I was lucky enough to see this amazing retrospective of Lee Krasner’s work at The Barbican. Krasner was born in 1908 in Brooklyn, decided as a teenager to become an artist and had a long art career stretching through to her death in 1984. So a good 60-odd years of making art. She was of course, also Jackson Pollock’s wife and that combined with the endemic sexism of the times meant that her work was often overlooked.
The last major show of her work in Europe was in 1965, when it was in fact the Whitechapel Gallery in London who offered Krasner the first retrospective show of her career. Yes, – London, not her native New York, where she lived and worked. The Museum of Modern Art in New York finally held a retrospective exhibition of her work, six-months after her death.
So back to the Barbican show I saw, well quite frankly it is fantastic. A blistering show, alive with restless energy and colour and an incredible history of the artist’s development. Here are some of my personal highlights:
001 Early years
Given where I am in my own study of art, I am obsessed with understanding how artists I admire started out. What did they study, and how? What were their early works like? It turns out in Krasner’s case, she studied deeply over a long period. From her high school, chosen because it was the only one to allow girls to study art (!), then the Women ‘s Art School at Cooper Union, and onto the prestigious Academy of Desing in 1928.
Several self portraits from this time survive:
002 Life Drawing
She continued taking life drawing classes and I was fascinated to see her early observational, figurative work. Clearly very studied and accomplished. They seem to me to be the drawing equivalent of practicing musical scales – important but a stage en-route to something else.
She then studied under Hans Hoffman, a German artist. He had lived in Paris and was closely acquainted with Picasso and Matisse. You can see Krasner analysing the forms and plans of the human figure
Being able to peer at the charcoal marks, smudges and eraser marks close-up was amazing.
003 Early Abstract Works
Working in a small bedroom studio (Pollock had the barn), her abstract ‘little images’ start to emerge, from 1946 onwards. Amazing thick paint, texture, rhythm and colour. She sometimes referred to these small hieroglyphic-like forms as her ‘myserious writings’
004 Incredible Collages
Made in the 1950s, on top of oil paintings that hadn’t sold, using drawings Krasner tore up in frustration, plus other scraps. As she says: “I change medium to restimulate myself. It gets me working and that’s the important thing”. I couldn’t agree more and have that same feeling in my own work. You can see her re-working ideas from her ‘little images’, with shapes and forms bound in to tight rhythms.
Later her collages become larger, with simpler forms and bold strong colours. These were my favourite works of the whole show and you can see how they are premonition of her later painting to come.
005 Night Journeys
Following Pollock’s death in an accident, she starts working on a large scale for the first time, in her dead husband’s studio. With insomnia, she works at night. She limits her palette to umber and white, as it’s not good enough light to see colour properly. Not about colour, her work seems to become about movement, the physical marks, the process.
007 Big Colourful Paintings
From the 60s onwards it feels like she hits her stride. I feel echoes of her ‘little images’, early figurative studies and collage compositions underpin these gloriously bold works.
008 More on her method
She was never afraid to change media and move on. She was also happy to destroy or repurpose old works. In 1974 she discovered an box of her very early figurative drawings. She took to these drawings with scissors and they became a new body of work – ‘Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See’
Towards the end of the show was a film footage of Krasner describing her work in her own words. I scribbled down various excerpts in the dark, as follows, loosely
– ‘Colour for me is a very mysterious thing’
– ‘My energy level dictates the size of the work’
– ‘Anything can send me off when it’s time to get started’
– ‘You just take a depp breath and hope for the best and get into it’
– ‘Let it come through on its own terms .. don’t mess with it, force it, jump it or tamper with it’