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The story of Lee Krasner is not a neat or easy one to tell. Not because it’s been done before, though it has, or because she was one of the great 20th century artists, though she was. It’s because, now that she’s gone, there are several Lee Krasners.

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Gesso | Primer

Good painting, my dear

00:00 / 01:04

TRANSCRIPT

 

Henna Wang (HW): The story of Lee Krasner is not a neat or easy one to tell. Not because it’s been done before, though it has, or because she was one of the great 20th century artists, though she was. It’s because, now that she’s gone, there are several Lee Krasners.  

 

One Krasner is Mrs. Jackson Pollock, the lesser wife of a legendary genius. 

 

Another is a quietly feminist artist, whose own exceptional talent was always overshadowed by Pollock’s prestige in the male-dominated art world. 

 

Yet another is a shrewd businesswoman, who leveraged her position for her own benefit, as well as for  her husband’s. 

 

It’s like Krasner multiplied upon her passing. Now, her story depends on who you ask. 

Helen Harrison (HH): The people who loved her loved her deeply. The people who disliked her with a passion. 

 

HW: This is Helen Harrison, Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton. 

 

HH: So she was a polarizing figure.

 

There are many facts about Krasner’s life that are universally agreed-upon. Krasner was a Brooklyn native, born in 1908 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. 

 

She knew she would be an artist from a young age, and got an impeccable art education. 

 

But perhaps more important than her education was the  1929 opening of the Museum of Modern Art.    

 

HH: Her nephew told me that she stopped going to temple and started worshipping at MoMA. So she began looking at modern art with very fresh eyes and very curious, very enthusiastic attitude. And, of course, who were the great gods of that time? Picasso, Matisse, Braque. 

 

HW: Backed by her encyclopedic knowledge of art history, Krasner found her footing in modernism. But it wasn’t a static label. 

 

Lee is one of those artists who does not have a style, per se. She had more of an approach or philosophy about art that enabled her to change and grow and develop in a very free way, without it being a linear progression. 

 

Krasner had a phoenix-like quality to her work. She would have what she called “breaks,” which were new chapters in her painting. Her catalogue is enormous, and variable — her earlier works smaller and more condensed, her later works open and colorful. 

 

When she was invited to show her work in 1941 alongside several artists, Krasner recognized all their names, except one: Jackson Pollock. 

 

HH: There's a very cute interview with her, where she talks about deciding that she had better see this guy's work before she made a commitment. So, as she put it, she hoofed it over there… So she goes and knocks on the door, and apparently this was not a common thing. You didn't just walk in, you know. But she was forthright. So she introduced herself and said she wanted to see his work and she was absolutely smitten with it. She just thought it was amazing because she, as she said. She couldn't imagine that there was someone doing something so innovative that she didn't know about because she prided herself on knowing all of the minuscule avant-garde. But she was really taken with the work and also taken with the guy. 

 

HW: It’s at this point, when Pollock and Krasner’s lives intersect, that her story morphs, like clay, in the hands of different biographers. 

 

This is where the first Lee Krasner comes in: Krasner as Mrs. Pollock. 

 

Some describe Krasner as cowed by Pollock’s genius. The New Yorker writes that  meeting Pollock completely refocused her, quote, “for three despairing years… she struggled toward his kind of deeply personal abstraction, attempting to paint not what she devised but what she felt and, even more psychologically daunting, who she was.” 

 

The insinuation is that Pollock made Krasner, Krasner. But that’s not quite right. 

 

HH: This is not that she wanted to paint in Pollock style, but she wanted to paint with that degree of freedom and ingenuity. And I think that the great lesson that he taught her was to follow your heart and get away from theory. Don't don't plan things in advance. Don't don't be too rigid and hidebound and she really took that to heart.”

 

The thing is, there’s no way to really separate the artistic practices of Pollock and Krasner. Their lives were entirely fused. To say that Krasner became consumed or subsumed by Pollock isn’t quite fair, says Helen. Because as much as he influenced her, she influenced him. 

