Who is Lee Krasner?
Often cited in history as an inconsequential figure to her venerable partner, Lee Krasner needed to walk a narrow line balancing her duties and role as a wife, then later her own needs and career. This confusion of identity during her marriage is only supported by the work before her marriage and after the demise of Pollock. What history had overlooked was the potential and talent Krasner possessed and ultimately showcased in her artistic rebirth in the late 1950s.
Lee Krasner Biography
Born October 27th in 1908 to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Art was not a major part of Lee’s orthodox upbringing, but it became a passion no less to the young girl in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It was then of no surprise that Lee would pursue a career in the arts, but was not interested in the traditional style of art, and sought something different for herself. Krasner was one that identified herself as different from the route of most girls her age. She enrolled into the Washington Irving High School for Girls as they offered an art major. Here, she succeeded in all subjects except art. She later went on to continue her education at the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union. She left shortly after in contempt that their curriculum was primarily commercial-based application, a path that Lee did not see fit for her ambition. With her education completed, she still felt that her ambitions in the art were not met from an educational standpoint. Krasner packed her portfolio to 52 West Ninth Street, where her known style, abstraction, would be developed in the New York’s Hoffmann School of Fine Art. At this point, Lee had amassed an arts education that was beyond the standard offered to women, and this did not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Lee was pushing boundaries of artistic expression at this point. One work noted to represent this in her education was Nude Study. It was considered an important feat in this period of time as a female artist.
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Lee Krasner’s Artistic Career
After leaving Hoffmann’s instruction, Krasner delved deeper into the concepts of Cubist and abstracted art. Some of her greatest inspirations were Picasso, Mondrian, and Braue. Tones and nuances from these artists were prevalent in many of the mural projects and her individual work in the early 1940s. The abstraction and use of primarily colors could be identified in her work which ventured her to be featured in a show titled French and American Painting, curated by John Graham. This showcase was a personal triumph to Krasner to be featured with major artists like de Kooning. Lee was becoming a prominent figure in the New York modern scene, despite being a woman, and was in a contentious circle of artists and critics including Clement Greenberg. What was also important about this show is who was featured next to her. Pollock was unknown at this time, and Lee– knowing most everyone in the showcase– was intrigued by the new presence. So much so she visited his studio unannounced to investigate for herself the new addition. There is where her infatuation began. She fell in love with his work before him, something that most critics in New York at the time would not have agreed with. But Krasner saw something in the raw explosions and emotion that Pollock conducted in his painting, something that she needed to share to others. A close friend of Pollock said that “Lee was completely devoted to Jackson and his work… Completely. That’s why she gave up everything she had, and everything she was”.
In 1945, Krasner married, becoming Mrs. Jackson Pollock. The union was criticized as Krasner forgoing her own identity in exchange for just being the wife of an artist. The interim period of her meeting Pollock through the latter years of their marital relationship was described as her “blackout” period. During this time, she spent the majority of her efforts introducing Pollock to as many members of her influential circle as she could and further promoting his career. This went as far as to secure a loan from Peggy Guggenheim to put towards their home in Springs in exchange for the majority of his work to only be shown in her gallery. To claim Pollock’s success was solely due to his talent is an oversight, because if it were not for the women standing in his shadow, there is no way that he would be such a prominent figure in art history.
The dynamics of a relationship between two artists could be perceived in a number of ways. In the case of Kranser and Pollock it was a relationship that leaned incredibly one-sided. She did still do showcases but primarily with Pollock, and painted in her separate studio on the Springs property. Art was still involved in her life but the identity of Lee Krasner was dismayed and replaced. This is not a new phenomenon of the balance of a gender identity and artist identity. Krasner felt a need to support her husband and be the proper wife role that women of the 1950’s were expected to be. The societal pressure seemed to outweigh those of her own ambition from the previous years. This status and role was what one may consider Krasner’s only example of leaning into feminine traits, being that many women had to adopt male intellectual thinking, like Hoffman had done, and manner of work. Krasner ultimately had to forgo much of her feminine ambition to be a female modern artist and denote to just a modern artist. With her marriage however the integrity of her gender and her ambition is then left to no status at all on the back burner of the kitchen stove.
In the spring of 1956, Pollock’s affair with Ruth Klingman began. Krasner refused to acknowledge it, until one morning she found them leaving his studio on the property. Enraged, Krasner demanded the affair to stop or she would leave for Europe. Pollock encouraged her choice to leave and moved Klingman in three days after her departure. On the evening of August 11, 1956, Pollock passed away from a car accident. Krasner, still in Europe, had just completed a showing of her work Prophecy to great acclaim, unaware of what had occurred back home in Springs. The death of Pollock was the death of her most important relationship, and she was left to be wholly responsible for just herself, also isolated in being Pollock’s widow. With this new identity crisis, Krasner was finally able to express and find herself.
Throughout the duration of her life and career, Lee too often depended on the men in her life. Whether it was her masters in school like Hoffmann, inspirations of her work, critics, or her husband. Not only did she stand by and support Pollock in a wifely role but her work reflects a lot of the same energy of those produced by him. With his absence finally and the grief of losing a spouse, Krasner felt moved and compelled to work and create. When asked how the death affected her she responded “ I am preoccupied with trying to know myself in order to communicate with others. Painting is not separate from life. It is one”. In this wake of tragedy Krasner produces her most iconic work. Her journey to full female expression was long and strenuous and found its place in the summer of 1958 with her Earth Green series. In the void of her most important partnership Krasner needed to strive and trust herself as an inspiration and proprietor of her art. She often claimed that her work was autobiographical, meaning with proper reading the audience could feel and understand the emotion she felt whilst painting. Art no longer was a career but a method of therapy to her. This newfound ability to be vulnerable and open, and embrace the identity of a strong independent female artist is where Mrs. Pollock’s story ends and Lee’s begins again. With a triumphant career, in a male dominated world where women were often undermined or condescended, Krasner was able to nestle herself amongst the top tier of the New York and international art scene. What one may consider a dream and ambition that had come full circle.