Lee Krasner: Living Colour

The Barbican’s show on Lee Krasner rightly places her as a key figure in American art

My interest in abstract expressionism was provoked by reading Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel in which a fictional painter mingles with the movement’s greats: Gorky, Rothko and Pollock. Once I delved into the art, I discovered that many of the genre’s best-known painters were of Jewish descent – and most were men.

But one of the movement’s most influential figures was a woman – although she spent much of her career playing second fiddle to her male contemporaries. Born in Brooklyn in 1908, Lee Krasner pursued art from an early age – an unusual choice for the daughter of Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrants. After graduating from the National Academy of Design, Krasner joined the American Abstract Artists group, where she met her future husband, Jackson Pollock.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour begins with Lee’s early self-portraits and moves on to her embrace of abstraction in her ‘Little Images’ series. There are works inspired by her husband (‘Night Light’, 1949) and those reflecting her grief on Pollock’s death, such as the harrowing ‘Three in Two’ (1956). After moving into Pollock’s studio, the scale of her work escalated. ‘Night Journeys’ resulted from insomnia; ‘Another Storm’ (1965) marks a return to vivid colours.

The exhibition is a glorious biography of a fiercely original painter who summed herself up as follows: “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”

By David Benmayer

Header photo: Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, NYC, where she was working on a commission, c.1940. Photo © Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c.1905-1984.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour runs until Sunday 1 September. Barbican Centre, EC2Y 8DS. 020 7638 4141. www.barbican.org.uk

This review also features in the July 2019 issue of JR.