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Extract: Lee Krasner: A Biography

Posted on 25 May 2019

Get to know one of the original abstract expressionists with Gail Levin's 'Lee Krasner: A Biography'.

Gail Levin, who first met Krasner at the age of 22, became a life-long friend of Krasner before writing Lee Krasner: A biography, an originally researched book that restores Krasner’s voice and illuminates the exceptional artist’s fascinating life.

Lee Krasner in her New York Studio, c. 1939. Photo Maurice Berezov © AE Artworks

The name Lee Krasner has become ever more widely known since Marcia Gay Harden won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Pollock (2000), directed by Ed Harris, who played the title role. Harden portrayed Krasner’s part as painter-wife to the gifted and troubled Jackson. Inaccuracy about Krasner’s life, already endemic in the film, was aggravated in 2002, when John Updike claimed that Krasner had inspired the main character in his novel Seek My Face. Several other novels have expressly depicted Krasner or referred to her by name, so that her growing recognition owes more to ction than to fact.

Who was the real Lee Krasner? To her friend and neighbor, Patsy Southgate, “she was a brilliant verbatim storyteller and raconteuse—dramatic pauses, perfect people imitations. . . . She could be caustic, abrasive, combative.” Krasner’s talent and her charisma made her “just a phenomenon,” recalled Lillian Olinsey Kiesler, who first met her about 1937, when both were students at the Hofmann School of Art; she was “unique.”

In the eyes of her nieces and nephews Krasner was inspiring, tender, and generous. Ronald Stein, her sister Ruth’s son, referred to his Aunt Lee as “my alter-mother,” telling how she “always put me to work drawing” and inspired him to become an artist.

“They couldn’t keep her down,” said niece Rena Glickman, for whom Krasner served as a role model. Glickman reinvented herself as “Rusty Kanokogi,” the renowned judo expert from Brooklyn. “Lee was the first person who ever gave me credit for all I had come up through, all I had fought against,” Kanokogi said. “She reinforced me.” To her mind, Aunt Lee was “honest, forthright. She would tell it the way it was.”

Krasner’s “honesty” also struck her close friend, the playwright Edward Albee, who called it “a no-nonsense thing.” Her “wit could be acid; she detested stupidity; and she never believed it was unwomanly to be intelligent,” according to another friend, the art dealer and critic John Bernard Myers. “Lee was unbelievably intelligent,” said her close friend the art dealer and author Eugene V. Thaw. The critic Clement Greenberg even admitted that he feared Krasner because she was so brilliant and had such a strong character.

To a questionnaire that asked “What was the greatest sacrifice you have made for your art?” she replied, “I sacrificed nothing.”In 1977 she told interviewer Gaby Rodgers, “I am a strong character.”  When asked if she would do anything otherwise if she had to do it all again, Krasner replied, “I doubt it. I am awfully stubborn. Somehow I would have made the same choices and decisions.”

Outspoken as she was, Krasner liked oral history. She readily gave—over more than three decades—interviews to journalists, critics, and art historians. The talks she gave before student audiences remain among the most important sources about her life. Beyond the oral records, Krasner left few hints about her work’s meaning. She wrote very little—no essays, no regular journals— and her surviving letters are very scant. Other than her art, most of what she left behind consists of photographs, exhibition records, clippings from many publications, and her business and personal correspondence. She did record some notes and fragments of dreams—most probably to share with her therapist. Most of these offer little evidence of her conscious thoughts or activities.

“I was in on the formation of what all the history books now write about the abstract expressionists. I was in the WPA, part of the New York School, I knew Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning, Clement Greenberg before Jackson did and in fact I introduced him to them. But there’s never any mention of me in those history books, like I was never there,” protested Krasner in 1973. The lack of attention provoked Krasner to aver, “And being dogmatically independent, I stepped on a lot of toes. Human beings being what they are, one way to deal with that is denying me artistic recognition.”

Today Krasner’s protest might be even more vehement, since artistic erasure has been compounded by personal misrepresentation and caricature—both inadvertent and willed. Gossip has crowded out the facts that are available, and Krasner’s life has been picked over for tidbits to serve other agendas—from playing second fiddle in Jackson Pollock’s very sensational life to bending aspects of her life to feminist stereotypes that do not fit. In reality, well before she met Pollock, Krasner had established herself as an artist and had won the respect of her peers; then, after scarcely fourteen years with him, she continued for nearly three decades to create and show her art.

Current interest in abstract expressionism, the New York School, or “action painting” is intense. This is true not only in the United States, but also in Europe, Australia, and Japan. Whereas Krasner would have been overlooked before, she is now routinely featured in major shows focusing on modernism or, more specically, on “action painting.”

“No one today could persist in calling hers a peripheral talent,” wrote art critic Robert Hughes, praising her “harsh improvising search for form based on a highly critical grasp of the culture of modernism.” He dubbed Krasner “the Mother Courage of Abstract Expressionism.”

Krasner has gained a certain recognition in death that she only dreamed about while living. Recent prices at public auction for her work have made clear that museums and the public consider Krasner a major artist. On November 11, 2003, Celebration, a large painting from 1960 by Krasner, sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art for $1,911,500, setting a new auction record. By May 14, 2008, Krasner’s prices had set yet another new record, when her painting Polar Stampede sold at Sotheby’s for $3,177,000. Historically, prices for art by women have failed to match those for work by male artists, yet very few women artists command prices as high as these.

By now Krasner’s work appears in the most prominent American public collections: the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Art Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum—as well as in many others. Some of her pictures are also in major public collections in Europe, such as the Tate Modern in London, the Kunstmuseum in Bern, the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderna in Valencia, and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, as well as in Australia at both the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

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