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Art: Bursting Out of the Shadows

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

Pollock’s widow, Lee Krasner, stuns with controlled anger

At 75, Lee Krasner is finally getting her due, and the power of received ideas in American taste is so strong that not too many people sense what the due is. Everyone, of course, has heard of her late husband, Jackson Pollock, the mythic hero (one still reads such inflationary phrases) of abstract expressionism. But Krasner’s painting is less well known, the proof being that she is only now getting her first full retrospective. Curated by Art Historian Barbara Rose, it opened late last month at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts: 152 paintings and drawings, the distillation of a 50-year working life. The show will travel to San Francisco and New York City and will also be seen at the Pompidou Center in Paris. It deserves the audience. Anyone who thinks that all the major American artists have been locked into their historical profile should see it, and repent. Krasner has never been a trivial painter, and sometimes her work, as Rose convincingly argues, has been touched with real grandeur.

So what hid her? The vicissitudes of life with Pollock, whom she married in 1945, do not explain that. It was a match easily caricatured: the growing fame of the male painter overwhelms the more vulnerable mate, his penumbra dims her light, his demands blot out her needs. This scenario is a fiction. Pollock’s talent did not use up all the oxygen in the room. If he had married someone with a less acerbic and combative temper than

Krasner’s, his demands, his egotism and his fondness for the bottle might have done her in. Yet they did not, and their marriage turned into a remarkable working partnership that was truncated only by the car wreck in 1956 on Long Island that killed him. Pollock respected Krasner’s work, and episodically tried to promote it. But the art world was not listening.

Women artists through the ’40s and into the ’50s in New York City were the victims of a sort of cultural apartheid, and the ruling assumptions about the inherent weakness, derivativeness and silly femininity of women painters were almost unbelievably phallocentric. Thus Peggy Guggenheim, the first major collector of Pollock’s work, seems to have been so jealous of Krasner’s place in his life that she refused to acknowledge her as an artist. And a poll in the Cedar Bar or any other watering place of the New York avant-garde would simply have echoed Picasso’s dictum that women were always “goddesses or door mats,” never painters. Add to this Krasner’s prickly contempt for diplomacy with critics, and one can see why for most of her life her work was scanted as “minor,” an appendage to Pollock’s. Yet though she had to contend with bigotry, her dislike of groups always stopped her from presenting herself as a “feminist” artist. Hence by the ’70s there was no lack of denigrators on both sides of the sex war tacitly writing her off as an art widow first, a painter second. Certainly, Krasner has earned the irony with which she now looks back on the past 40 years of American art.

Living with Pollock slowed her development, which had been precocious before they met. Krasner had a very full art education: in fact, no American could have had a better one in the ’30s. First, rigorous academic grounding under the atelier system at the Art Students League in New York; then large-scale practical experience on the WPA murals in the ’30s; finally, three years (1937-40) under the great emigre teacher Hans Hermann, who knew the fabled phoenixes of Europe (Matisse, Kandinsky, Mondrian) and could transmit their ideas to his students. As a disciplined draftsman, she was nearly the equal of De Kooning and better than Rothko or Still. Her perspective on the culture of modernism was more intellectual than Pollock’s. So their matching was not that of a passive muse to a moody genius, but of one demanding eye to another that was more voracious and (at first) less sophisticated. Krasner had to carry two loads of self-doubt: his and hers. Most of the tune, Pollock had only his. No wonder that Krasner’s full powers as an artist did not start to show until the late ’50s.

But when they came, their blossoming was remarkable. In fact “blossoming” is hardly the word, for it suggests a soft, floral, ethereal event, adjectives one would not pick for the tough paintings, often full of barely controlled anger, that she was to produce after 1960. Krasner’s cubist background had given her a strong sense of how to manage her pictorial field as a whole, rather than preserve, in abstraction, the choice of “figure” and “background.” In the best of her ’50s work, like Blue Level, 1955, the play of raggy shapes and roughly sliced strips of burlap has an impacted pictorial density. She wanted to combine Picassoan drawing, gestural and probing, with Matissean color. There are direct homages to Matisse in the show, like the lacy cut-paper silhouettes of Blue and Black, 1951-53; and the Picassoan body surfaces too, a fleshy phantom, as in Visitation, 1957-73, an allusion, it seems, to Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror.

Krasner always wanted to paint big pictures, ones that stretched arm and eye, surfaces that rose to the challenge of scale that was embedded in abstract expressionism. But she was able to find a way of rapid gestural drawing that did not depend on the skeining and overlay of thrown paint from edge to edge that Pollock had perfected. It was the brush that counted for her, and when she did fling or dribble liquid pigment on the surface, it only looked like a mannerism. But her sense of drawing was so ingrained that she could cover a huge surface with notations that never palled: shifting tempo, direction, fatness of marks; she could (literally) paint up a storm. Works like Cobalt Night, 1962, or Charred Landscape, 1960, raise echoes of romantic “spectaculars,” from Tintoretto to Oskar Kokoschka. They take a field of subject matter that Pollock was generally thought to have sealed off as his own—atmospheric space, roiled with stress and strain—and return it from the impromptu drip (which no one after Pollock could manage anyway) to the more deliberate action of the brush. When she resorted to dream imagery, as in the commanding, ropily drawn vortex of eyes in Night Watch, 1960, Krasner did not let her private demons get the better of her formal instinct.

Is there a less “feminine” woman artist of her generation? Probably not. Even Krasner’s favorite pink, a domineering fuchsia that raps hotly on the eyeball at 50 paces, is aggressive, confrontational; and when her line evokes eros, its grace is modified by a rough, improvisatory movement, a distrust of quick visual acceptance. Sometimes, as in Green Fuse, 1968, or Rising Green, 1972, she refers to the palm-court, winter-garden atmosphere of late Matisse; yet the shapes are too cutting to stand as undiluted emblems of luxury. Critical of the world, she is just as hard on herself, harder than most artists half her age. This is an intensely moving exhibition, and it will suggest to all but the most doctrinaire how many revisions of postwar American art history are still waiting to be made. —By Robert Hughes

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