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"Exhibition Reveals Lee Krasner’s Crucial Contributions to Modern Art"
1999-10-10 until 2000-01-02
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles, CA, USA United States of America

Lee Krasner, the first full-scale retrospective of the major American painter Lee Krasner (1908–1984) since her death, opens on October 10 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The traveling exhibition comprises sixty paintings, collages, and drawings on loan from major collections around the world. Together, these works—many of them not publicly exhibited in decades—present the complete trajectory of Krasner’s work. Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins with the artist’s early figurative work of the 1930s and includes important examples from all phases of her career, including the magisterial series Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See.

Organized by Independent Curators International, this revealing exhibition demonstrates Krasner’s lifelong refusal to settle on a single style with which to express her artistic and personal concerns, and examines her position as one of the most important American painters of this century. It remains on view in Los Angeles through January 2, 2000. It then travels to the Des Moines Art Center (February 26–May 21, 2000) and the Akron Art Museum (June 10–August 27, 2000), before completing its tour at The Brooklyn Museum of Art (October 6, 2000–January 7, 2001).

While Krasner was the only female painter associated with the first generation of the New York School, for many years she was known primarily as the wife and artistic follower of Jackson Pollock. This exhibition makes her critical contributions to Abstract Expressionism vividly clear, while demonstrating her ongoing artistic dialogue with a diverse range of artists, critics, and writers—including Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso, among others—and showing that while she was in fact influenced by Pollock’s work, she clearly influenced him in turn. In embracing the work and ideas of others as a source of her own creativity, Krasner rejected the romantic and distinctly male Abstract Expressionist notion of the alienated individual as the wellspring of artistic expression. Her work thus brings an important feminist perspective to the discussion of Abstract Expressionism, affecting our views not only of her own painting, but of that of others as well.

Lee Krasner begins with a self-portrait painted in 1930. Created in order to fulfill a requirement of the conservative National Academy of Design, where Krasner was studying, the painting establishes many of the themes that would remain constant throughout her career. She depicts herself in the center of the picture, standing outdoors as she works on her canvas. The lush woods, fields, and wildflowers by which she is surrounded point to the artist’s lifelong interest in the fecundity of nature, while her central position alludes to her place as an integral part of it. Finally, Krasner’s powerful presence in the self-portrait, especially notable in her intense stare, points to the central role of the self, seen in relation to others, that informs so much of her work.

Works from the 1940s include eight examples of Krasner’s well-known Little Image series, initiated c. 1946-47 and continuing until 1950. While this series was influenced by Pollock’s Sounds in the Grass series, of 1946, and his drip paintings begun later that year, the small-scale Little Image paintings are far from imitations of Pollock’s work. Early works in the series, for example, such as Noon, of 1947, are painterly mosaics. This heavily impastoed work, in which the image seems to bleed off the edge of the canvas, is Krasner’s equivalent to Pollock’s Sounds in the Grass: Shimmering Substance, of ca. 1946. In Krasner’s work, the strokes of paint simultaneously represent themselves and the artist’s creative process.

In the early 1950s, Krasner began ripping or cutting apart her own and Pollock’s works and recombining them into an important group of monumental collages. When these were exhibited in 1955, critic Clement Greenberg referred to the show as one of the most important exhibitions of the decade. The present exhibition includes five of these collages, including Bald Eagle and Bird Talk, both of 1955, which are salient examples of the dialogue with other artists that Krasner carried on in her work. The large-scale Bald Eagle, for example, which includes an eagle-like profile at its center, incorporates torn pieces of Pollock’s 1950s ink drawings. In Bird Talk, aspects of de Kooning’s style are evident, although the work is definitively Krasner’s, with her dissonant colors and personal iconography.

In 1956, just before leaving for Europe, Krasner painted Prophecy. The painting’s centralized male-female hybrid, consisting of three legs, two torsos, and several heads, is a powerful and complex image. An incised eye in the upper-right corner adds a mysterious sense of foreboding. (When Krasner received a call in Europe informing her of Pollock’s death, she returned to New York to find Prophecy still on the easel.)

