Why Are We Still Ignoring Lee Krasner?

(Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to art critic Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock was “the most radical alcoholic [he] had ever met.” At the same time, though, Pollock’s paint splattered-and-dripped canvases, a method he pioneered and honed for a three-year period in the late 1940s, “broke the ice,” says Willem de Kooning, who added a postscript-like qualifier, “It was another step in space‐time.”

More than 60 years after Pollock rammed his green 1950 Oldsmobile-88 convertible into a tree off an East Hampton, Long Island road, Vox considers whether Pollock’s stature as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century is truly deserved. Or, more bluntly, how he “became so overrated.” That’s a bold stance for Phil Edwards, host of Vox’s Overrated video series, to take, but Edwards posits that without Greenberg and his writings for the Partisan Review, ArtForum, and others, Pollock’s stature wouldn’t have achieved the same heights. Which, as a premise, has some merit: though not the only art critic opining at the time, Greenberg was not only the loudest voice in favor of “modern art,” he immersed himself in the world in which the artists lived.

As he explained in his seminal 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg felt that there was nothing more avant garde than abstract expressionism, an art movement fueled by emotions, that resisted politicizing art (which had consumed art during the period after World War I). Through Greenberg’s embrace of Pollock, whom he indeed hyped up in his writings, the artist became an emblem of the Ab-Ex movement. A by-product of Pollock’s rise was the increasing shift of the art world’s gaze away from Paris and towards New York City, where artists like Pollock, De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and others (including Greenberg) were living. The group of artists involved in Ab-Ex were a huge force, and thus NYC transformed into art’s epicenter.

So while Vox addresses how Greenberg’s influence within art criticism greatly benefited Pollock, effectively branding the artist as “the most powerful painter in contemporary America,” the video glaringly sidesteps any mention of Lee Krasner, a brilliant artist in her own right who just so happened to be married to Pollock. Krasner elicits one mention in the video, a throwaway reference during the captioning of a photo of Pollock and Greenberg at the beach, which is not only astonishing, it is frankly dismaying.

The video’s narrative is marred by a tunnel vision approach to explaining Pollock’s rise and enduring importance — yes, Greenberg boosted him, but Krasner, with her management and stability, sustained him. It was Krasner whom Pollock first turned to when his art began to radically depart from norms at the time, asking her upon completing Lucifer in 1947, “Is this a painting?” Prior to Lucifer, writes critic Jerry Saltz, “All seemed lost for him. I love his early work, but much of it is labored, muddy and glutted. Pollock is in hell. Then it happens.” And it was Krasner who convinced Pollock to agree to an interview with Life magazine in 1949; the article’s headline — “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” — and a spread featuring Pollock’s painting introduced the artist to mainstream America (and to those who didn’t regularly read Greenberg — or even know the critic’s byline). And finally, it was Krasner who managed Pollock’s estate for nearly twenty years after his death; under her stewardship, prices for Pollock’s works tripled and quadrupled, setting the standard for modern American art. More so than Greenberg, Krasner deserves credit for maintaining Pollock’s relevance and importance — without Krasner, Jackson Pollock doesn’t become Jackson Pollock.

As she told the New York Times in 1981,

Look, they don’t take de Kooning and put him up that way. And if de Kooning or Motherwell takes from Pollock, nobody even breathes a word about it. But with Lee Krasner, wow, wow. It’s been a heavy, heavy number. It’s hard for them to separate me from Pollock in that sense, you know.

Which is why omitting her from a video on Pollock’s legacy is so discouraging, especially with the wealth of research, reporting, and examination of Krasner as an artist and a person in recent years. Krasner attended the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union and then later studied with Hans Hoffman, and in the years following Pollock’s death, her own abstractions evolved, earning not only acclaim but also space in museum collections worldwide. She derisively dismissed being labeled as Pollock’s widow, which many had saddled her with: “I may have resented being in the shadow of Jackson Pollock, but the resentment was never so sharp a thing to deal with that it interfered with my work…By and large, people look at my work and it is connected with me, and a lot of those old hurts are no longer there. I have utter confidence in what I’m doing.”

In Mary Gabriel’s recently published Ninth Street Women, Krasner is a main character — she was one of the 11 female artists whose work was selected to be displayed at the historic 1951 Ninth Street Show, and over the course of a thousand pages, Gabriel highlights how the artist’s experiences and work align with those of her peers (and, if some cases, veer from drastically). Krasner once told the Times that she wished feminism “should have come along 30 years earlier…We could have used it then.” But Gabriel’s impressive work doesn’t seek to explore the import of these artists merely on their gender — as Elaine de Kooning (another central figure in Gabriel’s text) said, “To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified.”

Without Krasner, Vox’s video is incomplete. There is no point to any argument that questions Pollock’s artistic worth that neglects to mention Krasner’s own contributions. And while Greenberg did give Pollock a boost, Krasner remained with Pollock after the photographers from Life left. To ignore Krasner 34 years after her death is frustrating, especially in this day and age. In the most recent New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont delves into both Gabriel’s work and Krasner’s own legacy:

The real advance has come through the dedication of feminist scholars, such as Linda Nochlin, Hayden Herrera, and Kellie Jones, who have revitalized the discipline of art history and expanded the protest against exclusion to consider race along with gender. Gabriel’s firsthand sources are extensive, but her work stands on the shoulders of biographies by other women with a mission: Gail Levin on Krasner, Patricia Albers on [Joan] Mitchell, Cathy Curtis on de Kooning and [Grace] Hartigan. (There is no biography of [Helen] Frankenthaler, as yet.) Perhaps the tipping point will come when men write about women artists as easily as women have always written about men.

Read the story