Do you know the work of the painter Lee Krasner? Why not? Born in 1908 into a family of Russian Jewish émigrés in New York, she was an Abstract Expressionist. Remember them? In the 1950s, they snatched the crown of Art Capital of the World from Paris single-handed. Paris has never recovered. Who were the most important of that grouping? Name them: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, with lesser males coming trooping after…
In short, not a woman in sight. Why did Lee get air-brushed out? Merit? Not really, not on the evidence of this big retrospective, which is her first substantial European outing in more than half a century… Is it perhaps because she was a woman? It does come to seem that way.
Lee’s back-story deserves to be told. She was born Lena, but preferred to adopt the more gender-fluid, androgynous moniker of Lee. In 1945 she married Jackson Pollock. Eleven years later, a hopeless alcoholic, he died in a car crash. Lee Krasner went on to work in the studio of her dead husband. That must have taken some resolve.
Her training had been fairly conventional – a few surviving self-portraits from the 1929-1930 are on the walls of this exhibition. They are painstaking and solemn, dutifully wrought. She looks miserable.
What fired her into a different kind of life as an artist? In 1937, she studied under the abstract painter Hans Hofmann. A domineering pedagogue, he would rip up his students’ work. Abstraction came to her slowly. She began to make collages which are a funny mixture of cubism, later Picasso and Michelangelo….
The paintings come to life in the 1940s. At first they are small and jumpy, consisting of tiny tesserae of colour. A little later on, they look like indecipherable writing of sorts, dense, unreadable riddlings, aerial swarmings…
The collage-paintings are her best work. The pressure of feeling drives her to make the most wonderful fabrications, fleshy, near-organic. Rending, tearing, putting things together – burlap and paper, for example, with paint added – these are the things that she tends to do best, wresting order from scraps. She’s getting her revenge on that brute Hofmann.
After Pollock’s death, she gives herself permission to work bigger and bigger. Her gestures are more out-flung, a little dressier. She goes with her flow, making it all happen without preparatory drawings of any kind. A little later still, she turns looser still, and then sparer again, less fluid, more formal, more strict…
In spite of the fact that she adored Matisse, and that the title of this exhibition shouts about colour, colour, colour, it is form that counts with her, the rhythm of the painted surface. The colours are often quite restrained.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London from 30 May until 1 September. Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin is newly published by Thames and Hudson at £12.99