Lee Krasner includes eight paintings from the major series known as the Earth Green Series, begun soon after Pollock’s death in August 1956 and worked on until 1959. Birth, of 1956, was one of the first works that Krasner completed after Pollock died. Like Prophecy, this painting contains a menacing eye in the upper right, although here it is joined by several other eyes. Birth consists of large breasts and swelling shapes that evoke pregnancy and childbirth. Yet Krasner clearly thought of these as violent, even dismembering events, for the body parts are fragmented and strewn across the canvas. Sun Woman II, painted the following year, has a significantly more positive view of fecundity than Birth. The painting’s red, rounded forms, while more abstract than in Birth, are in much greater harmony and are juxtaposed to natural-looking, green shapes.

After her mother’s death in 1959, Krasner’s art changed radically. She limited her palette to blacks, whites, ochers, and browns to create the Umber and White Series, which she also called Night Journeys, because they were painted at night while she suffered from insomnia. The title of one of the paintings in the series, The Eye Is the First Circle, derives from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Circles, in which he discusses the need for humans to enlarge their sense of self and understanding of the universe. In fact, it was not until the painting—a large work marked by a seeming whirlwind of brushstrokes—was finished that Krasner noticed that many eyes peer out from the canvas.

Named for the earth goddess, Gaea (1966) is a large work that includes a weeping profile—which may signify Gaea—other female forms, and a large egg. It is painted in a dissonant combination of pinks, purples, and reds, but does not include the green that would be expected in a painting of this title. This powerful work combines the pain inherent in Birth with the chaotic feel of the Night Journeys works.

Palingenesis (1971) returns once again to the subject of fecundity. Named for the Greek word for rebirth, the painting, in reds, greens, ocher, and black, is more restrained than much of Krasner’s earlier work. Marked by sweeping rhythms and well-defined forms, it shows clear evidence of Krasner’s familiarity with the cutouts of Matisse.

In 1976 Krasner again made a radical shift in her art. Inspired by a group of her early drawings, made while studying with Hans Hofmann in the 1930s, she embarked on the series that came to be known as Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See, five examples of which are on view in the exhibition. Some of the charcoal on the old drawings—which had been left for decades in a barn on her Long Island property—had smudged, while other drawings had left reverse impressions on the paper that covered them. After reviewing the drawings, she chose the best ones for framing and used the remainder, including the reverse impressions, for collages. Yet unlike her earlier, monumental collages, the ones in this series are disjointed, with a dissonance between the codified look of the Hofmann-school drawings, or fragments of drawings, and the overall composition. P>By using early drawings to create new works of art, and by emphasizing the disjunction between the drawings and the composition of which they are now a part, these superb and complex works, at once dense and fragmented, represent a critique of modernism and a belief that the past must be reviewed and reworked in new work. As such, they straddle both modernism and postmodernism. The titles of the works in Eleven Ways to Use the Words to See, such as Imperative, Imperfect Subjunctive, and Present Conditional, attest to the importance of time in the series, and to the connection of art to language, which younger artists at the time were exploring as well.

The exhibition closes with three works from the last four years of Krasner’s life. One of these, Between Two Appearances, of 1981, combines collages of dripped paint with representations of heads. By cutting the drips out of earlier works and commingling them with new painting, Krasner gives them the self-conscious quality of a quote, again incorporating an important element of postmodernism. And once again, she mixes the past and present to create a bold new work. Related Programming: Robert Hobbs will deliver a lecture, entitled Lee Krasner Reconsidered, on Sunday, October 10 at 2 pm in the Brown Auditorium. Professor Hobbs curated the exhibition and is Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Chair of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Catalogue: Lee Krasner is accompanied by a catalogue that includes an extended text by Robert Hobbs, with ninety-two full-color and thirty-four black-and-white illustrations. Drawing on his ongoing research, as well as in-depth interviews with Krasner’s friends and associates, Hobbs offers a fresh look into the artist’s past, her personality, and her artistic contributions, drawing a rich picture of Krasner and the context in which she worked. The 224-page volume is available in softcover for $29.95 at the LACMA museum shop. The hardcover edition, distributed internationally by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., is available for $49.50.

Credit Line: This exhibition was organized by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York, and was curated by Robert Hobbs.

The exhibition and accompanying publication are made possible by a leadership contribution from the principal sponsor, the Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc.

Additional support has been provided by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation, and Betsy Wittenborn Miller and Robert Miller.

Philip Morris Companies Inc. is the corporate sponsor of the national tour.

LACMA Coordinating Curator: Carol S. Eliel, curator of modern and contemporary art

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