 

HH: To me, the crucial thing was her support of his creativity, that whatever the direction he needed to go in, whether it was commercially viable or not, she supported it. And that is unusual because often when an artist achieves a certain level of success, which Pollack had by say 1949 1950 the temptation is to continue on that same course and not to change... You know that the commercial aspect of it is very seductive. And of course, they lived on the sale of his work. 

 

If there’s a claim that Pollock made Krasner, the claim has to work the other way around.

 

Clement Greenberg, a writer and friend of Pollock’s, recalled that, quote,  “The most important person to his painting was Lee. She had this eye. She had a merciless eye… she was essential.”  One artist, Fritz Bultman, even went so far as to describe Pollock as Krasner’s Frankenstein. 

 

But really, it was a symbiosis. Krasner’s acute knowledge of the worlds of art and business kept Pollock afloat when he would get drunk and self-sabotage in front of important stakeholders. But then, his liberated psychology and style was necessary for her to free her own art. 

It’s impossible to separate the first Krasner, the Mrs. Pollock, from the second Krasner, the Overlooked Artist. 

HH: I don't think there's any way to separate the professional and the personal for them, because Pollock once said that art and life are one, and Lee later said that it actually took her awhile to appreciate that, but that eventually that did become her mantra, too.

 

She was hyper-critical of her own work, sometimes painting over old pieces that she was dissatisfied with. This rigidity helped her grow as an artist. But sometimes it held her back. 

 

For Pollock there was no separation. And that was what she wanted. She wanted the subject to be absorbed entirely within herself so that it came out from another place. It wasn't about observation. It was about experience and feeling. And the kind of of course you have to have the technique. You have to have the structure. It's not just blurted out at lib. It has to be organized in a plastic way, but it can't be formulaic.

 

But the couple’s symbiosis was short-lived. In the early 50s, Pollock’s drinking worsened. 

 

He stopped producing as many paintings. And the alcohol took a toll on their relationship, too. He was combative, by some accounts “intolerable,” and began philandering. 

 

Eventually, Krasner went away to Europe, presumably to take space from their marriage. It was while she was gone, in 1956, that the accident happened. 

 

Pollock had been driving drunk. He crashed his car into a tree, killing himself and one of two passengers. The other had been his lover. He was 44. 

 

The way that some people talk about Lee Krasner, you would think she died with Pollock — that she only existed as a satellite to his genius, that their flames were snuffed simultaneously. 

 

But Lee Krasner lived nearly 30 years after Pollock’s death. That’s practically a whole new lifetime. 

 

Of course, Krasner grieved. She was human. He had been her partner, artistically and emotionally. 

 

But her output barely paused. As an artist, she was at the beginning of a new chapter. Through her sorrow came new creation. 

 

The following year she's continuing with the voluptuous forms, but beautiful, colorful, lyrical, upbeat. She later called them her happy pictures. This is 1957. The woman is still in mourning.

 

I think Richard Howard did the interview with her where she asked her how she was able to do it, and she said she had no idea, because while she was painting those paintings, her eyes were filled with tears. 

 

In a way, Pollock’s death freed Krasner to harness the power she had always contained.

 

She had a serious career after Pollock's death… She didn't want to compete with him in the commercial market, but once he was dead, that was it. All bets were off. 

 

But freedom had its limits. Prior to Pollock’s death, both he and Krasner were paid weekly wages by the government to do their work. But after World War Two, the commercial gallery system began to reign. 

 

Well, what a rude awakening when all of a sudden the dealers didn't want to deal with you because you were going to get pregnant and drop out of the art world or whatever... And then, on top of that, she has to be Mrs Jackson Pollock, the gatekeeper, the guardian of the flame. And of course, there were people who wanted to get a piece of that action. And we're willing to do whatever it took, including seducing her to get it. 

 

This is where the third Krasner, Krasner the Businesswoman, comes in. 

 

There is no doubt that Krasner was a confident artist in her own right. But having this role, the public-facing guardian of the flame, meant developing thick skin and a strategic eye towards the art world. 

