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Lee Krasner: a retrospective.

In Italian Hours, Henry James describes an expedition to Grottaferrata, where, he tells us, "I was careful to visit the famous frescoes of Domenichino in the adjoining church." Domenichino is little known today, but in his time his Saint Cecilia frescoes in Rome were regarded as the very apogee of painting; no less an authority than Nicolas Poussin considered him second only to Raphael. Poussin's opinion prevailed until the middle of the nineteenth century, but even the guidebook James carried claimed that the "Last Communion of Saint Jerome" was "the second finest painting in the world." A world which contained only one painting finer than this Domenichino would be a pretty sorry one, James thought, and he wondered why he himself "drew the line" at a painter who remained "an interesting case in default of being an interesting painter." Here is what he says: "He is so supremely good an example of effort detached from inspiration and school merit divorced from spontaneity . . . an artist whose development was a negation." Domenichino, James conceded, possessed talent but lacked charm, and his imagination "went about trying this and that, concocting cold pictures after cold receipts, dealing in the second hand, in the ready-made, and putting into its performances a little of everything but itself."

James's assessment--harsher, he realized, than warranted--came back to me the other afternoon as I stood among the late Lee Krasner's paintings in the large scale retrospective given her at the Museum of Modern Art, wondering why I drew the line at an artist whom esteemed persons esteem highly. I had gone because I hoped that I might be bowled over but also because Krasner is more interesting as a case than as a painter. It is difficult to respond to her save as a shadow of artists greater than her--her teacher, Hans Hofmann, her husband, Jackson Pollock, and her luminous contemporaries of the New York school. That she was at least as good as those artists is what this show sets out to prove.

The installation of her work at MOMA does everything it can to suppress shadows. There is no narrative, none of those helpful legends museums post at the entry to an exhibition to orient visitors. It was evidently the curatorial intention to put nothing between the viewer and the work, in the conviction, presumably, that the work could stand on its own. As one enters, there is an enlarged photograph of Krasner in her East Hampton studio, surrounded by paintings. One passes through a vestibule hung with early paintings, all abstract, before emerging into the large spaces given to her mural-size works, which are illuminated by an almost metaphorically uncompromising light. The museum can create a harshly reductive atmosphere when it is emptied of everything the viewer could have used, and perhaps everything the paintings may need, to effect an understanding encounter. How appropriate it would have been, I thought, to have had a few plants about to set off the floral motifs Krasner favored, and to provide a counterpoint of sympathetic reality. Barbara Rose had described a visit to Krasner's studio where she sat, as her hostess made tea, looking at "the huge ferns and plants, the shell and rock collections, the incredible richness of natural forms that she collects to correspond to a life lived richly, organically, bravely, in an art one could describe in the same manner." Here, by contrast, is an incredible poverty of natural forms: bare white walls, labels, light fixtures, guards, alarm boxes. It is not clear that this is the right way to see paintings, or in any case Krasner's paintings. By erasing the appurtenances of life, one erases a certain vitality from the works: the paintings seem driven back into the canvases by the relentless light, as though negatively phototropic.

The one touch of life was the spirited gallery lecturer, who pointed things out to an earnest handful of visitors. The throngs who lined up to check coats, buy tickets, make phone calls, purchase refreshments, and even to pee, did not penetrate the austere threshold of a show that was quite empty. She drew attention to the way Krasner "sort of sprayed where Pollock instead dripped," seeming to imply some gender difference in the application of paint: more "misty," she said, "less bubbly." Her charges traced out certain breastlike shapes for one another, but they all seemed as subdued as the paintings, or as intimidated by the clinical constraints of those inhumane spaces.

But I cannot blame the infelicitously sterile installation for my numbness to these works. I had seen, a few summers back, a wonderfully animated exhibition in East Hampton, curated by Rose, called Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship. A good bit of that show consisted of juxtaposed paintings by the two artists, in which it was clear enough that they worked at the same time with the same ideas, and that there was an artistic interchange as part of, perhaps as the basis of, their relationship. In point of history, it could be argued that Krasner arrived at certain solutions first, and if art were like science, where priority matters, she ought to receive a credit denied her by the unkindness of historical accident. A painter of whom I am fond boasts that he had the drip before Pollock, and indeed he can show you an early painting where there is, unmistakably, a drip. But this drip arrived on the canvas from so different a direction that it does not really belong to the same history as Pollock's--something one cannot say, of course, about what Krasner did with paint. Nevertheless, such issues as priority are rendered irrelevant by the differences between a great artist and a very determined one. Pollock's least effort had a life and energy Krasner never touched. He had the indispensable gift of being able to stand aside and allow paint to burst into life, as though he were there only to enable the miracle to take place. And this difference was apparent over and over in that East Hampton show. It had nothing to do with Krasner being a woman or a wife. It had only to do with Pollock being the genius he had to be in order for that much light and power to have surged, through his mediations, into the world. The show at East Hampton was a cruel if well-intentioned conjunction--like the marriage itself, perhaps.

