Yesterday I visit the Barbican to go and see the inspiring Lee Krasner’s work. I had not discovered her own work before and simply knew of her existence in the art world via her husband, the infamous Jackson Pollock.
I was inspired by her witty attitude and her deep connection to the world, her art and herself. Being an artist in her era was a difficult pursuit. She mentions in an interview in the last 80s that compliments about her artwork were often backhanded such as ” that is such a good painting you wouldn’t know it was painted by a woman!”. Krasner was one of the first abstract artists in New York. As an artist from the age of 14, going against the expectation of her Jewish backgrounds, she was a modern artist post-war, her religious background makes this all the more groundbreaking at the time of hideous prejudice and concentration camps.
“I was a woman, Jewish, a widow. A damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent”
Krasner lived and breathed her artwork. She saw her art as part of her, part of life, part of everything. This inspired me hugely and made the artwork all the more magical to me.
“Painting is not separate from life, it is one. It is like asking do I want to live and the answer is yes, I paint.”
She refused to develop a signature image as a painter, she believed that would make her work rigid rather than alive. I was amazed by her profound attachment to all of her work and how she wanted it to ebb and flow with the changes of her life and herself, thus making the artwork all the more personal. This to me adds more value than any price tag.
She had a difficult time first getting into the art world and claims she created nothing but grey mass for three years after her father died before something came through.
Krasner believed a painting could be large with almost no impact and also small with loads. In the little images series she uses a pallet knife on linen canvas, this gave it much texture and depth which I loved and felt made the artwork feel alive.
Stop and Go
I loved this particular piece because I can clearly see, as an illustrator, how she has interpreted the stop and go the movement and the still.
Stop being represented in the static square shapes, Go being represented in the triangular shapes that represent movement through whichever way it is pointing. The contrast of these two shapes with both deep blacks and bright colours creates texture and further emphasises the life of the painting. Being painted upon a circular plane also helps the image to, as a whole, be static and bring the focus of one’s eye inward. The circular shape also reminded me of a stop sign, referring back to the title of the piece. I found this artwork very clever and is easily one of my favourite in the exhibition.
I found her as a rather inspiring gender-bending artist, playing with the concept of gender helped me see she was way ahead of her time. The self-portraits that she painting in the 1920s when a student, presents herself as both a soft feminine character and a powerful masculine one too. Krasner was a rebellious student, not conforming with the fine art world. This reminds me of myself and my issues with fine art in school.
This leads me to talk about her life drawings. I could see the influence of her idols, Picasso and Mattisse. Through experimenting with cubism and the female form, she used a Conte crayon to represent masculinity throughout. The observed shapes in the female form made me feel empowered and I found the artwork rather feminist, beauty through originality and uniqueness, rather than perfection.
War Service Window Displays
When asked to create some artwork for buildings across New York during the second world war. Krasner didn’t fail to add her unique edge, depicting females as many important roles within the war which was not the norm at the time. I was surprised at how modern and ahead of her time the graphics were. I loved the typography and collage styled imagery. The work represented a protest against the war at the time which is not surprising regarding her Jewish background.
“I am not to be trusted around my old work for any length of time”
This comment by Krasner is relatable to me as an artist as I find with many creatives, as you grow and improve looking back at old work can be frustrating and you can be your own worst critic. When working on a collection Krasner walked into her studio one evening and decided she ‘despised it all’ tearing up her own work throwing it amongst the studio floor. This shows to me how emotionally invested she was in her work.
Several days later, Krasner entered her studio again and found herself inspired by the ripped up artwork sprayed amongst the floor of the studio. She then began to create artwork out of the broken pieces. These came out as organic colour pallete with emotive names such as ‘Burning Candles’ and ‘Shattered Light’.
She then worked on adding colour, I saw in these the influence of Matisse. The mixture of materials helped present layers within the collage paintings.
“With colour one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft”Mattisse
At the age of 47, Lee Krasner found herself widowed. During her grief, she continued painting to many people’s surprise. Her series of artworks at this time changed dramatically, saying herself that she was massively disturbed by the paintings. I can see the dark phycological forces within the artwork, soft colours against deep blacks. The artwork depicted rather observed body imagery looking distorted, which shadows the death of her husband in a car crash. The names of her artworks at this time were; Birth, Prophecy, Embrace and Three in two. Three in two to me mirrors the fact that there were three people in the car crash that killed Pollock, One being a lover of his that survived and another being a friend who also died.
In the next few years of Krasners career, she had chronic insomnia, thus meaning she often painted at night. This series had a lot less colour than anything before and represented a similar earth tone pallete that pollock was famous for. The lack of colour screamed her pain to me and really, saddened me. There were strong brush stokes and the artwork she created was much larger scaled than before. Krasner was able to create bigger pieces as she bravely decided to use Pollock’s studio despite the painful memories it held.
In the 60s and the movements at the time, Krasner allowed colour back into her artwork. She never made preparatory sketches and simply let the art come out of her, in order to give the painting a real living feeling.
“I emerged again into the light and colour. I think that’s like life.”