A widow takes up her paintbrush

April 22, 2011

All lives are eventful, but Lee Krasner’s life as a painter was singularly fraught with events, conflicts and hard-earned triumphs. Like some of her colleagues eventually dubbed Abstract Expressionists, Krasner came from immigrant stock. Her parents were born in a Russian shtetl and had immigrated after the infamous Kishinev pogrom in 1903. At home, Lena, as her parents called her, heard Russian and Yiddish and rebelled at an early age. She took the name Lenore after reading Poe and later changed it to Lee, a still more American name.

By the time she reached high school, Krasner claimed, she knew she wanted to be an artist. From then on, she fought for her rights with considerable bravura. Krasner was regarded by many fellow artists as combative and often abrasive. Gail Levin writes this biography as a friend and, above all, defender, particularly against those who felt Krasner was influenced by her far more celebrated husband, Jackson Pollock. She quotes Krasner, who late in her life recalled:

“I was in on the formation of what all the history books now write about the abstract expressionists. I was in the WPA, part of the New York School. I knew Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning, Clement Greenberg before Jackson did and in fact I introduced him to them. But there’s never any mention of me in those history books, like I was never there.”

In this exceedingly detailed biography, Levin follows every step of Krasner’s ascent. With the assiduity of a born researcher, she ferrets out petty gossip accompanying each stage of Krasner’s career in order to refute it and takes great pleasure in exposing errors of previous writers. In her need to establish Krasner’s exceptional intelligence, Levin digresses often. For instance,she makes a point of correcting the record concerning Pollock and his admiration for the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, pointing out that it was undoubtedly Krasner who introduced him to the adolescent genius and who copied out a quotation on the studio wall. But it’s hard to imagine that Pollock hadn’t heard of Rimbaud before he knew Krasner.

Krasner’s encounter with Pollock came after the turbulent and exhilarating years of the Depression, during which she had held responsible supervisory jobs at the WPA, marched in protests, been arrested, and attended classes at Hans Hofmann’s progressive art school. It seems that Krasner had danced with Pollock at an Artists Union party during the 1930s, but it was not until 1941 that she sought him out again. When she saw his paintings, she was “bowled over.” It wasn’t long before she joined Pollock — a severe alcoholic and seriously disturbed person — in what would be a marriage punctuated by crises. Krasner’s life as a painter did not flourish again until after his death in an automobile accident in 1956.

For the next few years, as Levin writes in a chapter aptly title “Dual Identities: Artist and Widow,” Krasner restlessly moved between her house in Springs, East Hampton, where she had taken over Pollock’s studio, and an apartment in New York. By 1958, she was able to mount a large exhibition at an important New York gallery. Although she could not escape being identified as Pollock’s widow, critics now took her on her own terms, and the reviews were largely favorable. Almost a decade later, she finally won an international reputation as a painter in her own right and was honored with a retrospective exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. And, to her great satisfaction, a retrospective was scheduled for Houston, with subsequent showings in San Francisco and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Krasner did not live to see the MOMA show: She died at the age of 75 in 1984.

Levin, with her sometimes unfortunate vernacular diction (“Lenore was miffed,” “her unflappable resolve”), nonetheless offers enough material for the reader to stitch together a semblance of an artist’s life.

Dore Ashton is a critic whose books include “The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning” and “A Fable of Modern Art.”

LEE KRASNER

A Biography

By Gail Levin

Morrow. 546 pp. $30

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