The Irrepressible Emotion of Lee Krasner

The 20th-century painter is celebrated in a spectacular London retrospective that exposes the fullness of her career for the first time.

Shattered Light (1954) (The Pollock-Krasner Foundation)

In 1959, Lee Krasner was in crisis. She was still mourning her husband—who’d died in a car crash three years earlier—when her mother died, compounding her grief. An exhibition of her work planned by the critic Clement Greenberg had been canceled when Greenberg decided he didn’t appreciate her newer paintings. Plagued by insomnia, Krasner began painting at night in her husband’s old studio, and since she disliked working with color under artificial light, she used only shades of umber and white.

The paintings Krasner made during this period, described by her friend Richard Howard as her “Night Journeys,” are extraordinary. The confinement of her color palette is coupled with a wild range of motion and space, in works that erupt with feeling. The Eye Is the First Circle, completed in 1960 and named after an Emerson quote, is a tempest that engulfs the viewer in chaotic, feathery strokes, a 16-foot-wide sweep of circular emotion. Krasner’s grief, her rage, her power, are all contained within the canvas, layered in jagged streaks of dark brown and daubs of white. Her state of mind is locked in paint, but seeps outward.

The Eye is the first circle (1960) Pollock-krasner foundation

Lee Krasner: Living Colour, an exhibition currently on display at London’s Barbican Centre, is the first major European presentation of Krasner’s work in more than half a century. This fact itself, the show makes clear, is astonishing. Krasner, one of a number of neglected female 20th-century artists finally getting the attention they deserve, is among the greatest expressionists of her era, rendering a breadth of emotion in abstract swoops and shards of color. Her resistance to a unifying style of painting, her enduring reputation not as an artist but as the wife of Jackson Pollock, and the obdurate sexism of the art establishment have all contributed to her work being sidelined. But to see so much of it in one space—nearly 100 individual pieces spanning 50 years—is to see an artist imposing harmony on the world, balancing the organic with the artificial, order with chaos, destruction with reinvention.

lee krasner in 1938 (photographer unknown)

Part of the exhilaration of the Barbican show also comes from witnessing the pivotal moments in Krasner’s career, and the breakthroughs in technique that sparked her most fertile periods. Born in Brooklyn in 1908, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she tweaked her style as consistently as she edited her name, changing from “Lena” to “Lenore” to “Lee,” and streamlining “Krassner” to “Krasner” because, she once said, “that was enough writing to do.” In 1932, in the midst of the Depression, Krasner studied life drawing under the painter Job Goodman, making crayon studies that were elegant but almost obscenely muscular, capturing the human body in ripples and swells of sinew. By 1937 she was a scholar of Hans Hofmann, the German modernist who introduced Krasner to cubism. His tutelage sparked a loosening in her style, a shift from subdued study to spiky shapes in frenzied scribbles.

Another breakthrough came in 1945, after Krasner had married Pollock and helped introduce him to the principles of modernist painting. At the couple’s farmhouse in Springs, Long Island, Krasner began to craft her “Little Images,” hieroglyphic works in which recurring patterns peek through dark slabs of paint. Untitled (1947) is a playful riot suggesting butterfly wings and candy wrappers; Mosaic Table, which Krasner made at Pollock’s urging to help furnish their home, is a kaleidoscope of colored shapes set in cement that evokes one of Krasner’s most revered artists, Henri Matisse.

Bald Eagle (1955) Pollock-krasner foundation

Failure, for Krasner, sometimes sparked her most significant revelations. Her first works of collage, crafted from torn-up shreds of paper and sackcloth, came after Krasner, in an orgiastic wave of self-pity after an unsuccessful show, ripped up every drawing in her studio. This cycle of annihilation and renewal would recur for the rest of her career. Krasner’s collages layer fragments of paper and strokes of paint together in a kind of intentional disorder. Untitled (1954) suggests water with its veins of royal blue and pastel yellow. Bald Eagle (1955) is a bolder confluence of pink and orange, with birdlike shreds of paper and dark blotches.

Again and again, she experimented, rejecting any signature technique or method. In 1956, as Pollock was drinking heavily and declining to paint, she made Prophecy, an alarmingly figurative work set against a black backdrop, which suggests the shape of a woman stretched into balloon-like segments, pink and pendulous. There are visible red smudges across the work. Krasner described it as “fraught with foreboding.” A month or so later, while she was in Paris, Pollock was killed in a car crash (his mistress, who was also in the vehicle, survived). Krasner came home, and she painted. “Painting is not separate from life,” she said at the time. “It is one. It is like asking—do I want to live? My answer is yes—and I paint.”

three in two (1959) pollock-krasner foundation

Immediately after Pollock’s death, Krasner made three more paintings similar to Prophecy—works in which accumulations of body parts seem to cluster together in chaos. Flesh tones and drips of pink paint surround circular eyes dotted around the canvas. In Three in Two (1956), for instance, slashes of crimson paint at the top of the frame suggest wounds and blood. By the following year, Krasner had abandoned color for her “Night Journeys,” the kineticism of which conveys a kind of feeling that’s less raw, but more intense. The eroticized pinks and reds have made way for sludgier tones, but the energy Krasner gives her brushstrokes and spatters suggests a woman who is surrendering to something and conquering it all at the same time.

It’s this primacy of feeling, and the constant duality of opposing forces balancing each other out, that make her work so spectacular to behold. Her colossal canvases sweep spectators into their undulating curves and depths of color. And the elements that recur throughout her career—shapes and rudimentary symbols, the contrast of line and loop, the triumph of negative space—imply that Krasner, as an artist, is always in control. Newer works cannibalize old ones; reinvention overpowers consistency. Her subject matter is herself, and her career is defined by outbursts of brazen force and emotive intensity.