CR Muse: The Expressive Lee Krasner

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

The word “overshadowed” appears often in biographies on Lee Krasner because history—and the general public—has remained far more enamored with the work of her husband, Jackson Pollock. However, few of those fans are aware that Krasner was an important figure to both the development and the preservation of Pollock’s work. In their marriage she placed his career needs ahead of hers and after his death, she worked to promote his memory. But all the while, the abstract expressionist was working on building a legacy of her own.

Krasner’s art education began early, when she enrolled in Washington Irving High School for Girls, deliberately for their art major. Despite going on to study at the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, the unfortunate timing of the Great Depression led to a rocky start for her career as an artist.

Initially waitressing and modeling to make ends meet, Krasner was “saved” in a way, when she nabbed a job painting murals for the Works Progress Administration’s Public Works of Art. Though she was unhappy with the commercial nature of the work, she found an intellectual outlet by continuing her art studies—this time under the tutelage of influential abstract expressionist, Hans Hofmann.

Krasner’s style evolved over the course of her career as her interests ebbed and flowed. Under Hofmann, she explored a neo-cubist style, but by the 1940s, after marrying Pollock, she began work on her iconic and very intricate „Little Images“ series of abstracts. Almost quilt-like in their organization, the works featured a series of symbols and characters built from layers of paint. In fact, the works have frequently been compared to hieroglyphics. It has been assumed that the size and scope of the „Little Images“ series was determined by Krasner’s limited working space. While Pollock had the couple’s barn to use as a studio for his large-scale canvases, Krasner was confined to a single room—first the living room, then the bedroom—within their humble East Hampton abode.

After Pollock’s death in 1956, Krasner’s canvases became larger and her work became more expressive. These concepts first emerged with her „Earth Green Series,“ but continued through her „Umber Paintings,“ which were further emotionally charged by the death of her mother.

„When I painted a good part of these things, I was going down deep into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant,“ she said. „I painted a great many of them because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead.“ Working at night, Krasner cut out color from the works, allowing all the energy to come from her brushstrokes. But it wasn’t all black and white from there; Krasner returned to color in 1960, with Primary Series.

After she passed away in 1984, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of Krasner’s career, making her one of the few women to achieve the honor (there have been only three others). Despite all of this, her husband’s career still managed to outshine her accomplishments. “It’s too bad that women’s liberation didn’t occur 30 years earlier in my life,” she once opined. “I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspects of the art world, continue my painting, and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock.”

However, Krasner’s lasting legacy is her commitment to pushing art forward. In addition to her body of work—including pieces that can now be found in the collections at MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art—Krasner’s mentality thrives today thanks to her generous support of other artists. Recognizing the desperately needed helping hand that the Federal Art Project gave to her and Pollock, she founded the Pollock-Krasner foundation, which uses the estates of both artists to fund grant programs. Since 1985 it has awarded over 4,400 grants, amounting to over million, to artists across the globe. With or without her husband, Krasner’s legacy firmly remains in the light.

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