 

She was also quite tactical. I mean, she understood that she had a lot of power as the widow Pollock…    So it was a package, you take Pollock, you take me too... let's face it, um, if you have that card, you're going to play it.

 

Krasner is sometimes painted as the victim, both by the patriarchy and by the feminists. A legendary genius’ widow, artistically overlooked and perhaps for good reason. Or, if you prefer, the talented casualty of a womanizing drunk. But this is unfair on both counts. Krasner was no one’s fool.

 

And what’s often left out of these narratives of Krasner is just this. That she was strategic, and clever. That as much as she may have resented the label of Mrs. Pollock, she also used it. She would hate to be seen as a political pawn of anyone — Pollock, the art world, or political movements. If anything, they were hers. She was a woman in control, shunning labels. 

 

But a perception of her as calculating or wily is also somewhat unfair. Because this is the same woman who loved Pollock, who supported his creative journey even when it wasn’t profitable for them as a couple. Their lives were intertwined. It wasn’t just about the money, or the prestige. It was about the art. 

 

And that’s what too often gets lost in the soapy Pollock circus. Krasner was, above all, an astounding, dynamic painter. 

 

I start with the blank, and there's nothing more horrifying than a blank canvas because I don't have a thought or an idea, or I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that. 

 

This is Lee Krasner in 1982, two years before she passed away, in conversation with writer and curator Marc H. Miller. The interview was about one of her shows at the time, which was at the Robert Miller Gallery.  

 

I have a blank canvas like this one right here. Well, I might if I'm ready to work or whatever it is that gets me working. And I can't define that. I have no idea what it might be. Um, I was starting to make some brush strokes across the entire canvas. And then pretty soon, some image will suggest itself to me and by image. I don't mean a naturalistic image, but some form will or shape or something, and I start out that way and I keep moving with it. 

 

It’s an amazing interview to listen to. Not because of the sound quality, or the questions asked, but because of how reliably Krasner evades the interviewer’s attempts to box her in. 

 

She starts dodging when he tries to ask her about the process of finishing a painting. 

 

13:15 Some little bug tells you enough is enough. And when it doesn't tell you that unfortunately gets overworked, which happens many, many times. 

 

And when it's finished, What? What is it? Is it something that you conceive of is as beautiful something you conceive of us expressive? I mean, what what do you think? 

That whatever it is, that's it and you don't want to do any more with it. It would have many elements in it that that's as far as you want to go with it or can go with it.

 

What? Well, what are what are in those paintings at the Robert Miller Show? 

I can’t define that. I'd ask you to say, What do you get out of those paintings? I'll throw it back to you. I can't define what’s in there. Except that I am sufficiently pleased with the painting to say, OK, it could go out into the world.

 

Miller keeps pressing her, trying to get her to put words to her process. Krasner does NOT cooperate. 

 

I think a painted like Matisse was so magnificent is marvelous with color. So, like that's like a goal. No. And consequently, it's like I'd like to do was fabulously with color as he was able to do.

 

What did he do that was so fabulous? 

Oh I can't go through the Matisse Paintings. 

 

But is it, is it? Is it a beauty? Is it Is it a feeling? What? What? What do you — No I know that you know. [Laughs.] It's good painting, my dear, and that constitutes a great deal. 

 

It's like harmonies, uh, it constitutes a —

No! You’re not gonna pin me down to calling it, a harmony or beauty, or — I cannot define good painting in a word. You have to go into an art historian. Maybe they can. They can. Okay, I don't know that they can. Maybe they can. 

 

Even his attempt to get her to reflect upon her relationship with Pollock is met with evasiveness. 

 

I wouldn't know how to relate my work to Pollack’s work, work in the terms you're asking, I don't know if mine are more controlled or not. I really don’t know. 

 

Listening, you don’t get the sense she is trying to get out of answering a question because she doesn’t like what the answer is.

 

It’s more that she won’t play by the rules . She doesn’t want to comply with the narrative that she is Pollock’s anything. 

