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Lee Krasner in Brooklyn.

It would have been nice to say that the Lee Krasner retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum(1) totally changed my mind about the work of this problematic painter, to say that the show makes a convincing case for Krasner as an important artist in her own right and that it makes you think of her primarily as an independent force in the heady days of postwar American painting and only secondarily as the long-suffering wife of Jackson Pollock. (It's worth noting that Krasner's marriage to Pollock, while unquestionably of crucial importance to his own short life and his evolution as an artist, occupied only about fifteen years of Krasner's nearly half-century-long painting career.) Pace my revisionist and feminist colleagues, the Brooklyn exhibition simply reinforced the impression I had formed from the flurry of Krasner shows held in the 1970s and early 1980s at various New York galleries, the Whitney, and the Corcoran, culminating in the retrospective, organized by Barbara Rose at the very end of Krasner's life, which came to MOMA in 1985. Krasner seemed to me to be an intelligent, ambitious, but limited artist, someone whose work as a whole never quite fulfilled the promise of her best individual pictures. I had classified her as a good, pretty solid, but not first-rank painter, and I can't say that I came away from the Brooklyn show--the first full-scale retrospective to be organized since Krasner's death in 1985--with a revised opinion.

The Brooklyn show introduces you first to Krasner's work from 1930 to about 1945, the formative efforts of an energetic young painter in her twenties and early thirties--she was born in 1908--who was clearly knowledgeable about many of the most current, most radical notions of what a painting could be. You meet Krasner first in a refreshingly direct, straightforward self-portrait from 1930, liberally informed by Cezanne and Derain: a full-lipped twenty-two year old with a steady gaze and a fist full of brushes, no beauty, but full of character and determination. This fresh but not very remarkable painting elicits one of the most preposterous wall texts I've ever encountered--not a light assertion, given the standards of the genre. The panel, the work of the show's curator, Robert Hobbs--the author of a monograph on Krasner as well as of the exhibition catalogue--notes that Krasner painted the picture outdoors, having nailed a mirror to a tree, and that "by painting not herself but her mirrored reflection, Krasner explores the idea of representation as an approximation of reality." Docs this mean that no other self-portraits in the history of art were painted with the aid of mirrors? Staggering news, indeed. Once you recover from the shock of this revelation, you discover that this combination of wrong-headedness, modish thinking, and pretension is typical not only of the rest of Hobbs's wall-texts--he tells you, for example, that Hans Hofmann codified the rules of modern art--but also of the accompanying jargon-riddled catalogue whose thesis, briefly, is that Krasner was a postmodernist avant la lettre, a painter whose work is inextricably bound up with language, disjunctions, refusal of a signature style, and all the rest of it.

Perhaps because of her amazingly original conviction that representation was only an approximation of reality, noted by Hobbs, the broad postimpressionist naturalism of Krasner's early self-portrait soon yielded to more adventurous, sometimes contradictory, approaches. A sleek little street scene from 1935, Gansevoort II (Pollock-Krasner Foundation), suggests that Krasner looked hard, at least for a while, at the work of Smart Davis and the Surrealists. Davis, the pragmatic but inventive all-American Cubist, had authority for Krasner's generation for many reasons--his uncompromising commitment to modernism, his sojourn in France in the late 1920s, his progressive politics, and his social activism--while the Surrealists' ideas about the unconscious as the source of creativity had become articles of faith among forward-looking New York artists. Gansevoort II rather engagingly mixes waterfront imagery, floating signs, numbers, ambiguous abstract forms, and threatening perspectives--Yankee modernism meets early Miro bathed in moody de Chirico lighting. (The wall text here omits any connection with Miro or Davis, both painters whose work any alert young artist would have had ample opportunity to see in New York at the time, and opts instead for the exclusive influence of "American magic realism" and de Chirico.)

