Lee Krasner, Living Colour, Barbican London, to 1 September 2019, explores the vast range of Krasner’s work.
Covering two floors, the exhibition explores Krasner’s artistic development from painting in oils as a teenager, to her re-working of the figurative form through life drawing; including collage – where she repurposed ripped up shreds of old work to create new intense pieces, and of course, the abstract expressionist works she is best known for.
Little Images were painted when she broke free of an artistic impasse following her father’s death, which had seen her paint only ‘grey slabs’ for three years. These are thickly spread, fleshy paintings that glisten like tar on a hot road, which shimmer and pulse in front of your eyes. Musical: you can almost hear the vibrations.
Krasner famously said ‘Don’t trust me with my work’ as her work was destroyed a few times in her lifetime. A fire at her parent’s home destroyed most of her early work. There are four self-portraits here which show a prodigious talent, an individual with a strong eye and character.
The fourth of five children, she grew up in Brooklyn, in a household where no-one in her family was an artist, but from an early age she knew that’s what she wanted to be. At 14 she applied to Washington Irving High, the only school in New York to offer an art course for girls. She went on to study at the National Academy of Design and then under Hans Hofmann (regarded as one of the most influential art teachers of the 20th century and is considered to have both preceded and influenced Abstract Expressionism). Hoffman told Krasner in a barbed – and rare – compliment that her work was so good, ‘you would not know it was done by a woman’.
The next time Krasner’s work was destroyed was by her own hand. Collages exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1955 were made from paintings that Krasner had ripped up after becoming angry at her work. Later, when she returned to the studio, she looked at the shreds and found ‘a lot of things there that began to interest me’. These were well received critically, but her painting had moved in a different direction. She had started Prophesy in 1956. A new form of figurative painting which seems to encompass pain, wounds, screaming, was emerging, which she said ‘disturbed me enormously’. She asked Pollock about it before she left for Europe and he told her to continue with it. She left it unfinished before her trip and it was on her easel when she returned home after Pollock’s death in a car crash that summer.
Night Journeys, Krasner’s large abstracts painted now she had the physical space for large canvases, having moved into Pollocks barn studio. These were done during bouts of insomnia and a tumultuous period in her life, post Pollock, the death of her mother, and a withdrawn show after the influential art critic Clement Greenberg cancelled the exhibition, not liking the new work.
Olympic, with it’s clear lines, muted colour and meditative feel suggests that Krasner was at the top of her game as she reached later life, and the bold strikes of colour in Palingenesis and the title suggest coming full circle, re-birth, completeness.
The final re-working of Krasner’s work came in the 1974. Krasner found an old portfolio of hew work from her time with Hofmann. Photographed by fellow Hofmann student, designer Ray Eames, she cut up the drawings to create new work which was exhibited at Pace Gallery in 1977. These works have a dynamic and exciting feel to them, and the entire exhibition feels like an exhilarating rush through creative process.
[Featured image: Lee Krasner Palingenesis 1971 Pollock-Krasner Foundation]
Lee Krasner: Living Colour, Barbican Art Gallery, 30 May – 1 September 2019.