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Lee Krasner occupies a special place in the history of Abstract Expressionism. The only major female in a group of artists known for their misogyny, she offers a welcome antidote to their macho-oriented individuality. Much of her work provides a feminist critique of Abstract Expressionism in particular and the male ego in general. Whereas many of the Abstract Expressionists suffered bitterly in the course of their individual quests—several were diagnosed alcoholics and at least two committed suicide—Krasner tended to thrive on adversity. Rather than viewing herself and her art as autonomous, she approached her work as a profoundly important forum for dealing with ideas about the self, nature, and modern life.
Krasner's friend John Graham once wrote, "Starting a painting is starting an argument in terms of canvas and paint." Taking Graham a step further, she turned the process of painting into an intense debate with herself and with other artists. She took her aesthetic cues from the male Abstract Expressionists, but in many cases she used her work to counter their artistic assertions. Her many statements about her life with Jackson Pollock and her indebtedness to his style indicate that Krasner never admitted, even to herself, that she had challenged and eventually abandoned him. Her sense of honor demanded that she play the role of devoted wife and faithful disciple, but what she could not admit verbally she expressed in her art. Her work vividly chronicles her initial reassessment of Pollock's art and her later critique of aspects of Abstract Expressionism in general. Beginning with her last group of Little Images and continuing, more radically, in herfirst black-and-white collages, Krasner evaluated Pollock's late work and found it lacking in intellectual rigor. She continued this critique when she cut up Pollock's abandoned paint-spattered canvases and used them in several collages. Although this act might be viewed as a commendable reclamation, it was also an act of aggression, given Pollock's inactivity and deeply depressed state. For Krasner this mode of working was productive since it enabled her to acknowledge and redirect the self-destructive forces in her own nature.
Like many creative individuals, Krasner tended to be inconsistent, and critics have come to radically different conclusions about her—some declaring that she was independent, others that she was dependent; some declaring that she needed to control, others that she desired to be controlled. Krasner was capable of continuing feuds for decades, but she could also inspire and maintain significant friendships throughout her life. Intelligent and well-read, she worried if she did not "forget enough" so that the ideas she encountered could later be absorbed into her own art. Her long-term friend John Bernard Myers succinctly summed up her appeal to a variety of people in terms of "her wild gaiety" and her "sense of humor that was irresistible and irrepressible."
Physically, Krasner embodied some of the same contradictions that were part of her personality. Her facial features were too strong to be considered conventionally attractive (even Pollock denigrated her appearance on a number of occasions), but she had such a beautiful body that she worked as a model at the Art Students League and as a fashion designer's model. Lillian Olinsey, a friend from the Hofmann School of Fine Arts, remembers being initially impressed, in 1937, with Krasner's sensuousness, recalling her as "both attractive and repulsive, a very striking individual . . . and a great presence."
Krasner no doubt used her art as a way to resolve the various contradictions in herself. She was involved in a relentless search that entailed cycles of both creative and destructive periods. Because Krasner worked only when inspired, she was subject to long periods of inactivity followed by intensely productive times when she let go of everything in order to follow her inspiration. Sometimes she would stop for months and then begin again by cutting up old paintings and using them to create new collages.
Given the number of different approaches that Krasner used in her art, she sometimes appeared to be unsure of her direction. But when one considers the quality of the works themselves and their relationship to the styles she was critiquing, her series of changes was fully justified. In the 1940s she was learning to value her intuition as a worthwhile source for her art. After coming to terms with this aspect of herself, she carried on an aesthetic conversation with the other Abstract Expressionists during the 1950s. To the formalist art of the 1960s and early 1970s, she brought a wealth of experience, a wide emotional range, and an ability to play with formal elements and at the same time deal with profoundly important metaphors. Later she developed many of the tactics of the postmodernists, who were emphasizing the problems inherent in art as a mode of communication. Although always an Abstract Expressionist, she carried on a dialogue with a number of new styles. In this respect she learned from Pablo Picasso, who played with both past and present art as sources. But unlike Picasso, who comprehended the complexities of his aesthetic games and enjoyed them immensely, Krasner distrusted her own intelligence. In her art she attempted instead to trust her unconscious to lead her to what she regarded as true feelings rather than socially conditioned responses.
The abrupt changes in Krasner's style, coupled with her consistently voiced adulation of Pollock's paintings and touch criticism of her own work, were probably responsible for delaying the critical acceptance of her art. Slights and perceived injustices from critics tended to make her furious, but she transformed her anger into astute critiques of the art theories promoted by those who infuriated her. Her fights with the two major critics of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, and her predilection for speaking her mind made her a force to be reckoned with, and often avoided. But as she told the critic Barbara Cavaliere in 1980: "Not having been a giant success in my life has been, in the end, a blessing. I can afford now to do as I wish. . . . So I'd like to take advantage of the situation and not predict what my next paintings will be."
"I Am Nature"
Collages and Other Conversations
Change Is the Only Constant
Notes on Technique