A stint at Hans Hofmann's school in the late 1930s furnished Krasner with a notion of what a picture could be and a formal vocabulary that lasted her for the rest of her life: a conception of a painting as a surface upon and against which discrete, planar, essentially non-specific pictorial events of varying degrees of complexity take place. Hofmann's effect on the young painter is visible in her angular charcoal drawings from the nude, almost certainly done at the school itself, demonstrations of her mastery of the schematic mapping of the body's thrusts through space that was fundamental to Hofmann's teaching. The benefits of his influence are even more evident in a couple of loose-jointed oil on paper studies that turn what must have been pretty conventional still life set-ups into exuberant explosions of planes.

Yet Krasner seems to have backed away, at first, from the implications of these early works, preferring to flatten their pulsing surfaces and rein in their expansiveness with clear geometry--not surprisingly, in retrospect, since she had recently become a member of American Abstract Artists, a group so devoted to the geometric purity of what was then referred to as "non-objective" painting that Mondrian joined them on his arrival in the United States. Krasner, however, never succumbed entirely to the "official" philosophy of AAA (nor, in fact, did many of the group's other members). By 1940, she became wholly involved with exploring the possibilities of Picasso's synthetic Cubism, evidenced in Brooklyn by a series of muscular, thickly crusted, tight still lifes, pictures at once energetic, accomplished, and reminiscent of Arshile Gorky's similarly inspired (and slightly earlier) efforts along the same lines.

The exhibition's tracking of Krasner's early formation reveals her as a more or less generic member of her generation--although as a native New Yorker and a Hofmann student, she was perhaps more sophisticated than most and, according to the evidence of her early work, clearly gifted. Later, she certainly developed a reputation for being tough-minded and fierce. ("Brutal" was the adjective one old acquaintance used.) Unfortunately, little in the rest of the show seems to bear out the promise of those early works. What remains constant is the shift between exuberance and discipline, between expansiveness and tightness, along with some of the spirit of restless inquiry that animated the pictures in the exhibition's introductory section. The catalogue ties all of it to the poetry of Rimbaud, Judaic ritual, the deaths of people close to her, and what Hobbs calls "her intransigence and relentless pursuit of an ever evasive self." The painter, Hobbs claims, was "unable to settle for long into the comforts of a distinctly individual style" because of her self-doubt, yet, he adds, "she pursued her uncertainties with dogged determination, finding not just chimeras but convincing personas that soon revealed themselves to be beautiful, yet static masks unable to keep pace with life's dynamisms."

Whether you buy this explanation or not, in the exhibition, the disciplined side of Krasner is evident in her Little Image series, the dense, all-over paintings of tightly packed, layered "glyphs" that preoccupied her in the late 1940s. They remind you not only of Adolph Gottlieb's Pictographs, but also of Bradley Walker Tomlin's crisp calligraphies, and, inevitably, of Jackson Pollock's thickly brushed "horror vacui," pre-pour images of the 1940s. What distinguishes Krasner's versions of the genre is their airlessness. The Little Image pictures, whether gestural or angular, cursive or geometric, always seem claustrophobic and rigid, as though they resulted from clenched, repetitive hand gestures that demand to be contrasted with the full-body, rhythmic swoops and pours of her husband's most exciting paintings of the same years. As a group, the Little Image paintings seem almost steamrollered, as flat as pages of text, obsessively overwritten into illegibility. There's no sense of space, no matter how shallow or unstable, no ambiguity.

Happily, in the early 1950s, Krasner found a way of making pictures that subverted this tendency toward hardening and tightening when she began to construct paintings with fragments of her own and Pollock's discarded works. (No, I am not going to expand on the obvious psychological implications of that kind of appropriation, destruction, and reanimation). What is equally obvious is that the method forced Krasner to build her images with relatively large units instead of endlessly subdividing them into glyphs--a "subtext" of smaller elements was already present in the existing imagery of her raw materials. In addition, the pre-existing images added an element of chance, a way of courting spontaneity and allowing intuition, rather than will, to dominate. Perhaps most important, the very nature of collage--pasting one element literally on top of another--gave Krasner a way of suggesting space. I'm oversimplifying, of course, but the result was to give her a method that, without resembling Pollock's pouring, allowed her some of the same freedom and unexpectedness.

