The New York Times Book Review
Lee Krasner: A Biographyby Gail Levin
Perhaps best known as the long-suffering wife of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner is now, finally, being recognized as one of the 20th century’s modernist masters. In Lee Krasner, author Gail Levin gives us an engrossing biography of the painter—so memorably portrayed in the movie Pollack by actor Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Academy Award/b>/b>… See more details below
Perhaps best known as the long-suffering wife of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner is now, finally, being recognized as one of the 20th century’s modernist masters. In Lee Krasner, author Gail Levin gives us an engrossing biography of the painter—so memorably portrayed in the movie Pollack by actor Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Academy Award for her performance—a firebrand and trailblazer for women’s rights as well as an exceptional artist who led a truly fascinating life.
The New York Times Book Review
First biography of Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Jackson Pollock's wife but also a significant artist in her own right.
Levin (Art History/Baruch Coll.; Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, 2007, etc.) links Krasner's motivations and underlying themes to her Russian Jewish background, though Krasner rejected not only religion, but also nationalism and feminism. The author considered herself part of the Paris School, influenced by Matisse and Picasso, and she was a strong influence on the birth of Abstract Expressionism—even though historians often ignore her impact. Politics played a large role in her life, but she kept them separate from her art. Krasner worked for the WPA Federal Art Project through the 1930s until 1943, and though she called herself a leftist, she never became a communist, saving her from the butchery of the HUAC hearings during the '50s. When Krasner met Pollock, she was the first to recognize his genius and made sure that he lived up to her expectation that he would make art history. Her art took a back seat to his career, but she never stopped painting. Though she essentially became known just as Pollock's wife, she still promoted him, protected him, drove him and cosseted him. Krasner and Pollock were among the first to move to Long Island, where both writers and artists came together to form a colony that flourished for years. Living with Pollock was a full-time job, and it took many years before Krasner could finally throw off the comparisons of her work to his. The woman's movement finally brought recognition, but she only wanted to be known as an artist.
Levin deftly connects Krasner's biography to the social and political upheaval of the time. Her long experience in the art world gives insight into the landscape of 20th-century artists, art dealers and museums.
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Read an Excerpt
Lee KrasnerA Biography
By Gail Levin
William MorrowCopyright © 2011 Gail Levin
All right reserved.
Beyond the Pale:
A Brooklyn Childhood, 190821
Lena Krasner was born on October 27, 1908nine
months and two weeks after her mother, Chane (Anna)
Weiss Krasner, had arrived in New York from Shpikov,
a shtetl located in the southern part of the Russian region then
known as Podolia, now in central Ukraine, about thirty-five miles
south of the city of Vinnytsia. Shpikov was then part of the Pale
of Settlement, the area where the Russian Imperial government
Lena Krasner (right) and her younger sister, Ruth, posing for a snapshot on their front
stoop when they were about seven and five, wearing identical coats and boots as well as
short, cropped straight hair. Unlike their older siblings, they were so eager to be American that they hardly bothered to speak Yiddish or Russian.
Anna had sailed on a Dutch liner, the Ryndam,
out of Rotterdam and had arrived at Ellis Island on January 14,
1908, to join her husband, who had reached America in September
1905, traveling out of Liverpool, England.
In Shpikov, Jews were predominantly Hasidic, followers of
a mystical revival movement that began in eighteenth-century
Eastern Europe. Lena's father had, along with Anna, worked for
a rabbi, helping to manage ritual observances, including dietary
laws, kosher slaughtering of animals, services on religious holidays
and Sabbaths, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and circumcisions.
Joseph Krasner had left behind his wife and four surviving
children so he could earn money for their passagea strategy
that was painful, risky, and only too common among those who
wanted to flee the Russian empire in the early years of the
century. But Anna's younger unmarried brother, William Weiss,
had emigrated earlier, and his reports of life in America gave
Joseph the confidence to sail. To the Jews oppressed by the tsar,
America appeared to offer endless opportunity and the prospect
Before Joseph's departure, the entire family posed for a
photograph before a landscape backdrop. The staid adults and four
solemn children look well dressed, even eleganttypical of what a
couple would want to remember of each other while being forced
apart by the ordeal of emigration. Anna is carefully coifed and
dressed with a ruffled and belted blouse, the children neatly
accoutered and groomed, their father dressed in a modern secular
style, wearing a dapper bow tie and white collar, with no sign
of Hasidic or Orthodox garb. In the photograph, the edge of the
painted landscape is visible. This imaginary background must be
one of the first painted scenes that Lena ever saw.
The hints of prosperity visible in the photographand that it
was commissionedsuggest that poverty was not the reason the
Krasners left Russia. The motivations may have been more grave.
