Portrait Of An Unsung Artist

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University

By Barbara Fischkin

Gail Levin was a 22-year-old graduate student in art history, researching Jackson Pollock, when she asked Pollock’s widow for help. Lee Krasner responded by inviting her to the Long Island farmhouse that she had shared with the legendary painter — an invitation that would open Levin’s eyes to another great artist.

Biographer Gail Levin ponders artist Lee Krasner's self-portrait in historic Pollock/Krasner house.

It was 1971. Levin, now a Baruch Distinguished Professor, recalls how the art hanging on the walls of that historic home in Springs was, indeed, extraordinary abstract impressionism.

But it wasn’t painted by Pollock. It was all by Krasner.

“I am looking around and I am thinking ‘Wow, this is really great’ ” Levin recalled recently. “Why is she so obscure? That had a great impact on me and planted a seed for the future.”

Four decades later, Levin, the author of biographies of Edward Hopper and Judy Chicago — and a former Whitney Museum of American Art curator — has written the first biography of the often overlooked, and widely misunderstood Krasner.

Published in March by HarperCollins, Lee Krasner: A Biography, was praised by Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and others. A Booklist starred review notes that Levin “redresses glaring omissions in the history of abstract art.”

When Levin first met Krasner, the artist wasn’t included in textbooks or university courses. Despite earlier recognition, including a retrospective in London, she was more likely to be known as “the wife” of the brilliant but tortured Pollock, who died in an alcohol-related car crash in 1956.

Although Krasner mentored Levin and the women became good friends, Levin never expected to write a biography of the artist. But as the years passed – Krasner died in 1984 — she began to see how important a story of her friend’s life was in explaining the role of women in 20th-century art.

Levin says the Krasner biography completes a trilogy, although the artist is the second in chronological order. In Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, Levin quotes from 62 volumes of diaries written by Hopper’s wife, Jo — diaries in which she expresses anger about her own lack of recognition as an artist.

Levin says she then wrote about Judy Chicago because she “was looking for an artist too feisty to ever be in any man’s shadow … so what’s in the middle in terms of both the chronology of the 20th century and the idea of a woman who emerges from a man’s shadow? Enter Lee Krasner.”

Levin says she waited to write the biography because the distance of time enabled her to gain perspective — and to complete the research necessary to ensure she produced a scholarly work.

The book is a compelling narrative. It also includes illuminating photographs and voluminous notes and citations. Levin shows that Krasner, named Lena at birth, wasn’t denying her womanhood when she ultimately changed her name to Lee. Levin also found letters showing that Pollock encouraged Krasner’s art. And, she argues, that Krasner helped market Pollock’s work because he was the “meal ticket,” that enabled her to paint.

Would it have made a difference if Levin had not known her subject?

“It would have been harder,” she says, noting the discrepancies in stories about the artist’s life, including a racy incident purportedly involving Willem de Kooning,” that Levin says isn’t true.

“We also shared a personality of being outspoken and of being very direct,” says Levin. “I think I am the least Machiavellian person I have ever met and I think she appreciated that in me and I appreciated that in her.”
Levin, who is a scholar of American, Jewish and Women’s studies, also teaches at the Graduate Center.

She and Krasner meshed their passion for art — Krasner was influenced by Mondrian and Matisse — with the shared experience of being raised by working-class, insular Jewish parents.

Levin believes Krasner would have approved of her book. She did want Levin to write about her art, which Levin describes as depicting for the artist “not how nature looks but how it made her feel.”