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Lee Krasner (1908-1984)

Hieroglyphics No.2, 1969 gouache and wash on paper...

Hieroglyphics No.2, 1969
gouache and wash on paper
16 3/4" x 13 1/4", signed


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“I never violate an inner rhythm. I loathe to force anything. I don’t know if the inner rhythm is eastern of western.  I know it is essential for me. I listen to it and I stay with it. I have always been this way, I have regards for the inner voice.”[1]

Lee Krasner was born Lena Krassner in 1908 to parents who had emigrated from Russia to Brooklyn. In 1928, she studied at the Art Students League, and in 1929, after graduating from the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union, she enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design, where she studied until 1932. Although Krasner received excellent technical training at the Academy, she found the conservative atmosphere stifling, and she was often in conflict with her teachers. Krasner continued her education afterwards, taking courses at City College while supporting herself as a model and waitress. In 1934, she joined the Federal Art Project of the WPA and was quickly promoted to supervisor within the mural division. In 1937, Krasner decided to study with Hans Hofmann at the Hofmann School of Art, which had relocated from Munich to his New York studio. Hofmann encouraged Krasner to jettison the naturalist tendencies acquired in her earlier schooling, and she underwent a radical change of style, rapidly developing an abstract vocabulary and producing cubist-inspired compositions that featured bold geometric forms outlined in black and filled with bright colors. In the 1940s, Krasner pursued her passion for abstraction further, joining the American Abstract Artists (AAA), with whom she exhibited regularly. She had met Jackson Pollock briefly in 1936, but they did not get to know each other until 1941, when Krasner arrived at his studio to see the work of this AAA member with whom she was unfamiliar. His paintings impressed her, and the two artists began a romantic relationship. In 1945, they married and moved to East Hampton.

Pollock’s art and methods of working had a profound affect on Krasner, but his influence never obscured her own vision, nor did it go unreciprocated. As Pollock’s work increased in scale, Krasner devised a different approach to freeing herself from easel painting. In 1945, she began her “Little Image” works, “intimate paintings, rich in surface texture, often loosely structured in a grid yet full of energy and improvisation,” and featuring calligraphic forms.[2] Krasner’s mastery of composition—of a painting’s structure—had an important impact on Pollock’s artwork, as did her maturity as an artist, a trait evident in her willingness to reevaluate and rework earlier paintings. While he taught her the spontaneity that came with “action painting,” she showed him how to focus that freedom into a disciplined and potent composition. In the following decade, Krasner finally began to receive recognition from the New York art world as an artist in her own right.

In 1955, Krasner had a break-through exhibition when the Stable Gallery showed a series of collage paintings that contained the destroyed and revised remnants of earlier works. However, as her career began to rise, Pollock’s started to decline, and he began drinking heavily. In 1956, when Krasner was in Paris, Pollock was killed in a car crash on Long Island. Stricken with feelings of grief and guilt, Krasner worked in Pollock’s old barn studio creating a series of autobiographical paintings. Using whole-body gestures, Krasner “poured out her feelings of loss in explosive bursts of sienna, umber and white.”[3] In 1962, a brain aneurysm almost killed her, and she spent the next two years recovering. In 1965, the Whitechapel Gallery in London became the first museum to mount a major retrospective of Krasner’s work, and by that time, she had returned to a brighter palette, “painting lushly colored, sharply focused, emblematic floral forms.”[4] In the late 1970s, she embarked on a series of collage works, Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See (1976-1977), “this time using the medium to reflect directly upon her past,”[5] by cutting up old drawings that she used as compositional elements in new paintings, in ways similar to what she had done in the 1950s. In 1984, a full-scale retrospective of her career opened at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and traveled to various venues, including MoMA, making Krasner the first woman to have a retrospective there.

Krasner’s generosity as an artist extended beyond her death. In her will, she provided for the establishment of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, created in 1985 with “the sole purpose of providing financial assistance to individual artists of established ability” in need, worldwide.[6] The Pollock-Krasner Foundation also honors lifetime achievement with the Lee Krasner Awards, which are “based on the same criteria as all regular Pollock-Krasner grants, but are given [as] a tribute to and recognition of artists with long and distinguished careers.” Past recipients include Nancy Grossman, Ibram Lassaw, and Charles Seliger.[7]

[1] Lee Krasner Art Quotes,” The Painter’s Keys, (accessed July 2009).

[2] Robert G. Edelman, “Krasner’s ‘Little Image’ Paintings,” (accessed February 2009).

[3] Ellen Landau, “Lee Krasner” Joan Marter, ed., Grove Encyclopedia of American Art Volume 1 (Oxford University Press, 2011), 75

[4] Landau, 75.

[5] Landau, 75.

[6] Pollock-Krasner Foundation. (Accessed November 2012).

[7] Pollock-Krasner Foundation. (Accessed November 2012).