There was a massive flight from Eastern Europe, and especially
from Russia, around the turn of the century, when Jews suffered
anti-Semitism, oppressive taxation, and enforced conscription of
The Jewish population of Russian Podolia began to emigrate
in the aftermath of the March 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II,
which was blamed on Jews, causing anti-Jewish riots or
pogroms. Pressure to emigrate grew more urgent after the
Krasners heard the ominous news of a pogrom at Kishinev, a town in
southern Russia. In the spring of 1903, anti-Semitic propaganda
from reactionary local journalists led to bands of rioters staging
an organized attack on Jews, looting and destroying their shops
and homes while police and soldiers stationed on the streets stood
by without interfering. The next day, the looting turned to savage
violencethe police and soldiers raped women, destroyed the
local synagogue, and tortured and killed forty-nine people. Nearly
six hundred others were injured.
"There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of
Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter," the New York
Times wrote. "The mob was led by priests, and the general cry,
'Kill the Jews,' was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken
wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number
120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending
this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn
to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police
made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets
were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make
their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted
The Krasners did not need much more to imagine that this
could happen elsewhere, including Shpikov. Just after Joseph left
for America, a new wave of anti-Jewish pogroms swept the Pale
of Settlement. In response to the pogroms, Tsar Nicholas II issued
the October Manifesto in 1905, which granted fundamental civil
rights and political liberties to Jews, which in turn sparked ethnic
and political tensions and hostilities that exacerbated popular
unrest. Pogroms were directed not only at Jews but also at students,
intellectuals, and other minorities. In Odessa alone, at least 400
Jews and 100 non-Jews were killed and approximately 300 people,
mostly Jews, were injured. Many Jewish homes and stores also
suffered damage. Anna, alone with the children and eager to join
Joseph, must have anxiously waited for him to send her enough
money to escape. When Joseph arrived in America, he was among
the thousands of Jews (77,544 in 1904 alone, almost double the
number that fled in 1902) who left Russia at this time for the
New World, many in response to the Kishinev pogrom. The
imompetus for Jews to flee the Russian empire had only intensified by
the time Anna and the children were able to join Joseph.
The desire for freedom had already inspired some Jews to
promote socialist revolution. Jewish socialists stressed that social
justice had a tradition in their religion: the moral commandments
of the Torah (the five books of Moses read each year from
start to finish) and the Talmud (authoritative body of law and
commentary), and the customs of tsedaka or righteousness and
justice toward others, community responsibility, and mutual aid.
The radicals, who joined an underground labor movement that
organized massive strikes, also took the innovative step of praising
women as comrades and intellectual equals. These actions were in
sharp contrast to traditional Jewish men, who reinforced ancient
customs that seemed misogynistic to many women.
As conditions deteriorated in Russia, some Jews became fixed
on the idea of finding a Jewish homeland, but many like the
Krasners turned to America, though even there asylum was far from
settled. Prejudice toward the new Jewish immigrants meant that
a family like the Krasners had to struggle to earn a living, educate
their children, and obtain an improved standard of living.
At the time, controversy about the massive numbers of Jewish
immigrants from Eastern Europe and about the issue of race itself
pervaded American society. President Theodore Roosevelt had
even been criticized for asking the African American educator
and author Booker T. Washington to the White House for lunch.
The problem of what it meant to be Jewish in America and in
the world at that time concerned United States Senator Simon
Guggenheim of Colorado (the son of a Swiss-Jewish immigrant
peddler). He asked that "the Immigration Commission cease to
classify the Jews as a race," opposing W. W. Husband, secretary of
the Immigration Commission, who wanted census enumerators to
classify Jews as a race. "The Jew is a native of the country in which
he is born, and a citizen of the country to which he swears
allegiance," argued Rabbi T. Schanferber. "We are only differentiated
from others as respects religious beliefs."
"It is a great question as to whether there is such a thing as a Jewish people,"
the noted rabbi Dr. Emil G. Hirsch agreed, saying. "Our blood is mixed
with that of almost every other nationality."
Others such as Rabbi Leon Harrisson of St. Louis, who had
a specific problem with intermarriage, took issue with this point
of view. In a 1909 speech in New York, he said, "History and
experience have shown us that unless we keep our race separate
from others our religion also will soon cease to be . . . diluted to
At the same time, popular accounts of work by a Harvard
professor, William Z. Ripley, warned in "Future Americans Will
Be Swarthy" that "racial heterogeneity, due to the direct influx of
foreigners in large numbers, is aggravated by their relatively high
rate of reproduction after arrival, and, in many instances, by their
surprisingly sustained tenacity of life, greatly exceeding that of the
Surrounded by these conflicts over the meanings of race and
religion, a highly vocal and visible fraction of Jewish immigrants
put forward their belief in social justice and political reform.
