Meet Lee Krasner. The Woman Behind — and Beside — Jackson Pollock

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The cover of Carter Ratcliff's essay "Lee Krasner: The Unacknowledged Equal."

By Annette Hinkle

There’s a persistent and enduring myth about famous artists and their muses. It involves a brooding, creative genius who is propped up by his long-suffering wife, mistress or assistant. She willingly lives in the shadows, suppressing her own talents and ambition, in order to further his acclaim. Along the way, she quietly endures his angry outbursts and frequent infidelities, all in support of his moments of pure brilliance — think Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel, or Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar.

It’s a story as old as time, and here on the East End, our own version of the artist/muse tale is embodied in the life and work of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, an artistic power-couple who first met in 1936 at a loft party in downtown Manhattan. At the time, Krasner purportedly described him as “mumblingly obnoxious.”

But first impressions aren’t everything.

On October 25, 1945 — 75 years ago this week — the couple married. The following month, Pollock and Krasner, a formidable painter in her own right, left New York City and relocated to a rural property overlooking Accabonac Harbor in Springs, where they kept a small farmhouse and a barn that served as Pollock’s studio. With Pollock in her life, Krasner’s focus shifted, and she put her own work on the back burner in order to channel all her effort and energy into furthering Pollock’s artistic acclaim. Even after his death in 1956, in an alcohol-fueled car crash not far from their home, Krasner continued to put her career second in order to work tirelessly to promote Pollock’s art.

But is that really the whole of the story?

It’s a question that art critic, poet, and writer Carter Ratcliff explores in his new long-form essay, titled “Lee Krasner: The Unacknowledged Equal,” which was recently published by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Ratcliff, who lives and works in Hudson, New York, is a contributing editor to Art in America magazine.

Carter Ratcliff, author of “Lee Krasner: The Unacknowledged Equal.” Image courtesy Phyllis Derfner.

Krasner was born in Brooklyn on October 27, 1908 — 112 years ago this week — and in his essay, Ratcliff offers an alternative narrative to the long-accepted story of her relationship with Pollock, by exploring the arc of Krasner’s own impressive painting career and the role she played, not only in supporting, but even collaborating, with her husband in the course of his artistic evolution.

As the essay notes, artists do not innovate in isolation, and from Ratcliff’s perspective, Krasner was not simply a muse hiding in the wings, but rather a full-fledged partner in the truest sense of the word when it came to Pollock’s development. In 1981, Krasner even described their partnership as “a relationship of equals.”

That would make sense. In many ways, Krasner was more savvy about the art world than Pollock, not only as an artist, but in terms of the business of art as well. She was well connected and had been a student of Hans Hofmann, while Pollock had studied under muralist Thomas Hart Benton. Ratcliff suggests that through their partnership, the couple was able to shake off the conventions and foundational instruction of their respective mentors and together, create a totally new painting style which defined Pollock’s most fame-filled years and which Ratcliff maintains was as much an invention of Krasner’s as it was of Pollock’s.

“I saw that she was not merely present at the birth of this radically new way to make a painting,” Ratcliff writes in the essay. “She took an active and equal part in its creation.”

Lee Krasner, “Pollination,” 1968.
Dallas Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Algur
H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation,
Incorporated, 1968.10. © 2020 Pollock-Krasner
Foundation/Artists Rights Society. Image
courtesy Dallas Museum of Art.

Ratcliff’s first deep dive into Pollock’s career came in 1996, with his book “The Fate Of A Gesture: Jackson Pollock And Postwar American Art,” and in a recent interview, he noted that while he didn’t concentrate much on Krasner as he was putting the book together, as he continued to write about Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, she kept popping up.

“They had been involved in each other’s work,” he said. “She tended to downplay it, but there’s evidence that she had sometimes been in his studio when he was in a quandary, wondering what to do.”

One particular quandary had to do with the question of how Pollock should crop some of the drip paintings he had created in his Springs studio on huge strips of unprimed canvas. It was a question that was ultimately answered via an artistic break-through — the inception of the “allover image,” and Ratcliff maintains there were indications that Krasner was very much involved in that discovery.

“There was a three-year blackout period [from 1943 to 1945] when Krasner produced nothing but ‘gray slabs,’ as she called them. She had realized that Pollock was up to something new, she wanted to respond to it, but really struggled because she was imbued with the traditional way of making a painting that she had learned from Hans Hofmann and her other teachers,” he said. “By the time she broke free, both she and Pollock were seeing possibilities beyond the ones offered by Western painting’s 2,500 history.”

What they saw, he adds, was the allover image, which allowed them to break free of the structures and the limitations of composition.

