Lee Krasner: Portrait in Green – Exhibiting the Work of Mrs. Jackson Pollock

By Abby Henthorn

by ELYSIAN Magazine

The Pollock-Krasner House’s exhibition “Lee Krasner: Portrait in Green” opens August 3 and continues through October 29 at the Springs, New York, museum that once housed partners Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, two of the most acclaimed and influential abstract expressionists. The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, a national historic landmark, was built in 1879 in the typical style of farmers’ and fishermen’s homes in Springs, which is in the town of East Hampton, and was later bought by the couple in 1945. It still contains all the furnishings and artifacts that resided there when Krasner died in 1984, and the studio transports guests back to the days when Pollock or Krasner flung art onto the floor or walls, creating their masterpieces. 

Jackson Pollock is known as the pinnacle artist of the abstract expressionist movement, and his enormous drip paintings on unstretched canvases – where his individual unconscious becomes externalized – are recognizable in any museum or gallery. Along with Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, among many other well-known male abstract expressionists, Pollock made a name for himself rather quickly and climbed the movement’s ranks. Unfortunately, his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner often goes uncited in the conversation of the great abstract expressionists, even though she is to thank for much of his success. 

Lee Krasner was born in 1908 in Brooklyn, New York, to a family of Russian immigrants with six children, and she was the only one of the children born in America. Her parents were traditional, hard-working people and envisioned Lee (born Lena) growing up to lead a similar life, possibly taking over the family business of operating a produce store. However, Krasner decided she would be an artist early in her life, around the age of 14. She attended Washington Irving High, the only public high school that offered an art program for girls, and made a two-hour round-trip commute every day from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Krasner then received a certificate at Cooper Union’s Women’s Art School and studied under accomplished artist Hans Hoffman at the National Academy of Design.

Krasner worked as a muralist for Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and gained popularity as an artist. In 1942, Krasner participated in “American and French Paintings” at the McMillen Gallery in New York, where she exhibited with many artists whom she knew and considered friends. One name, however, she did not recognize: Jackson Pollock. After visiting Pollock at his apartment and seeing some of his work, Krasner was blown away. Because Krasner was more well-known in the art world then, she introduced Pollock to many artists he would later be associated with. The two began a romantic and artistic relationship and moved to Springs in 1945. 

Though their marriage wasn’t incredibly romantic, and they became separated a few months before Pollock’s tragic death, the pair profoundly influenced one another in their creativity. Pollock and Krasner were both very serious about their work. They would only visit each other’s studios “by invitation only,” as Krasner described in an interview with The New York Times. Barabara Rose, an art historian involved with a 1981 Krasner Exhibit, explained, “Jackson helped her to be free and spontaneous, and she helped him to be organized and refined.” This is evident in their works from the late 1940s and early ’50s. Krasner was in the midst of her little image paintings, which have been described as very controlled and painted with small brushes to create various small figures on the canvas. Pollock used his unconscious mind to lead his artwork and sweep the paint can across his surface. 

Though Pollock found tremendous success in the art market, Krasner often felt being overlooked by critics was more a blessing than a curse, as his success gave her the freedom to continue to paint. Jason McCoy, Pollock’s nephew, also assured that Krasner “had a very strong conviction of herself as a painter. She saw her own worth.” Even during her college years, when she would rip up old paintings of hers and Pollock’s to create collages because she was frustrated with her current style of little images, she knew they would be valuable to other people as they were valuable to her and she was confident in her artistry. 

The last two decades of Krasner’s life, she focused on creating her famous gestural canvases – those that contain large, sweeping movements –  that nowadays can often be seen alongside Pollock’s work or in her own exhibition. Portrait in Green, the piece that the upcoming Pollock-Krasner House exhibit is centered around, is one of her gestural canvases and the only canvas she painted in 1969. This style came after Pollock’s death, when she longed for a freshness and lightness in her art that she didn’t feel in her own life in her grief. These paintings were very physical paintings that, like Pollock, elicited an entire performance. 

“Lee Krasner: Portrait in Green” will include the title work and a selection of Krasner’s 1969 paintings on handmade paper. In addition, Krasner allowed a photographer and good friend of hers, Mark Patiky, to photograph her at work in her studio for the first time during the creation of this painting. These photographs will be included as well. 

Lee Krasner died in 1984 after 50 years of “perpetual, restless reinvention” in her art, according to the Museum of Modern Art. She explained her painting process in an interview, saying, “Don’t will it. Don’t force it. Let it come through on its own terms.” That could also apply to her life and posthumous, greatly deserved success. 

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