The Barbican’s Lee Krasner: Living Colour is a long overdue celebration of an indomitable artist whose ingenious eye offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on the inner and outer worlds that shape our lives, writes our arts contributor Dr Lottie Whalen.
As war ravaged Europe in the 1940s, a flood of European artists fleeing fascism poured in to New York. Their arrival caused a sensation among the city’s hip, young art community: the European modernist masters that they’d studied and imitated were suddenly on their doorstep. Among the esteemed newcomers, the austere and enigmatic Piet Mondrian was a particular highlight. In January 1941, the American Abstract Artists group welcomed him and Fernand Leger with a party where, somewhat unexpectedly, Mondrian was the life and soul. He immediately bonded with the promising young artist Lee Krasner over a shared love of jazz, and the two began ‘dancing like crazy’ in Greenwich village’s radical jazz bars. Krasner, it seems, was the only person who could keep up with what she described as the ‘complexity of [his] rhythm…not simple in any sense’ – Naum Gabo’s wife Miriam recalls that ‘he was a terrible dancer…Virginia [Pevsner] hated it and I hated it. We had to take turns dancing with him’. By contrast, a shared idiosyncratic rhythm was the very thing that drew Krasner and Mondrian together. The work of both painters was displayed in the fifth annual exhibition of the American Abstract Artists group, and Krasner was nervous as she introduced her new dance partner to her work. Her worries were unfounded: after quietly surveying them, Mondrian declared ‘you have a very strong inner rhythm. You must never lose it’. It’s clear from the Barbican’s glorious retrospective that Krasner never did. Despite deliberately never settling on a distinctive style for long over the course of a fifty-year career, the works on display all share a vitality and dynamic sense of space and colour that speaks of Krasner’s mastery of the form.
From her earliest work, Krasner’s immense talent is obvious. Her keen eye for light and colour is evident in an androgynous self-portrait painted en plein air (‘Self-Portrait’, c. 1928). It is a striking image of a young artist just beginning to develop her identity (she had recently changed her name from Lena to Lenore and, finally, Lee), but already self-assured – her bold stare reminds the viewer of Edward Albee’s observation, made at her memorial service over fifty years later, that Krasner ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’. Tutors at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan thought it too accomplished for a young working-class woman from Brooklyn, but accepted her on to their life-drawing course anyway. The scepticism was mutual: she chafed under the restrictions and academicism of the National Academy, and it was not until she won a scholarship to study with German modernist painter Hans Hoffman in 1937 that her work began to soar. Under the influence of Hoffman’s Cubist teachings, Krasner developed a looser, energetic style. She brought a three-dimensional dynamism and depth to the nude studies she completed at Hoffman’s school, using thick charcoal lines to draw out the tension between light and shadow, surface and depth. In these images, the static bodies of her models are bursting with life and in dialogue with the space around them. These drawings make a reappearance much later in Krasner’s career (and later in the exhibition), in a series of collages exhibited under the collective title ‘Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See’. The act of slicing them up and reassembling the fragments to form lively new compositions emphasises the enduring influence of life’s cyclical patterns on Krasner’s oeuvre; her lifelong fascination with the duel forces of destruction and renewal would charge much of her work with its disquieting yet utterly compelling force.
In 1945, Krasner left the dust, dirt, and light pollution of New York City behind and settled in a farmhouse in Springs, Long Island. She revelled in the opportunities this new natural environment provided, spending time swimming in the sea, growing her own food, and sitting out at all night watching the stars. In Springs, she was fully immersed in nature, which, to Krasner, meant not just plants and animals, but ‘energy, motion, everything that’s happening in and around me’. The work she created during this period (a series she named ‘Little Images’) suggests that here Krasner developed a new visual language, articulating the merging of the mutating, disorderly forms of her environment with her own natural inner rhythm. With their intensely detailed patterns and rich textures, the ‘Little Images’ evoke the minute worlds of nature seen under a microscope. Although they are much smaller than her monumental later works, these paintings have a wonderful physical presence. The thickly textured, shattered surfaces of works such as ‘Abstract No. 2’ (1946-48) lend them a tactile, sensual quality that compels the viewer to enter into the space of the canvas. The ‘Little Images’ are displayed alongside a mosaic table (1947) that Krasner made for her home, emphasising the intimate, decorative nature of her paintings. Made using old jewellery and other bits of bric-a-brac, the table’s colourful rhythm and eclectic composition anticipates the collage technique that Krasner would experiment with for a 1955 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York.
