Lee Was Key

When I delivered my Blog on the artist Jackson Pollock a while back , I was contacted by quite a few of my readers, requesting I also take a look at the life and work of his widow, Lee Krasner. I knew the name because of the ‘Pollock’ film, but I decided to find out more.  So, please pardon the delay, finally I got there.

She was born Lena Krassner in Brooklyn, in October 1908 to mother Chane and father Joseph, both Russian orthodox Jewish immigrants,  formerly of the Ukraine. A follower of the faith herself from a young age, by her later teens  Krasner rejected the treatment of women in Jewish scripture and renounced the religion.

‘I was brought up to be independent. I made no economic demands on my parents so in turn they let me be. I was not pressured by them; I was free to study art. It was the best thing that could have happened.’

She knew she wanted to be an artist from a very early age and entered into a series of art education establishments, working as she learned, finally completing her studies in 1932. By that time, she was highly skilled, with an extensive knowledge of art history.

Following the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, Lee quickly became a disciple of modern art, with neo- cubism a particular passion. Her own work was now gaining her a decent profile and won praise from the art establishment,  such as this somewhat clumsy compliment by Hans Hofmann ‘This is so good, you would never know it was done by a woman’ and the kinder Piet Mondrian who told Lee ‘You have a very strong inner rhythm; you must never lose it.’

Living in Greenwich Village , she had worked as a waitress at the Sam Johnson nightclub  to support her studies, but when the Great Depression of the 1930ss hit, work dried up. So she enrolled in the Federal Art Project, whose aim was to provide large scale murals in public places in an effort to boost public morale.

‘Not everybody, but almost everybody touched it, and I feel it surely helped carry a great many of the painters through a period of time where it would have been extremely difficult for them to survive.’

Her being in this ‘club’ enabled Lee to ‘network’ with other artists and later she became part of a scene, that included Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline.

Krasner was also politically active during this period and well into the 1940s, attending numerous protests to demand union recognition and wage increases. She also joined a large group of artists and artists’ models in a strike to protest the imminent redundancy of 500 workers of the Federal Project. As a result of violent clashes with the police, several protesters were arrested, including Krasner.

‘I was practically in every jail in New York City. Each time we were fired, or threatened with being fired, we’d go out and picket. On many occasions we’d be taken off in a Black Maria and locked in a cell.’

She met fellow artist Jackson Pollock in 1942 when they both exhibited at the McMillen Gallery and their relationship subsequently developed. 

‘When I saw his paintings, I almost died,’ she said later in 1958. ‘They bowled me over. Then I met him, and that was it. Jackson always treated me as an artist, he always acknowledged, and was aware of what I was doing. I was a painter before I knew him, and he knew that, and when we were together, I couldn’t have stayed with him one day if he didn’t treat me as a painter.’

The couple married in October 1945, by which time they had set up home in a farmhouse on the outskirts of East Hampton. Gradually Pollock’s profile and fame grew and for a few years, all was fine,  but the marriage became strained, firstly due to Pollock’s heavy drinking , and his later affair with fellow artist Ruth Kligman.

Whilst  in Europe 1956, visiting friends and escaping the martial pressure, she received a message that Pollock had been killed in a car crash . He was 44, Lee 47.

‘Let me say… I was going down deep into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant. Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking – do I want to live? My answer is yes – and I paint.’

Her own style of art, was constantly evolving, ,with no identifiable ‘look’ staying on her easel for too long. Abstract expressionistic was at its heart for sure, a movement she was very much at the forefront of, but her work spun off in a few other directions once base camp had been set up.

Upon seeing Lee’s latest large canvasses in 1950, gallerist Betty Parsons offered her a show, her first since 1945. By the time of the show, she had picked up on the ‘colour field ‘ painting technique of using bold blocks of colours in an abstract way.  She began to work on collage by the early 50s and by the middle of the decade her ‘Earth Green Series’ emerged , with the work considered by many critics a reflection of her time with Pollock, the breakdown of their relationship and his early death.

She suffered a near fatal brain aneurysm in 1962, breaking her right wrist as she fell unconscious. Determined to continue working once on the road to recovery, she simply painted left-handed , squeezing the paint directly on to the canvas, instead of applying with a brush.

Alongside her own work,  she was now managing Pollock’s estate and keen to promote his legacy.

Artist Paul Huxley  – ‘she was a warm and generous-spirited woman whose circumstances had forced her to stand up to the male prejudiced elite of critics and dealers hell-bent on devouring her husband’s life work.’

She earned her own retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1965, where her work received favourable critical reviews and she continued to change her style in the 1970s , forever pushing ideas and concepts into her old age.

She died in 1984, age 75, from natural causes.

Within six months, MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York held a retrospective exhibition of her work. In 2003, ‘Celebration’ a large painting from 1960 sold for $1.9 million and in 2008, ‘Polar Stampede’ sold for $3.2 million.

‘Painting is a revelation, an act of love (and) as a painter I can’t experience it any other way. I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.’

The Mumper of SE5



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