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.
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.
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.