 

It’s a complete refusal to engage with the first Lee Krasner: Wife of Pollock. 

 

getting back to your relationship with Jackson Pollock and well, being in such close contact with such an obviously, you know, strong artist and one who is also so tremendously successful. And I'm wondering about the effects on that both positive and negative on your own art, Whether it was inhibiting, I imagine it was rewarding in many ways and in other ways inhibiting. Can you? 

 

I would say it was pretty much a mixed bag. You have put it. I wouldn't have missed the experience for anything. So I don't feel, you know, that it repressed me as a painter. Also, he respected me as a painter. So that was a plus sign. And I was I'm very I feel very fortunate that I was there to understand the process and watch him go through it. It gave me a lot of courage to be able to continue when I hit my lows. 

 

I'm just wondering, what specific things would you say that he fed into your art? 

 

I couldn't. 

 

You couldn't begin this in a way. 

 

I could do any more than I could say what I fed into his art. I can't do that. It was taken outside observer, and one that was awfully clear about things.

 

Okay, let's take another question here. I mean, one of the things that's often said about Abstract Expressionism is that it's ah very aggressive, mean, even terms like macho type art. And I'm wondering how you as a woman what you feel about that in relationship, the Abstract Expressionism. 

 

This is where Krasner has an opportunity to refute the second Lee Krasner: Overlooked Artist. Needless to say — she doesn’t comply. There’s no getting up on a feminist soapbox. 

 

I don't feel it's macho at all. I think it's a fantastic body of painting that came out that particular point in time and in fact, it was able to move the seat from Paris to New York. It was that potent now with regard to macho. I don't see that it's macho at all… It's good painting, and I don't define that as macho...

 

Well, let's let's flip it around. Would you say your paintings are feminine? 

 

Absolutely not. If by feminine you mean weak in some sense, I don't know. 

 

No, I don't mean in that term. 

 

Uh, well and I'm a female. I'm certainly not a male. And so if you wanted to find it would have to be called feminine, but not in the way the term has been used in the past. 16:36 So you and today, too. 

 

I mean, there's nothing in the colors that you would say is feminine or would you?

 

Not to my knowledge.

 

I can't write about or think about my own work in those terms. I don't feel, you know, that there's a difference because I'm a female. Apparently, there must be because I am female. But that doesn't take me out of the mainstream of what I'm about. 

 

In the interview, the only of the three Krasners that she lets peek through is the third — shrewd businesswoman. 

 

Miller asks if Krasner was inhibited by Pollock’s presence.  

 

Well, it inhibited in me in terms of economically very dependent on sales of his painting. In order for both of us to continue. And he was beginning to get attention. Now, remember that he was not the huge success you seem to think he was at the time he died. Economically, we were still very bad shape… We did the best we could, and I think we did fairly alright. ...our focus was right there, because if that didn't come through. Neither one of us could continue painting. And as I say, he was very supportive of my painting. So it made it possible for us to live together.  

 

There’s really no use in separating out these multiple Krasners. People HAD tried, WOULD try, and STILL try to do so. They want to package Krasner into neat profiles — like this one. 

 

But Krasner opted OUT. She knew they had their own agendas. So she practiced non compliance. 

 

Lee Krasner shunned the boxes, the -isms, the narratives that people continue to try to find her in. She didn’t want to be made sense of. She didn’t want her elements to be isolated — seen as different shapes. 

 

It seems she  wanted to be seen as the whole painting. Messy. Complex. Multidimensional. Contradictory. And everything at once. 

 

Now I know there are tons of --isms that follow me, right up to a post painterly punk and that's I told you, the village voice said. That's what I was, that I wasn't an abstract expert. Well, I don't give two hoots about whether I'm post painterly punk or Abstract Expressionist. I’m painting. That's all I know. 

 

OUTRO: This interview featured Helen Harrison, the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. Archival footage of Lee Krasner is courtesy of ART/New York. 

 

This podcast was produced for Gesso Media by Georgia Wright, and narrated by me, Henna Wang.

 

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