They found in America such harsh working conditions that they
felt compelled to continue the struggles begun in Europe, often
becoming strike leaders and union organizers. This kind of Jewish
militancy no doubt reflected disillusion with the stories of
a better life in America. At the time of Krasner's birth, United
Hebrew Charities, led by Jacob H. Schiff, tried to raise funds to
support the Jewish poor, especially some of the more than 170,000
immigrants who had arrived in two fiscal years. He spoke of "a
condition of unparalleled distress" during a year of "financial and
industrial depression" and declared that "the Jewish community
was not doing its duty."
Impoverished and often radicalized Jewish immigrants
thronged the Krasners' Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Lena's birth just over nine months after her mother's landing
provided the reunited family with a child who was by law immediately
a citizen of their adopted country. Her father was thirty-seven
and her mother was twenty-eight.
At the time of their arrival in America, Krasner's four siblings
included three sistersIdes (also known as Ida, later changed to
Edith) aged fourteen, Esther (Ester, later changed to Estelle) aged
nine, and Rose (also known as Rosie) aged sixas well as one
older brother, Isak (also know as Isadore or Izzy, later changed to
Irving), who was then eleven. A fourth sister, Riva, had died in
Shpikov when she was just three or four years old. Isak's situation
had been especially precarious in the Old World because he was
nearly the age when military conscription took Jewish sons away
from their parents, often for periods of up to twenty-five years.
Many times the children were as young as twelve. The outbreak
of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 had put Isak at greater risk.
Though Joseph was an Orthodox Jew, he had not followed
the Hasidism of many of his neighbors in Shpikov. Instead of
their search for spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism, he
favored the disciplined study of religious texts. Among the
Orthodox, the most prestigious life for any man was to be a religious
scholar. Women were excluded from such scholarly circles and
expected to serve their families as both homemakers and
bread-winners, enabling their husbands to devote themselves to study.
New World realities tempered that tradition in many immigrant
households, including the Krasners', although Joseph was said to
be sensitive and introspective.
Their father was greatly loved by his children, and Lena adored
him, even though, according to her, "he was very remote." She
loved to hear him tell stories to her and her siblings: "Marvelous
tales! About forests. Beautiful, beautiful stories, always like
Grimm. Scary things. The sleighs in winter going out with the
dogs, and there would always be someone standing in the road to
stop them. The forest, and always the snow, and sleighs. A foreign
world to me." These stories of romance and of life in the Russian
empire entered into the children's collective memory. Lena liked to
snuggle up close to her father and listen. She felt afraid of the dark
and remained so all her life.
Her father's stories fueled her imagination. He spoke of his
mother Pesa's magic. Just before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement),
the shtetl neighbors visited the old woman and asked her
to perform the folk ritual known as shlogn kapores, which involved
her waving a chicken over the head of someone who wanted this
act to transfer their sins to the fowlthree waves of a hen for
women and one wave of a rooster for men. Afterward the
applicant, now sin-free, hoped to be inscribed in the metaphorical
"Book of Life" for the coming year. Shlogn kapores, opposed by
various rabbinical authorities since the Middle Ages, continues to
exist among some Orthodox Jews as a folk practice.
Lena particularly cherished the story about her father's old
aunt, said to have come from the city to the shtetl in the forest to
help celebrate her parents' wedding. The aunt was so significant
that "the bridal couple had to give up their bed to her. She was
tough, dominant and nearly immortal. When she died at 103, she
had outlived four husbands." Krasner's memory of the aunt as
"tough" and indomitable mirrors how she liked to think of herself
later in life.
As an adult, Krasner remembered that when she was about five
years old, she was alone in their home's dark hall when something
that was "half man, half beast" seemed to vault the banister and
land on the floor by her side. She cried outa childhood enigma
that resurfaced during psychoanalysis and made its way into a
painting. Though we know that the adult Krasner remained
traumatized by this early experience, she did not elaborate on
what sort of monster she experienced. Though she picked up her
mother's fears and superstitions, Krasner longed to be strong like
her legendary great-aunt and adopted that persona whenever she
Joseph's religious books with their elaborate decorations and
Hebrew script also fascinated little Lena. There were also
newspapers in Yiddish, a Germanic vernacular language that utilized
Hebrew letters. Lena started Hebrew school when she was about
five years old, but instruction focused on shaping letters instead of
thoughts: "I learned to write but I couldn't read it. . . . Visually I
loved it. I didn't know what it meant. What they're teaching, they
will saythey'll give you the alphabet, identify itI could
follow that to a certain point. What I couldn't follow was actually
reading. I was slow there, if you will. So that visually I could stay
Excerpted from Lee Krasner by Gail Levin Copyright © 2011 by Gail Levin. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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