Lee Krasner: Living Colour at the Barbican

— by Antonia Cunliffe

Lee Krasner by Irving Penn


The fact that female artists are undervalued and underrepresented in the art world is no new phenomenon, but thankfully the situation is finally changing. Two of the most popular exhibitions last year were Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A and Anni Albers at the Tate Modern (with tickets selling out faster than Glastonbury). Curators are now keen to address former inequalities by focusing on the careers of lesser-known female artists and rewriting art history to be more inclusive. And, amongst this year’s most important shows are significant retrospectives on Dorothea Tanning and Lee Krasner – with Dora Maar coming to Tate Modern in autumn. Finally female artists are filling up our galleries.

The American Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner’s work has not been shown in London since an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965. This summer the Barbican is displaying the first major presentation of her work in Europe in over 50 years, with nearly 100 paintings on view for the first time in the UK. This brilliant retrospective shines a much-needed light on Krasner’s work, which is often overshadowed by that of her husband, fellow artist Jackson Pollock.

The daughter of a first generation immigrant family in Brooklyn, Krasner (1908 – 1984) attended a succession of art schools, with scholarships, in Manhattan. Her name changed from Lena, via Lenore to the more gender-neutral Lee. The current exhibition charts the evolution of her drawings and paintings from the early representational self-portraits to the use of a more abstract artistic vocabulary. Like fellow students at the time she was influenced by Picasso, Matisse and especially Mondrian. She became acquainted with the group of artists who were abandoning representation in favour of an abstract language in their paintings. This came to be know as Abstract Expressionism.


Desert Moon, 1955

Krasner developed a relationship with and then married Jackson Pollock, in 1945. They left a downtown apartment and moved to a wooden farmhouse, with a barn and garden in the town of Springs, East Hampton on Long Island. Away from New York City they had the space to develop their art, living frugally with assistance from Peggy Guggenheim, his patron and dealer who provided a stipend in exchange for paintings. Krasner worked in an upstairs studio in the house, whereas Pollock worked in the spacious barn with good natural light. Her series Little Images, was densely painted, with all-over abstract motifs. By the early 1950s the work had evolved into layered paintings with collaged strips, taken from abandoned canvases. There were strong black outlines and bolder areas of colour used. These colourful collaged works, such as Desert Moon, Bird Talk and Blue Level were exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1955.


Palingenesis, 1971


Her style shifted again in the painting ‘Prophecy’ which contained large forms, suggestive of body parts, with thick black lines and dark red areas. She was working on this picture when she took herself off, in the summer of 1956, to visit friends in Paris and see art. The marriage with Pollock was strained at this point due to his heavy drinking and his having a younger mistress. In her absence he crashed his car, killing himself, one female passenger and injuring his girlfriend. Alone and grieving Krasner returned to the Springs house where she produced ‘Birth’ and ‘Three in Two’, containing equally erotic and troubling imagery as ‘Prophecy’, which they hang alongside in this exhibition. Krasner moved her studio into the more spacious barn and began painting on larger scale canvases, that were pinned to the walls rather than being stretched. Initially she worked on the Night Journeys paintings. Using a limited palette of umber, a dark brown pigment and white, they are bigger and looser in their mark-making than earlier works. These paintings are displayed in the opening room at the Barbican. Then, there is a shift to bold more colourful work, such as ‘Icarus’ (below), full of bright pinks, reds and oranges and emerald green forms.


Icarus, 1964


Lee Krasner was simultaneously trying to promote her own artistic reputation as well as the legacy of Pollock. Finally in the early 1970s, when she was in her sixties, her work appeared in more significant exhibitions, thanks to her efforts combined with the feminist art critics and curators keen to celebrate the achievements of less well-known women artists. One of these was her biographer Gail Levin. (Lee Krasner: A biography. Thames and Hudson 2019) At the time of her 1973 Whitney exhibition Krasner commented, ‘I happen to be Mrs Jackson Pollock….I am a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.’


Lee Krasner and husband Jackson Pollock, seen here in Springs, 1946. Image: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian


The Barbican’s Living Colour exhibition is on until 1 September 2019, further details and tickets HERE.

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