Lee Krasner, Combat, 1965 (detail) from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Lee Krasner: Two Masterpieces
by Boris Cornelissen | 30 June 2020
Being the home to one of Jackson Pollock’s masterpieces, it is easy to forget about the two great paintings by his wife, Lee Krasner, in Australian collections. Although there are only two canvasses, they each symbolise a different milestone in the artist’s career and are important examples in their own right.
“I will book no interference when I assert that Lee Krasner is not only the finest woman painter the U.S. has produced in this century but – since sex is not really the vital matter here – is right in the top of the pile of the great 20th century American artists, period.”
– Edward Albee
Lee Krasner’s work is little known in Australia, and for a long time had been little known elsewhere too. Yet unlike some of the second-generation female abstract expressionists, she was there from the beginning – working and exhibiting alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rotko, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning. For most of her career she existed in her husband’s shadow and went by the name of Mrs Pollock. Her first retrospective only came in 1983 in Houston, and she passed away at the age of 76 the following year – before that same exhibition would travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a lifelong dream of the artist.
It is rare to find an account of Lee Krasner that doesn’t mention her husband, but even before she met Jackson Pollock she was already a respected artist who received praise from the likes of Piet Mondriaan and Hans Hoffmann. Undoubtedly she was inspired by Pollock, as he was by her, but whilst he spent his days working in his large barn studio, she worked on a smaller scale in a room inside their house. It wasn’t until after the car crash that killed him and one of his female passengers in 1956, that Lee Krasner moved into his studio space and started working on a much larger scale.
Lee Krasner, Cool White, 1959, oil on canvas, 182.5 by 290 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (acquired from Robert Miller Gallery, New York in 1978)
Cool White (1959) from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, is a great example of this. Acquired in 1978, before Lee Krasner’s work had ever been exhibited in Australia and before her first ever retrospective, the NGA was early to recognise Krasner’s importance. Brimming with energy and spontaneous mark-making in a dense composition, the work displays all the formal innovations of the New York School. Large in size and raw in execution, with drip marks spread out across the canvas, the intensely powerful brushwork is quintessentially AbEx. Moreover, the biomorphic elements (abstract shapes that suggest human anatomy yet are still a distance away from figuration) were amongst the defining elements of the early abstract expressionist paintings that bridged European surrealism with a new, idiosyncratically American visual language.
Painted three years after her husband’s death, Cool White demonstrates Lee Krasner’s confidence as a painter, even if institutional recognition at the time was still minimal. But that is not to say that she was not affected by Pollock’s passing – on the contrary. Before her series of Umber paintings (1959-1962), of which this work is an important example, she was known as an excellent colourist – yet these paintings are almost entirely devoid of colour. As Krasner explained this unusual turn in her career:
“I painted a great many of them because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead. And I realized that if I was going to work at night I would have to knock out color altogether, because I couldn’t deal with color except in daylight.
– Lee Krasner
Comparing the nearly monochromatic palette of Cool White with the exuberance of colour in her second painting in Australia, Combat (1965) from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, demonstrates the enormous contrast. Despite a very small output of only 600 paintings throughout a long career, Lee Krasner explored a huge diversity of painterly styles throughout her lifetime. Although the formal language of Cool White and Combat is clearly related, their chromatic qualities are entirely different: even for abstract expressionist artists working in colour, the combination of bright orange and pink was highly unusual. With it’s monumental, 4-meter wide format and swirling shapes, Combat equally invokes the biomorphic qualities of her earlier work.
Lee Krasner, Combat, 1965, oil on canvas, 179 by 410.4 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (acquired with the Felton Bequest in 1992)
These two powerful paintings deserve more prominent attention in Australia, which is so proud to house Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece Blue Poles. Whilst Combat starred in Krasner’s recent and acclaimed retrospective at the Barbican in London (her first retrospective in Europe since 1965), it is not even on view at the National Gallery of Victoria Melbourne. This illustrates the ambivalent relationship of Australian collections to international contemporary art: whilst they own incredibly important works, they often appear reluctant to give them the proper attention.
Looking back at the late 1970s, when the National Gallery of Australia first acquired Lee Krasner’s work, it once again becomes apparent how visionary the gallery’s director James Mollison was. Before the artist had her first retrospective, and at a time when she was a marginal name to most institutions outside of the United Sates, they already purchased an important painting (followed by several early drawings which were acquired two years later).