Lee Krasner (1908 - 1984) was an influential American painter among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists known as the New York School. Not only is she an iconoclast by being a part of this vanguard movement in American art, she is doubly so, as the movement was at first a kind of men's club. For this reason I have mad respect for both her and her artwork. She is one of the few women artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, held posthumously in 2008.
Krasner was born in Brooklyn, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia in Odessa. Growing up, she had little interest in Judaism, as she could not accept or understand the way the faith minimalized and marginalized women. Soon she announced to her parents that she was done with religion, and enrolled herself in a secular public high school. Born Lena Krasner, she decided to call herself by the more gentile sounding name, Lenore.
After high school, Krasner moved on to study art at Cooper Union. At Cooper Union, men and women were strictly segregated, even entering the building through separate entrances. Outside of a few female instructors in interior and fashion design, the faculty was entirely male. While at Cooper Union, Krasner grew tired of the name Lenore and once again changed it, to the more androgynous sounding Lee, so that those looking at her artwork would not know if she was a man or woman. Cooper Union was not a pleasant experience for Krasner, and she decided to enroll at the National Academy of Art. To gain admittance, she began working on an large self-portrait, facilitated by a mirror which she nailed to a tree outside her parent's modest home on Long Island. The National Academy of Art accepted her for a free seven month period.
Soon after arriving, Krasner found life at the National Academy not much better than at Cooper Union. At the Academy, fish were kept in the basement for still life paintings, but women were not allowed downstairs. Krasner described the faculty as being “worried by the French,” and as being stuck in the old, traditionalist ways. Her report card read, “This student is always a bother . . . insists upon having her own way despite school rules.” Despite the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show, where European avant-garde art was first introduced, American art remained in long isolation. Later, with the influx of European artists immigrating to America to escape the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, things would change very quickly. Meanwhile, in 1928, the students at the National Academy of Art were getting their first glimpse of French Impressionist work, some 60 years after the movement had began! Krasner and her classmate's work shifted direction in dramatic fashion. Disgusted by the “new” art, one instructor even hurled his brushes against the wall, shouting, “I can't teach you people anything!” Later, Krasner would describe the effect Impressionist paintings had on her, saying, “Seeing those French paintings stirred my anger against any form of provincialism.”
From 1935 to 1943, Krasner worked on the WPA Federal Art Project, in the Mural Arts Division. She met Jackson Pollock for the first time at an Artists Union dance in 1936. Her first impression of him was not great. Deeply inebriated, he cut in on her dance partner, only to ask, “Do you like to fuck?” Krasner was fired and rehired from the Federal Art Project, and then permanently let go, when a policy of terminating everyone who had worked more than 18 months was enacted. Shortly thereafter, she was dumped by her boyfriend though the mail. Finding herself in a low point in her life, she moved to a cheaper apartment, where she would write on the wall Rimbaud's words:
To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I maintain? In what blood must I walk?
Starting in 1937, Krasner took courses from the German emigre Hans Hofmann, who taught the principles of Cubism. Hofmann was impressed with Krasner's work, saying, “This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman." Nevertheless, Hofmann would be a big influence on Krasner's work. In 1940, she started showing her new abstract work with the American Abstract Artists group, and in 1942, she met Pollock again, under better circumstances, as they were both preparing to exhibit their work in the same show. Krasner and Pollock would later marry in 1945.
While Krasner would continue her own work in her own studio, she dedicated a lot her time promoting Pollock's work. It could be argued that Pollock would not have been as much of a success in the art world without Krasner's support. Artistically, Krasner and Pollock treated each other as equals, and she would lend her critical eye by helping Pollock develop his work. They would also give each other reassurance and support in the early days, when neither of their work was well-appreciated. Krasner's marriage to Pollock, while it did have its peaceful times, would become strained due to Pollock's troubles and alcoholism. Their marriage would come to an abrupt end in 1956, when Pollock died in an alcohol related single car crash.
After Pollock's death, Krasner had a difficult time getting her work shown. “People treated me as Pollock's wife, not as a painter,” she said in an 1981 interview. “Someone like (Clement) Greenberg, because I didn't hand over to him the Pollock estate, did his job well to make sure I didn't come through as a painter. He had power.” Although Greenberg had been closely acquainted with Krasner for decades – he even met Pollock through her – he never once wrote a word in support of her art. Krasner would often cut apart her own drawings and paintings to create collages, and, at times revised and discarded entire series of work. As a result, her surviving body of work is quite small.
After Krasner's death in 1981, her East Hampton property became the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio. It is now open to the public. In 1985, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established, functioning as the official Estate for both Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. As stated in her will, the foundation serves “to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need.”