Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gail Levin on Lee Krasner

“Krasner was rightfully frustrated with her unshakable identity as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, but she perpetuated it…”

After seeing how much I enjoyed reading a biography of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, my husband surprised me with a biography of Lee Krasner (HarperCollins, 2011) under the Christmas tree.

Art historian Gail Levin traces Krasner’s life from her Orthodox Jewish roots in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn to her death at age 75 (just before witnessing her dream of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art).

For a painter that lived in the shadow of her husband—the infamous Jackson Pollock, who set an auction record for painting five years ago—it’s interesting to note that only one-third of the book is devoted to Krasner’s life with Pollock. This ratio contrasts the movie Pollock (2000), which doesn’t even show Krasner as a widow. It also contrasts the self-indulgent memoir of Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress who survived the car crash that killed him (note that if you have the impulse to read Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock, it is as tiresome as a tabloid). Whereas the movie left me bewildered as to why Krasner would stay with an unfaithful, verbally abusive alcoholic, Levin’s biography reduces the size of that question mark. A close-up photo of the couple smiling at each other outside their Springs home on Long Island says it all, capturing their love and implicit artistic support. There’s also the telling revelation that Krasner moved between five post-secondary art schools for her studies, determined not to suffer through a bad fit. Change was not something she feared.

It could be said that Levin’s thesis is an excerpt from Pollock’s obituary: “Lee Krasner, [was] an established painter in her own right” (1). As Krasner herself noted, “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock” (2). During Krasner’s lifetime, Levin curated a show in which she emphasized Krasner’s use of abstraction before she met Pollock. This strategy was necessary because individuals like Ellen Landau (then affiliated with the NCFA, which is now the Smithsonian) wrote about Krasner’s pre-Pollock work in relation to her eventual husband. Jed Perl notes in his New York Times book review that Levin doesn’t personally make a case for Krasner’s artistic importance in the biography, instead relying on interview excerpts, but it seems only fair to consider her entire professional contribution since she knew Krasner personally.

One thing everyone can surely agree on is that Krasner’s association with Pollock’s ‘male genius’ was a blessing and a curse. It caused Krasner to minimize the significance of a long-term, loving relationship with the artist Igor Pantuhoff that preceded Pollock, presumably to prevent her from looking like an artist groupie in the same camp as Kligman (who went on to have an affair with Pollock’s rival, Willem de Kooning). The constant comparison of her style to Pollock’s also made her defensive. For example, she differentiated the small-scale controlled dripping she used in her Little Images from Pollock’s action painting technique of moving with his whole body above a painting while drizzling and splashing paint. The book recounts a story of her sitting at the table, cataloguing the features that Pollock picked up from her. The suggestion that her work was derivative of any of the male abstract expressionists must have stung for someone who didn’t let a broken arm stop her from painting, for someone who described painting as an extension of life. Krasner was rightfully frustrated with her unshakable identity as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, but she perpetuated it by doing things like angling for a solo show as part of a package deal with a posthumous show for Pollock. The biography is a good read, in large part because—by virtue of her humanity—Krasner is a flawed character.

As is the case with artists like Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo, Levin notes that there is a tendency to view Krasner’s life through a feminist lens even when it’s inappropriate. Krasner may have been suspended for sneaking into a space reserved for male students in a segregated art school, broken tradition by refusing to marry her newly widowed brother-in-law, and gotten angry with an acquaintance for giving up her maiden name in marriage, but a self-described feminist she was not. She eschewed all-women art shows, but at the same time, she expressed gratitude at the surge of interest in her work that accompanied the second wave of feminism. She considered feminism to be the one true revolution of her time, but she felt separate from it. Levin’s clearest example of mislabeled feminism is the attention paid to Krasner’s name changes: from her birth name of Lena to Lenore, and finally to the noticeably gender-neutral Lee. Levin points out that she was first called Lee when she was in an all-girls’ school, which weakens the argument that it was to mask her gender. Incidentally, she assumed the pseudonym Mary Cassatt (the Impressionist painter) when she and other artists were arrested for protesting lay-offs by the Works Progress Administration, for whom she collaborated on public art projects. She quipped, “I didn’t have a big selection you know, it was either Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt” (3).

The dearth of prominent females in modern art made Krasner a natural role model, not just for her aptitude in the studio but also for her ability to work the commercial side of the art world. Her significance to the next generation is captured by an anecdote of Krasner being approached by artist Deborah Kass at Krasner’s exhibition, being called her hero, and continuing the conversation outside the gallery. The local colour of New York—the image of Kass initially seeing Krasner in a fur coat carrying Bergdorf Goodman bags in both hands along West Fifty-seventh Street—peppers Krasner’s life story, spinning a rags to riches tale that can’t help but romanticize the stereotype of the impoverished artist. However, what she wanted to be paid in was respect, not money. The importance of this monograph, the first of its scope about Krasner, is underscored by her lamenting, “…there’s never any mention of me in those history books, like I was never there” (4).


(1) p. 312
(2) p. 410
(3) p. 118
(4) p. 3

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