Out of the Shadow of Pollock, Lee Krasner Defies the World

Going Green: Krasner works on the
bold sweeps of her 1969 ‘Portrait in
Green,’ at her East Hampton studio.
Going Green: Krasner works on the bold sweeps of her 1969 ‘Portrait in Green,’ at her East Hampton studio.

By Carmela Ciuraru

Published March 30, 2011, issue of April 08, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Lee Krasner: A Biography
By Gail Levin
William Morrow, 560 pages, $30

In 1956, the artist Jackson Pollock was killed in a car crash in Springs, on the South Fork of Long Island. He was 44 years old and drunk when he drove his Oldsmobile convertible into a tree one fateful August night. He died less than a mile from his home; his mistress, who had been in the car with him, survived the accident.

Not only did this tragic event seal Pollock’s towering legacy and romanticize his troubled life, but it also forever cast a shadow on the reputation and career of the wife he left behind, Lee Krasner. Years after his death, Krasner would bristle at being identified as his widow first and then as an artist in her own right. A masterful new biography attempts to rectify this.

“Lee Krasner,” by author and scholar Gail Levin, a professor at Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City of New York, is written with unassuming grace. This rigorously researched, straightforward account attempts to set the record straight about Krasner, who died in 1984 at the age of 75. (Levin argues that previous biographical accounts are riddled with inaccurate and incomplete information.)

In 1971, at the age of 22, Levin met Krasner and came to regard her as a mentor and friend. She wrote that Krasner “reminded me of my grandmother.” Although she was deeply fond of Krasner, Levin does not hesitate to present her flaws. This is not a hagiography by any means, yet the artist could not have found a more gifted biographer to retell her story and argue her case.

Krasner, who studied with Hans Hofmann and was influenced by his work, did not owe her career to her more famous husband. She was no passive muse. In fact, by the time she and Pollock met, in 1936, Krasner was the better-known and more accomplished artist and, with her avant-garde circle, already a key figure in the nascent Abstract Expressionist movement.

Her pioneering style of painting and collage was cultivated before Pollock began to develop his signature drip-painting technique. And it was she who introduced Pollock to such important art world figures as critic Clement Greenberg, and to such contemporaries as Willem de Kooning.

She was born Lena Krassner in 1908, just weeks after her mother had immigrated to New York from a shtetl in what is now central Ukraine. (Her father awaited them in Brooklyn.) As Levin notes, virulent anti-Semitism was sweeping through Eastern Europe at the time — and, like many Russian-Jewish families, the Krassners longed to escape.

As a first-generation American with assimilation anxiety, Krasner was an outspoken, willful child rebelling against the traditions of her Old World parents. Her irascible nature was formed in childhood: She refused to sing Christmas carols at school, and defied authority at every opportunity.

She was fiercely independent, a quality that hardened into an abrasive, self-protective exterior as she got older. Although Krasner often seemed to be her own worst enemy, she remained confident. No matter how harshly she was criticized, she was unwilling to launch a charm offensive in service of her career.

She and Pollock met at a party; he was drunk when he approached her. (At the age of 24, he was already an alcoholic.) She later recalled, “I was terribly drawn to Jackson, and I fell in love with him — physically, mentally — in every sense of the word.” By the time they were married, in 1945, his drinking had steadily increased, yet she was endlessly nurturing. “Krasner was Pollock’s facilitator in the world,” Levin writes. “She was also his cheerleader, guardian, and secretary.”

Although Pollock was also supportive of his wife’s work, his paintings drew more interest from collectors. This was disheartening to Krasner, but it did nothing to slow her productivity. Interestingly, Levin mentions that Krasner painted from right to left on her canvases, “just as one would write Hebrew lettering, which she had studied as a child.” (She adds that no one considered the possibility that Krasner was dyslexic.)

Levin chronicles the sexist snubs Krasner endured in the art world from critics and peers alike: Barnett Newman blithely dismissed her, and she felt slighted by Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. Clement Greenberg, a close friend, turned to her (rather than the diffident Pollock) for intellectual, wide-ranging conversations about art — but he wrote exclusively about Pollock’s work, ignoring Krasner entirely. One sculptor friend, Wilfrid Zogbaum, said of Krasner that “there is that extreme ambition in her that is at times a bit frightening. One doesn’t know whether to admire or despise it.” There would have been no such caviling at ambition in a male artist.

By 1951, Krasner’s output began to suffer as she threw herself into the task of caring for her dysfunctional husband. Her ardent devotion, and her futile efforts to stop his binge drinking, took a toll on her physical and mental health. “His needs, which may have initially appealed to her wish to be maternal,” Levin writes, “had by now become suffocating.” Greenberg later called Pollock “the most radical alcoholic I ever met, and I met plenty.”

Five years later, Pollock was dead and Krasner was a widow. Before his death, he’d been cheating on her and was mired in depression, leaving him largely unable to function. Yet Krasner’s love remained steadfast, and she tended passionately to his posthumous legacy.

After Pollock died, she returned to her own canvases, working in his former studio at their shared home, which is now a national historic landmark, open to the public for tours. Some critics felt that there was a newfound energy, audacity and rawness to her paintings. Freed from Pollock’s destructive grip, she still suffered personally — she was depressed and had insomnia — but began to thrive again as an artist, earning her first solo retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1965. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the long-planned retrospective of her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1984, but died with the satisfaction that it was planned.

Nearly 30 years after Krasner’s death, where does her reputation lie? Arguably, like second-generation Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, she still ranks high among the most underrated American artists of the 20th century. Both are represented in major museum collections and command high prices at auction, but hardly at the level of their male counterparts.

Anyone who doubts that Krasner has not gotten her due can visit New York’s MoMA between now and April 25, while a major exhibition of Abstract Expressionist works is on view. The show’s cover image? “Number 1A” by Jackson Pollock. He owns the joint: His work is seen everywhere you turn. He looms large. It’s true that a few women artists have been tossed into the show: Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler — along with Krasner, of course. But as ever, this brave, radical artist remains a mere footnote. With luck, Levin’s fascinating and absorbing biography will change that.

Carmela Ciuraru has published several anthologies and is the author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,” coming out in June from HarperCollins.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.