All explicit references to Pollock have been erased at the MOMA retrospective, where the space is wholly Krasner's. Even so, he casts very heavy shadows over the paintings she did under his acknowledged domination, and those shadows cannot be dispelled by the unforgiving illumination of the museum. I was struck by how little would left of Krasner's work if one could succeed in driving all the shadows away: those of Matisse, Hofmann, Mondrian, de Kooning, the Cubists and the rest. Just consider the vestibule with the early works: "Blue Painting" of 1946, "Noon" of 1947, "Untitled" of 1948 and the collages of shredded canvas glued on linen and daubed over in earth colors. Krasner was no beginner in 1946: she had begun working with Hofmann nearly two decades before and painted steadily, or as steadily as life allowed, ever after. "Blue Painting" looks like a diffident version of Pollock's mode of abstraction from the period just before his discovery of the drip. "Noon" is hieroglyphics, with the paint seemingly pasted on the support in thick curls and whorls, as though squeezed out of a pastry tube. "Untitled" is dense pale calligraphy, done in the widely approved manner of Mark Tobey. There may have been a dozen artists working in canvas collage. These paintings might have been done by several different people.

A great artist is fully present in each of his or her works, however various the styles. No one went through more styles than Picasso, but every Picasso is unmistakably his. There is no recurrent touch, or whatever may be the pictorial equivalent of voice, in Krasner's canvases. There are only the shadows of other selves, the echo of other voices. Hofmann once said Krasner was one of his best students but "She gave in all the time. She was very feminine." We may discount his ascription of gender to a quality of Krasner's artistic personality, but that quality is nevertheless patent. The little set of abstractions with which the exhibition begins could, if one did not know otherwise, be a group show of minor abstractionists. The whole exhibition is a series of surrenders to artistic personalities stronger than her own, and those surrenders are what enabled her to paint. Even though huge and bold, Krasner's work has something of the art school exercise about it.

It may occur to the visitor that it is odd not to find the sorts of early works one expects in a retrospective, works that show the artist coming to terms with visual reality through the standard genres of representation: still life, landscape, figure study. There are, in fact, some early works, but they figure in the show in a curious way. At the end of the exhibit are certain collages made up of her student drawings cut into fragments and then sliced through with generous blank forms, sometimes angular and angry, sometimes in floral patterns and in the manner of the late decoupages of Matisee. I find it affecting that she should, near the term of her productive life, have found her end in her beginnings, and these collages compose one of the most powerful gestures of the show. She had kept those energized, cubistic figure studies against the time when she might use them, and she evidently emptied her portfolios, slicing and cropping her drawings, seeking to enhance their power by the greater power of their forced superimposition. The tensions between them are more interesting than the tensions within them, and it occurred to me that her method here illustrates one of Hegel's most difficult concepts, that of Aufhebung. The word carries three distinct meanings: to preserve, to negate and to transcend. Hegel meant for all three meanings to be understood at once, and perhaps two and a half are in fact present here. The drawings are preserved and negated. But they are not finally transcended, for the works in which these two moments of Aufhebung are plainly achieved do not rise to the intended synthesis. They fall short of Krasner's ambition for them, as I think her work falls short of the high assessment of those who are trying to thrust her into the front ranks of American painting.

It is not a terrible thing to have been Domenichino. Any museum would be proud to own a work by him, and it is something to have been thought one of the great artists of the world, even if no one would now advise a friend traveling to Rome not to miss the Domenichinos. It is not a terrible thing, either, to have been Lee Krasner, discounting the tragedies she lived through. To be good is a lot. She is a representative artist of her time. Almost every one of her paintings is a window into the main currents of artistic influence to which she responded. But that is as much as can be said. "Everything is what it is, and not something else," Bishop Butler once wrote. "So why should we be deceived?" Lee Krasner is what she is. Or, perhaps more accurately, she is what she isn't.
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Title Annotation:Museum of Modern Art, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 23, 1985
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