Lee Krasner was a first-generation abstract expressionist and a pioneering woman artist. She was also married to Jackson Pollock. Normally these sentences are reversed and the Pollock link is to the forefront of any introduction to Krasner. This biography redresses the balance and puts Krasner at the centre of her own life, something Krasner herself often failed to do as she acted as her husband’s champion and protector and, later, as custodian of his estate.
Krasner was born Lena Krassner in 1908 in Brooklyn, just a few months after her Russian-émigré parents arrived in the US. As a working-class, female Jew, Krasner showed considerable tenacity overcoming early obstacles. More than most artists of the period, she had first-hand experience of all the touchstones of the New York School. She studied at Cooper Union, then the National Academy. Afterwards, she won a scholarship to Hans Hofmann’s school and survived his erratic and sometimes harsh tutorship. She debated and danced with colleagues at the Artists Union, rubbing shoulders with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning.
She signed on and met her quotas at the WPA (Works Progress Administration: the New Deal project employing artists during the Depression), where she was radicalised and became a vigorous campaigner for labour-union rights. Her combative independence, strong will and impressive adaptability was suited to—and forged by—this environment of passionate debate and exchange in the bars, lofts and picket lines of 1930s and 1940s New York.
When she and Pollock met in 1941 they were equals in a group show—both were progressive modernist painters. But as the partnership became more established, Krasner spent less time painting and more nursing Pollock’s hangovers, hustling patrons and courting critics, allowing him to function as a man and grow as an artist.
The personal and artistic cost to Krasner was tremendous—but so were the rewards. When she became the gatekeeper of Pollock’s estate following his death in a car crash in 1956, Pollock’s prices gave her the security to paint in comfort.
Gail Levin undermines unfounded inferences that Krasner was promiscuous and a Communist (she was never a party member). She is insightful on the influence of Krasner’s (undiagnosed) dyslexia and Hebrew’s right-to-left script. This complex portrait is candid and respectful, showing all its subject’s contradictory aspects.
But what of Krasner the artist? Her stock is rising and no authoritative account of abstract expressionism can now exclude her. Her early work is bold and satisfying. She was not always original but her art was always worth taking seriously. Levin’s book is slightly light on detailed analysis of specific pictures, especially the late work. But this is often the case with accounts of long lives. (Krasner died aged 75 as her much-delayed retrospective toured America.) It is as if all the dense scene-setting and uncovering of background data exhausts biographers and the years of recognition become trawls of familiar newspaper cuttings and interviews. Perhaps this is unfair. There is many an artist whose late life actually is an uneventful and disjointed affair, after all.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'At the centre of her own life, for once'