Krasner's generous, scaled-up collage paintings of the first half of the 1950s, with their clean edges, their clear expanses of color, and their amplitude, with their sense of the natural world's having been transposed--but not replicated--as vigorous constructed images, are a refreshing change after the knotty Little Images. When Krasner began to translate the qualities of these collage paintings into painted images, shortly after Pollock's death in 1956, she managed to retain the collages' generosity of scale and full-arm drawing, but somehow lost their clarity and spatial pulse. Everything flattened and slackened across the surface no matter how much Krasner accented with contrasts of dark and light or superheated hues. Broken patches of color, further interrupted by liberal amounts of raw canvas, emphasize the evenhanded drawing rhythms--rhythms that recall the insistent single-plane repetitions of the Little Images, albeit at a much larger scale. I kept thinking of Helen Frankenthaler's fresh, uninhibited, and strangely allusive abstractions of the early 1950s, with their glowing expanses of color and shifting, evocative spaces, and thinking even more, because of their more overt relationship to Krasner's swirling compositions, of Grace Hartigan's boisterous, high-colored canvases of the same period. Krasner (along with Pollock and Clement Greenberg) is said to have recommended these much younger women, "the Second Generation of the New York School," to her friends John Bernard Myers and Tibor de Nagy when they were forming their gallery in 1950. Was the older painter now looking to the next generation for guidance?

If so, Frankenthaler's exhilarating poetic virtuosity and Hartigan's all-stops-out intensity eluded Krasner. Her paintings of the mid- and late-1950s always seem to be on the verge of becoming better than they are, but in the end--at least to my eye--they stay politely on the surface, instead of entering into some sort of invigorating argument (even sotto voce) between literal flatness and incipient allusion or illusion. The large monochrome canvases that followed, with their dry, loopy drawing and austere raw-umber palette, seem to flatten out even more, reading in terms of a relaxed regularity, rather than a subtly inflected, robust all-overness. Krasner's reintroduction of hot, contrasting color in the 1960s may have been intended to counteract this, to create a new kind of dynamism. But lively as the drawing and the disposition of loosely bounded shapes are in a picture such as Gaea (1966, MOMA)--which seems to be Krasner's most ambitious painting of the period--the energy is pretty well cancelled by the sameness of hue, intensity, and density of each "hit" of hot pink across the organizing structure of purple-black, white, and faint ochre echoes. Dynamic balance risks tilting towards inertness. (Krasner's color is badly served by the catalogue reproductions, which are uniformly dull, although the reduction in size sometimes helps her composition.)

The increasing clarity of Krasner's paintings of the 1970s--described by Hobbs as "Minimalist Abstract Expressionism"-- may simply have been her response to the broad fields of relatively uninflected color typical of much of the abstract painting of the late 1960s and early 1970s, or it could signal her renewed interest in Matisse (whose sparse paintings of the mid-1930s and late cut-outs are both invoked). It could also have been, quite simply, the result of Krasner's effort to explore some of the not-yet travelled directions suggested by her own first experiments with large-scale collage in the 1950s.

The painter, in fact, returned to collage in the late 1970s, this time using as her point of departure a batch of the charcoal drawings she made at the Hofmann school, reassembling their shifting transparencies and jangling planes to suggest simultaneously both space and pattern. As in her earlier collage paintings, Krasner counteracted the implicit spatial complexities of her assemblages of Hofmann drawings with big, simplified moves, often disciplining her lively, newly reconstituted images into a fairly large-scale grid. To the North (1980, Pollock-Krasner Foundation), which deploys more painterly images--here cannibalized from a suite of Krasner's lithographs--points tantalizingly towards a new translation of the implications of the late collages into "pure" painting terms again, perhaps to be stiffened by a new taste for both clarity and flux. Hobbs makes much of these pictures, but not for the reasons you might think. He sees them as sharing affinities with the patchwork or tile imagery of first generation feminist artists such as Miriam Schapiro, whom Krasner knew since she was the wife of Pollock's friend and fellow painter Paul Brach. (Why this association would predispose Krasner to be influenced by Schapiro is another matter.) Hobbs also sees Krasner's recycling of drawings made under Hofmann's tutelage as a postmodernist critique of modernism, although I must admit I can't quite follow his grammatical analogy: "In this series," Hobbs writes, "[Krasner] dispenses with Hofmann's universally oriented modernist grammar as she raises the question of artistic language to a new level in which her German teacher's modernism becomes the object, but not the subject of the new works of art."

