Lee Krasner’s exhibition at Kasmin is possibly the most important show of an American artist currently on view in New York. And it is not just because the past, as Roberta Smith aptly put in her recent review of Alice Neel’s show at the Met, “is becoming more female all the time.” It is but a small part of Lee Krasner’s story: bigotry played its role, but that alone does not explain why Lee Krasner, one of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Abstract Expressionism, is also the least celebrated; while nearly everyone heard of her husband, Jackson Pollock, Krasner’s work is much less well-known. The artist received her first American retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in 1983, at the age of seventy-five — an affair long overdue for someone of her stature, easily a coequal of Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning. Lee Krasner died in June 1984, six months before that retrospective was shown at New York’s MoMA, having never seen her work shown by a major museum in New York – the city where the artist matured, first benefiting from endemic artistic and intellectual ferment, then generously contributing to it.
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The gravitational pull of Jackson Pollock’s name and legacy is such that there has hardly ever been a review of Lee Krasner’s work that didn’t dwell on the couple’s tempestuous union. And it is worth noting here that not only was Krasner the organizing principle in Pollock’s life as well as the first and most proactive champion of his art but also, in many ways, his intellectual and artistic mentor.
“Lee Krasner, Collage Paintings 1938-1981” is a thrill of a show that gives its due to the prowess of the artist’s singular style. While it comprises only twelve works, the exhibition is especially successful in laying out before us the artist’s breakthrough into her own voice. It begins—chronologically and topographically—with “Seated Figure” (1938-1939), Krasner’s earliest known collage work. The smallest in scale, it is also the only one of that period in the show — the years the artist studied with Hans Hofman, who, having recently emigrated from Europe, disseminated the ideas of European modernists to his American students. The painting does bring some of that through, along with the traces of Picasso-inspired Cubism — an amalgam of Picassoan drawing and Matissean color. Perhaps it was those reverberations felt in this work or was its smaller scale that allowed for an ephemeral sense of familiarity, transporting me to the time when, as a small child, I stood, mesmerized, in front of Olga Rozanova’s collages at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.
And this was just the beginning — the inception of Krasner’s flourishing interest in integrating collage techniques with oil painting on canvas and linen. Occasional homages and references to the early 20th century giants that are still traceable in her later, large-scale paintings are testimonies to her impressive art training and education. “No American could have had a better one in the 30s,” according to the critic Robert Hughes. But for all her intellectual acumen, it is the deliberate action of the brush and a combination of gestural drawing and collage technique that matters here — a dynamic style shift from her early work to multicolored collage paintings that she created by incorporating shreds of her discarded past work and grafting the pieces onto other compositions, such as her masterpieces of the early 50s — “Untitled” (1954), “Bird Talk” (1955), “Stretched Yellow”(1955), and “Blue Level” (1955), among others.
That alone, the bravery of bringing a new dimension to collage, a novel field in its own right, by using it as a tool of recurring self-recycling, affects deeply — a mix of fascination with a touch of resistance. At first glance, this seemed to defeat the very essence of collage or, to borrow from Mary Ann Caws’s review in Brooklyn Rail, its “immediacy.” When Apollinaire, Picasso, and Braque, the masterminds behind the idea in its modern re-incarnation at the dawn of the 20th century, conceived collage as a path towards a renewed perception of “secret inner reality borne from the contrast of materials placed in juxtaposition,” they expected it to baffle the viewer. Yet, Krasner’s renderings of collage work: hypostases of her past artistic production contra-posted with sweeping gestural painting and assembled anew in a pictorial field are arresting in their rhythmic exuberance.
Parsing her paintings created in the 50’s — and parsing is being used advisedly here for one is constantly shifting one’s gaze trying to pierce and peel alternating layers of textural depth: oil, burlap, paper, and canvas on Masonite and linen — I was blown away by the fierceness of the stretching, atmospheric space filled with tension, which morphed into the hard, cutting color-field paintings that Krasner produced in the early 70s.
Unfortunately, there are not many Krasners around. The reason is her incessant self-revisionism and reinvention. This and its corollary absence of a temporarily homogeneous style or school might be accountable for the lack of appropriate recognition (which manifests, for better or worse, in her works commanding sales that are still many times below the figures Jackson Pollock’s or Willem de Kooning’s works collect). And yet. This power of introspection gave her the strength that transmits through the fierce colors of the paintings she created while working through the grief of losing her beloved (Jackson Pollock died in a car crash in 1956).
Unlike her precursors’ collages, Krasner’s collage paintings neither mesmerize nor baffle the viewer. Instead, they are striking. They tend to stay with one for long after the viewing, reappearing in memory — haunting apparitions. Seeing them ‘live’ in true scale is such a rare treat — one can’t be more grateful to Kasmin and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation for staging this magnificent show.