An important member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, Lee Krasner is known for her innovative paintings and collages, characterized by bold forms, rich colors and what the painter Piet Mondrian called her “strong inner rhythm.” Although her accomplishments were for many years obscured by those of her famous husband, the painter Jackson Pollock, Krasner is considered today to have been a leading member of the New York School, an artist who continued to explore new forms and pictorial concepts throughout the course of her career.
Krasner was born Lenore Krassner in Brooklyn in 1908, the daughter of Russian-Jewish parents. After attending public schools in Manhattan, she studied at the Woman’s Art School of Cooper Union in New York from 1926 to 1929, supporting herself through jobs as a waitress and artist’s model. Krasner also attended classes at the Art Students League (1928) and at the National Academy of Design (1929-1932), also in New York. Throughout the early 1930s, she painted Surrealist cityscapes, inspired by the example of painters such as Georgio de Chirico and Arshile Gorky.
A turning point in her development occurred in 1937, when she began a four-year period of study under the painter Hans Hofmann, who familiarized her with the structural concerns of Cubism, the chromaticism of Henri Matisse, and his own “push-pull” theory about the relationship between color and space.
During these years, Krasner concentrated on still life compositions and figure drawings, experimenting with the concepts passed on to her by Hofmann. Between 1934 and 1941, she received regular employment from the federal government’s Works Progress Administration, during which time she worked on public murals, initially as an assistant to Max Spivak and then as a supervisor. This experience would prove vital in her later work, when she turned to large scale formats.
Krasner’s association with New York’s avant-garde occurred in 1940, when she joined American Abstract Artists (AAA), a group of progressive-minded artists who promoted non-representational art. Through this affiliation, Krasner came into contact with the Dutch DeStijl painter Piet Mondrian, an early supporter of her work. Krasner exhibited with AAA from 1940 until 1943, submitting canvases in which she combined elements of Synthetic Cubism with the black lines favored by Mondrian.
Krasner first met Jackson Pollock, the leader of the Abstract Expressionists, during the mid-1930s. The couple married in 1945, going on to divide their time between Manhattan and a farmhouse in the Springs, near East Hampton, Long Island, where they maintained separate studios. Krasner subsequently became an avid supporter and promoter of her husband’s innovative work, bringing him into contact with influential art critics and dealers.
Influenced by Pollock’s improvisatory “all-over” paintings and the Surrealist notion of automatism, Krasner produced her own abstract paintings from 1946 to 1949. Known as Little Images, as they were usually less than two feet high, these transitional canvases represent Krasner’s experiments with drip and palette knife techniques, as well her use of compositions featuring hieroglyphics and grids. These paintings comprised Krasner’s first one-man show, held at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York in 1951.
From 1951 to 1953, Krasner worked on a series of painted paper collages made of torn paintings and ink or wash drawings. In 1953, she turned to large collage paintings, over six feet tall, also made out of mutilated canvases. After debuting these works at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1955, Krasner explored different types of images and formats, including large-scale action paintings, small works on paper and figurative themes painted in an expressionist manner. She made a second series of collage paintings in 1976, exhibiting them at New York’s Pace Gallery in 1977.
Long over-shadowed by her legendary husband, Krasner’s reputation as an important first-generation Abstract Expressionist was established in 1965, when a major retrospective exhibition of her work was held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and circulated throughout Great Britain under the auspices of the Arts Council of Great Britain. Eight years later, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York organized Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, and in 1975, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. held a second retrospective exhibition of her work. Since that time, Krasner’s career has undergone further scholarly examination, especially by the art historian Barbara Rose, who curated the exhibitions Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship, held at the Guild Hall Gallery in East Hampton in 1981, and Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1983.
Krasner received the Saint-Gaudens Medal from Cooper Union in 1974, and was appointed Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1982. She is also the recipient of an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the State University at Stony Brook, New York.
Krasner died in New York in 1984. Her work is represented in major museums both in the United States and abroad, including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; the High Museum, Atlanta; and the Tate Gallery, London, among many others.
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