The beautifully designed exhibition space, created by David Chipperfield Architects, immerses visitors to Lee Krasner: Living Colour in the shifts in light, scale, and space as her detailed, intimate canvases of the late 1940s gave way to the sprawling collages and paintings she created from the 1950s onwards. The move from intimate, enclosed upstairs rooms to the airy, light-filled downstairs atrium also mirrors Krasner’s move from painting in makeshift studios in the bedrooms of her home, to working in the large barn studio that she took over following her husband’s death. Such creative use of space gives the sprawling later paintings room to breathe and showcases Krasner’s dazzling use of colour. 1965’s ‘Combat’ is a vivid explosion of contrasting crimson and orange, a fluid tangle of form and colour that opens up depth in an already vast canvas. Even where colour is relatively pared down, for example in the glowing ‘Kufic’ (1965), Krasner transfixes the eye with her masterful handling of light and rhythm. Channelling her love of Matisse and jazz in ever evolving and inventive ways, Krasner uses colour to make her canvases sing.
As equally striking as her vibrantly coloured works, however, are the ‘Night Journeys’ paintings (1959-1963). In these pieces, Krasner has allowed all colour to drain away; in its place, a muted, earthy palette evokes the raw, grief-stricken nights during which they were created. Krasner was suffering from serious insomnia following the loss of both her husband and mother within the space of three years, but, in characteristic style, she continued to make art throughout. The exhausting frenzy in which Krasner worked during this time is writ large on these overwhelming canvases. Covered with loose and chaotic gestural brush strokes, each painting is breath-taking and immersive. ‘Polar Stampede’ (1960) is a hurricane of splattered brown, white, and black paint marks whirling across an almost kinetic surface. Despite the violent intensity of this series, the explosion of arches and circular, biomorphic shapes in pieces like ‘The Eye is the First Circle’ (1960) and ‘Assault on the Solar Plexus’ (1961), reminds the viewer of the irrepressible life force that runs throughout Krasner’s work. Titles such as ‘Triple Goddess’ (1960), ‘Fecundity’ (1960), and ‘Seeded’ (1960), further suggest an ongoing cycle of ripening, rotting, and renewal. Returning to the vibrant play of colour and pattern in works such as ‘Water No. 20’ (1969) (which remind us, once again, of those microscopic worlds referenced in the ‘Little Images’), one feels that ‘Night Journeys’ symbolised Krasner’s own process of rotting and regrowth – a necessary exorcism of personal and creative demons before the next phase of her innovative practice.
The exhibition ends with Krasner herself, appearing in a collection of filmed interviews as an accomplished and uncompromising older artist. As she recalls the battles she faced as a woman artist working within the notoriously sexist Abstract Expressionism movement (and, of course, as the widow of a feted genius), we recognise the same steady, self-assured gaze from her student self-portraits. Evident, too, is the urgent inner rhythm that drove her to create art even through the dark and difficult periods of her life. In discussions of her work, Krasner consistently rejects labels, preferring to be known simply as ‘an artist, not a woman artist, not an American artist’. Her dismissal of gender is typical of many twentieth century artists for whom the prefix ‘women’ had been used to exclude them from the upper echelons of art and culture.
However, her sense of unease regarding nationality is a somewhat timely reminder of the chauvinistic and xenophobic notions that characterised debates around American culture in the 1930s. As the child of Jewish immigrants, Krasner was all too aware of the loaded nature of phrases like ‘Paint America’ and the racist and anti-Semitic motivations behind the championing of American art. In her characteristic forthright manner, she made her position clear: ‘I could never support anything called “American Art”’. Lee Krasner: Living Colour is a long overdue celebration of an indomitable artist whose ingenious eye offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on the inner and outer worlds that shape our lives. With its closing consideration of Krasner’s life and legacy, this unmissable exhibition is also an imperative to strive towards an art that is open and responsive to the rhythms of the world, far beyond the often-exclusionary categories that seek to define and confine us.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour will be shown at the Barbican from 30 May until 1 September 2019. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
Dr Lottie Whalen is a writer and researcher based in Hackney, East London. In 2017 she completed an AHRC funded PhD at Queen Mary University of London entitled ‘Mina Loy’s Designs for Modernism’, which explored the avant-garde poet, artist, and designer Mina Loy’s multimedia art practice and decorative aesthetic. Lottie is currently working on a book based on her thesis. She is the co-founder of Decorating Dissidence, an interdisciplinary arts project that explores the political, aesthetic & conceptual qualities of feminine-coded arts from modernism to the contemporary. It brings together art practitioners, makers, curators, activists and academics to break down disciplinary boundaries and find new ways to critically engage with feminist art history. As part of this project, she curates exhibitions, workshops, and arts events, and is an editor for Decorating Dissidence’s online magazine. Find Lottie on twitter via @DrLottieW or email her at email@example.com. Follow Decorating Dissidence on Twitter @DecoModFem