“It was a great achievement,” Ratcliff said. “There’s an idea we still believe in and it drives criticism and the art market — the idea of the solo breakthrough. But nothing can be done in isolation. My argument is, whoever did the actual physical act, Krasner was absolutely essential, because they did it together.”

Lee Krasner, “White Squares,” c. 1948. Enamel and
oil on canvas, 24 1/16 × 30 1/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
gift of Mr. and Mrs. B. H. Friedman 75.1. © 2020
Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights.
Society. Digital image © Whitney Museum of
American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource,
NY

Ratcliff points out that the fact that they were living in rural Springs, rather than within the close confines of the artistic community in Manhattan, may have spurred the creativity and innovation realized by Pollock and Krasner during that period.

“In Springs, they were isolated, or stuck with each other. Physical distance gave them a freedom — not that they forgot about Picasso and de Kooning, who were pursuing traditional composition in modernist mode — I think the isolation wasn’t merely deprivation, but a positive effect of freeing them up,” Ratcliff said. “Pollock liked to talk about being from the West. He said the only place in the East that gave him a sense of openness was out there in Springs.”

The isolation and reliance on one another, he notes, also freed Krasner and Pollock from their respective mentors, Hans Hofman and Thomas Hart Benton. Ultimately, it would seem that the Pollock/Krasner relationship was much more of a two-way street than has often been portrayed. It would also help explain why Krasner opted to put her career on hold for a time for the sake of Pollock, who, by all accounts, was not an easy personality to maneuver.

But the question remains, why did Krasner, a strong, self-assured female artist competing in the boys club that was the Abstract Expressionists, allow herself and her career to be relegated to taking a back seat behind Pollock?

“I think it was love. Their love was very complex, fraught and difficult, but I think she was swept her off her feet,” maintained Ratcliff. “She even said it herself, she was putting herself behind him to find something for Pollock. She knew everyone in the art world — curators, too. She did a lot to promote his career in a way he simply couldn’t do himself.

“Why would someone so strong and accomplished suspend the active pursuit of her own career and struggle in the three-year blackout period?” he asked. “That was the period when she was really helping Pollock make connections … it was important to her to be connected to Pollock and this person she thought would be an extremely important artist.”

Ratcliff also feels that in some way, Pollock was dependent on Krasner, but perhaps not in a way that was particularly happy.

“Krasner was a very strong, possibly maternal figure for him. He did have that affair in the year before he died with Ruth Kligman, there are a lot of mysteries with that, too,” said Ratcliff. “It’s as if he was acting out. It was contentious. There were those who saw them and thought of Lee as the mother figure. He was an unstable, volatile personality who drank way too much and was unsure of himself in every way.”

And while in the years after his death, Krasner continued displaying her devotion to Pollock by heavily promoting his work, Ratcliff notes that, contrary to popular belief, she never fully put aside her own ambitions as an artist.

“Through the ‘50s and ‘60s, she had a rough time. She showed regularly, but there was not much interest and she was always Mrs. Jackson Pollock,” he said. “It was not until the ‘80s when younger art historians — who weren’t part of the New York art world of the War years and the 1950s, with its misogyny and drunken, macho posturing — could see what she achieved over the decades.”

Those art historians included people like Gail Levin, Robert Hobbs and Barbara Rose, who were able to recognize Krasner for her own talents separate from her legendary late husband.

“It’s only now, in our time, that she’s really been given full credit. I think she’s really a great artist. I think she’s one of the major Abstract Expressionists. Her ‘Umber Paintings’ are among the greatest allover paintings ever,” said Ratcliff, referring to a series of works that Krasner created in the late 1950s, following the death of her mother.

Krasner herself died in 1984, and Ratcliff feels she is now finally receiving the recognition she deserves as an artist. By way of example, he points to “Lee Krasner: Living Colour,” an exhibition hosted by the Barbican Centre in London in 2019.

“The whole point of this essay was to give her her due. She was his equal in the invention of the allover image,” Ratcliff said. “Art history tends to fall into rather rigid patterns, so changing them is a long process, but I think it’s definitely well along the way with Krasner’s reassessment.”

Now, more than 35 years after her death, Krasner is stepping out from behind Pollock’s shadow and being recognized as an artist worthy of attention on her own merits. Which raises an interesting, if ultimately unanswerable, question — where does Ratcliff think Krasner would have gone, artistically speaking, had she not hooked up with Pollock?

“I think she would’ve continued on with what she learned from Hofman, and would’ve been a compositional painter, an abstractionist more like de Kooning,” he said. “Being connected with Pollock at a time when the New York art world was ready to focus on something new did put her at the center of things in a way she wouldn’t have been had there been no Pollock.”

To read Carter Ratcliff’s essay “Lee Krasner: The Unacknowledged Equal,” dowload it at the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s website, pkf.org.

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