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Lenore Krassner (27 October 1908 – 19 June 1984)

When the New Yorker published a piece on Lee Krasner and her well known partner, Jackson Pollock, they completely disregarded the talent, creative skill and contribution that Krasner had made to the art scene of midcentury America. The magazine article described Krasner as “a slim auburn-haired young woman who is also an artist”. The additional photograph showed her “bent over a hot stove, making currant jelly”. This was the typical portrayal of woman during this period in history, dedicated to the domestic role of wife or mother, whose only goal in life was to meet the pleasures and needs of their husband or children. Krasner was different. She was a working artist, with a thorough training, knowledge and understanding in modernist art, as well as being one of the few Abstract Expressionists who worked in an entirely abstract style prior to World War II.

Lenore Krassner, professionally and widely known as Lee Krasner, was born to Russian Jewish immigrants who fled Bessarabia, Odessa for a new life in Brooklyn, New York, following the rising anti-Semitism and the Russo-Japanese War. Lee, unlike her three older siblings, was the first to be born on American soil. From a young age, Krasner knew she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, enrolling at the National Academy of Design in 1928. It was here that Krasner gained extensive training in traditional techniques, becoming especially skilled in anatomical correctness. Much of her work during this time is lost, however, a self-portrait submitted for entry to a particular class still exists. The work caused a stir among the judges, who refused to believe that Krasner, a training woman artist, could paint so well en plein air.

 

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Lee Krasner, Self-Portrait, c. 1929
(image source: www.nyculturebeat.com)

 

A year later in 1929, saw the opening of the Museum of Modern Art. It was here that Krasner became influenced and inspired by the modernist styles appearing in Europe, such as post-Impressionism and Cubism, which resulted in her growing critical of the more academic styles that she learnt during her time at the National Academy. During the 1930s, Krasner began taking classes from Hans Hofmann, whereby she began to delve into modernist techniques and theory. Hofmann often critiqued Krasner’s work, once declaring that “This is so good, you would not know it was painted by a woman”. Such a comment evokes the misogynistic views of women artists at this time, despite Hofmann’s attempt at praising Krasner for her artistic abilities at such an early stage in her artistic career. Krasner’s dedication to the arts did not waver, even during the Great Depression which put an end to her classes with Hofmann. It was in 1935 that Krasner joined the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project working on public murals. During her time at the WPA, Krasner became involved with the Artists Union in which she was able to meet many modernist artists, expanding her network in the New York art scene. This eventually led to her joining the American Abstract Artists, exhibiting with artists which later became known as the Abstract Expressionists, or otherwise known as the New York School. It was here that Krasner met Jackson Pollock, whom she would later marry in 1945.

 

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Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and Sam Duboff, in Pollock’s studio, August 1953
(image source: www.nytimes.com)

 

Much of art historical scholarship portrays Krasner in Pollock’s shadow, however, this is simply not the case. Aside from being a successful artist in her own right, Krasner managed Pollock both emotionally and financially, promoting his work and meeting with critics and dealers, all the while attempting to curb his alcoholism. Her time with Pollock is understood as a period in which Krasner ceased to paint, but this is simply not true. Krasner, whom was heavily critical on her own work, often destroyed many of her paintings. Despite her frustrations with her individual style at this time, she did experiment with many differing techniques and methods, all of which resulted in her Little Images series. Vivid in colour, these works attracted the attention of Betty Parsons, who in 1950 gave Krasner her first ever solo exhibition.

 

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Lee Krasner, Shattered Colour, 1947 (from the ‘Little Paintings’ series)
(image source: www.artnet.com)

 

In the later years of the 1950s, particularly in the years after Pollock’s death, Krasner’s canvases grew in size and developed extreme variations of expressive brush work and colour. At this point in her career and life, Krasner’s self-expression was liberated, pushing the boundaries and concepts of modernist art. In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited the show Lee Krasner: A Retrospective. A review in the New York Times noted how this show portrayed Krasner as “a major, independent artist of the pioneer Abstract Expressionist generation, whose stirring work ranks high among that produced here in the last half-century…clearly [defining] Krasner’s place in the New York School”. Krasner did not survive long enough to see the retrospective due to ill health, and died on the 19th June 1984, six months before the opening. Despite this, Krasner passed rest assured that the show was taking place and with the hope that finally she would be positioned in her rightful place in the history of art, presented as an artist in her own right.

 

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Lee Krasner, Noon, 1947 (image source: www.wikiart.org)

 

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Lee Krasner painting (image source: www.buro247.my)

Selected Recommended Reading:

Foster, A., Tate Women Artists, London: Tate Publishing, 2004 Hobbs, R., Lee Krasner, New York: Abbeville Press, 1993

Levin, G., Lee Krasner: A Biography, Harper Collins, 2011

Wagner, A.M., Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O’Keeffe, California: University of California Press, 1998