He had found the way to merge abstraction with Surrealism." In later years, she equated her decision to come under Pollock's influence with her earlier shift, under Hofmann's direction, to draw inspiration from Picasso.

The two artists settled in the Long Island community of The Springs, near East Hampton, to live a primitive and impoverished life. Their home even lacked a usable bathroom, but, despite

the pinch of poverty, they spent freely on art supplies. While The Springs was a modest community, it had the advantage of close proximity to East Hampton with that town's affluent art buyers. Pollock suffered from alcoholism and recurrent psychological crises, and one of his wife's key roles was trying to help him maintain his emotional equilibrium. Cultivating a vegetable garden for food and traveling by bicycle, they led a quiet life in which the once ebullient Lee became, as Robert Hobbs claims, "the plain, supportive, possessive, and at times hostile wife."

Krasner did only a small amount of painting during the first four years of their marriage. She painted in the morning, then left the studio to her husband during his customary working hours in the afternoon. Her dual role as a helper for her husband and an artist in her own right led to obvious strains. As she told Cindy Nemser more than two decades later, "Pollock being the figure he was in the art world it was a rough role seen from any view."

By now, Krasner's artistic interest had shifted to the exploration of her unconscious mind, and her art became increasingly divorced from realistic images and external models. Starting in the early 1940s, like other abstract artists appearing in increasing numbers in the United States, she used her inner sensations as a stimulus to put spontaneous forms on canvas. The scope of Krasner's painting, as well as her techniques, went through a spectacular evolution from the mid-1940s onward. Her important first works, to be found in the "Little Image" series from 1946 through 1949, consisted of tiny canvases covered with numerous abstract figures. Interpreted by critics like Hobbs as an effort to plumb the depths of her subconscious, their disciplined and discrete elements stand in marked contrast to the drip paintings that her husband was creating on canvases stretched across the floor of their home. The last of the "Little Image" paintings seem comprised of hieroglyphics, and critics of Krasner's works have alluded that its origins can be found in her long-standing interest in calligraphy. Others suggest that her early education in written Hebrew now found expression here.

Krasner began a program of psychotherapy in 1955 to help her troubled relationship with Pollock, but the two became increasingly estranged. While in Europe in mid-1956, on a trip designed to take her away from her marital difficulties, she received word that Pollock had died in a car accident. She dealt with his death for the next 18 months by painting a series of 17 works known as the Green Earth paintings. Many of them, according to Hobbs, focused on such themes as "fecundity, growth, and harvest." In his view, her grief at Pollock's death was mixed with relief at her freedom from coping with his emotional turmoil, and "her art expresses a joy in being able to focus on herself and her growth."

Even before Pollock's death, Krasner had become still more versatile in her exploration of new forms. Around 1950, she had begun to paint on a larger scale. She had also become dissatisfied with some of her previous works, and she sliced them up to make the raw materials for a series of collages. Entering her studio in 1953, she found herself so disgruntled with her recent work that she tore all of her drawings, then many of her canvases, apart. The result was a series of collages that she put on exhibit in 1955.

In the aftermath of Pollock's death, Krasner returned to the modified use of figurative painting with works that featured eye-like forms as well as bright, rich colors. Her restlessness turned in a new direction in 1959 in what Nemser calls "a descent into wild despair" of "slashing, splintered strokes of raw umber and white." However, a new level of serenity in her work appeared by the late 1960s, featuring images that resembled birds and flowers painted in colors like red, blue, and yellow.

Despite the development of a brain aneurysm in 1963 that threatened her life, as well as later ailments such as arthritis, Krasner continued to paint in a variety of styles until her death. Returning to her earlier activism, in 1972 she participated in a public protest against the Museum of Modern Art for its limited showcasing of women artists. Much of her energy in the last decades of her life went to managing the legacy of her renowned husband. She permitted the works of Jackson Pollock to be shown only in selected museums, and she demanded high prices when she consented to sell anything in her collection. Some authorities believe that she thereby played a decisive role in raising the value of all works of American abstract art.

Lee Krasner died in New York City on June 19, 1984. Full recognition of her own achievements came only in the last two decades of her life. A major breakthrough for Krasner's reputation came first from abroad when, in 1965, a retrospective exhibit of her work was presented in London at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. She was honored with a similar exhibit at a venue in her own country only in 1973, when the Whitney Museum of American Art presented such a retrospective. Other retrospectives in Washington, D.C., in 1975, in New York in 1981, and in Houston in 1983, have strengthened her place in the art world.


Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics: An Anthology. Edited and with an introduction by Clifford Ross. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Hobbs, Robert Carleton. Lee Krasner. NY: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Landau, Ellen G. Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné. NY: Abrams, 1995.

Naifeth, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga. NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1989.

Nemser, Cindy. Conversations with 15 Women Artists. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.

suggested reading:

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Gabor, Andrea. Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women. Penguin, 1996.

Wagner, Anne Middleton. Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O'Keeffe. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California