Hobbs's absurd contention that Krasner was a proto-postmodernist notwithstanding, the painter emerges from her retrospective as very much representative of her times. The testimony of her work makes plain that she struggled to come to grips with the same multivalent concerns that fueled her more highly acclaimed male colleagues. Like them, she seems to have attempted to synthesize such sometimes contradictory elements as the legacies of Cubism and Surrealism, mythology and modernity, intuition and consciousness. Krasner emerges, too, despite the shifts within her long evolution, as a rather single-minded painter with a fairly consistent vocabulary of circular, self-generating shapes and an even more consistent palette of mostly saturated, hot colors, set off by murky earth tones. The scale of her elements can shift, edges can become cleaner or more blurry, shapes can fray or clarify into smooth expanses, but the essential impulse towards abstract, painterly images that embody a particular personality--which can serve as a shorthand description of the wellspring of Abstract Expressionism--remains unchanged over the nearly fifty years of Krasner's painting life.

Hobbs does not agree and backs up his contention with an examination of Krasner's statements about her work, such as the one she prepared in 1965 for the catalogue of her first retrospective exhibition, organized for London's Whitechapel Gallery by Bryan Robertson.
 Painting, for me, when it really "happens," is as miraculous as any natural
 phenomenon--as say a lettuce leaf. By "happens" I mean the painting in
 which the inner aspect of man and his outer aspects interlock.... The
 painting I have in mind, painting in which inner and outer are inseparable,
 transcends technique, transcends subject and moves into the realm of the
 inevitable--then you have the lettuce leaf.


A straightforward enough declaration, you will say, an echo of the debates of the artist's generation about the role of the unconscious in the creative process, sparked with a vivid, unexpected simile that makes Krasner's point about a powerful painting's seeming to be an inevitable, unignorable fact of existence specially memorable. The ideal thing, at this point, would be to go back and look at the work, to see if it "happens," by Krasner's own standards. For Hobbs, however, nothing is that simple. "Taken on face value," he writes of Krasner's comments,
 the statement would appear to support a belief in an essential self in
 which inner and outer worlds reinforce opposite sides of a permeable
 membrane, representing the artists's inner and outer worlds. But if one
 considers a lettuce leaf as a fragile element of a larger entity, then each
 internally and externally consistent leaf, which might be construed as
 synonymous with one of Krasner's discrete styles, is broken away, one after
 another, over a period of time.


He ends up justifying the painter's catchy simile by wondering if she wasn't referring to a series of photographs of cabbage leaves by Edward Weston.

Krasner deserves better--anyone does. By all reports, she was a real presence in the New York art world of the 1940s and 1950s, intelligent, hard-headed, and forceful, and to substitute contemporary postures for Krasner's deep connections with the intellectual, political, and aesthetic issues of her own exciting era is to rob her of her place in it. Even if she ultimately proved not to be one of the very rare, very great painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation, she was a more than respectable artist whose work demands to be taken seriously--as she herself took the whole enterprise of painting--and looked at attentively, without a filter of preconception or dogma. If you do that at the Brooklyn Museum retrospective, giving the paintings precedence over the ubiquitous wall texts, Krasner's strengths and distinctive personality will announce themselves.

(1) "Lee Krasner" opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on October 6, 2000 and remains on view until January 7, 2001. A catalogue, by Robert Hobbs, has been published by Independant Curators International and is distributed by Harry N. Abrams (224 pages, $4-9.50).
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Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:2994
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