Perhaps the most distinguished marriage of two American artists was that of the abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Lee Krasner (1908-1984). It was brought vividly to the screen in the 2000 film “Pollock.” The title says it all: For all her married life and nearly 30 years of widowhood, Krasner, a distinguished artist in her own right, was for mavens of the arts scene merely Mrs. Jackson Pollock. A spousal footnote.
Gail Levin has now given her a first biography, Lee Krasner (William Morrow), and its readers will savor the delicious irony of what happened at the Academy Awards that year. Ed Harris, who played the title role in Pollock, was nominated for best actor but did not win it. Marcia Gay Harden was nominated for best supporting actor and took home the statuette. The feminist gods must have chortled over Krasner finally coming out on top after decades of suffering the male chauvinism of the mid-20th century art world.
The film zeros in on the real-life Pollock’s moodiness and binge drinking; in 1956, aged 44, he finally killed himself — and another woman — while driving near their studio/home in Springs, Long Island (Krasner was in Paris at the time). But Levin, a Distinguished Professor of Art History at the Graduate Center and the author of a cache of books on Edward Hopper, devotes her attention mainly to giving a vivid sense of the arc of Krasner’s developing and changing easel style and placing her in the context of the New York arts scene over nearly half a century, which Krasner referred to once as “a nice nest of snakes.”
Scrupulously researched and footnoted, Levin’s book fills in the largely unknown years Before Pollock: the scraping by of her family of Russian immigrants in Brownsville, her early studies at Cooper Union and City College (aiming for an art-teaching certificate), and a longtime affair with another debonair Russian immigrant (his family objected to her being Jewish). Krasner subsisted through the Depression working for the WPA, frequently getting arrested for labor protests. She once booked herself into jail as Mary Cassatt: “I didn’t have a very big selection … it was either Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt.” Her most notable early idols were Matisse and Mondrian.
A running theme of the book is the blunt expressiveness of this expressionist. Her longtime friend Edward Albee said she had “a no-nonsense thing” and branded her tongue “acid.” She herself admitted, “I guess that I’m just a tough cookie.” In her mid-60s she summed up a lifetime of developing a thick skin: “The only thing I haven’t had against me was being black. I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.”
Levin says Krasner first met Pollock in 1936 at an Artists Union dance; he was drunk and asked her a very rude sexual question. A proper affair began in 1941, culminating in a 1945 marriage. Levin manages to keep the black cloud hanging over Pollock’s twisted soul away from center-stage, while making clear how being his “cheerleader, guardian, and secretary” sapped energy from Krasner’s career. One acquaintance wickedly called him shy, like “a clam without a shell,” and he was filled with self-doubt: when Life magazine asked, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the U.S.?” he freaked out. Levin sums up the married years: “Krasner had her hands full.”
Thanks to Pollock we learn much about the growing understanding of treatment for alcoholism and the changing landscape of psychotherapy, but the main fun and interest of Lee Krasner is the art-historical gossip of which Levin is a clear mistress, including the feuding over surrealism, action painting and expressionism, and the art-chat wars, with art gurus Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg making numerous cameo appearances.
Levin makes it clear she has some skin in the game she is telling. Back in 1977, she was a young curator for the Whitney Museum and working on a show titled “Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years.” She was determined to include Krasner and drove out to her Springs studio near East Hampton. They hit it off. There’s a photo of her and Levin on the visit on page 389, which begins one of the happiest chapters in the book, “The Feminist Decade, 1970-79.” If not a labor of love — Krasner was manifestly not a lovable presence — this biography is certainly a labor of respect.
Krasner’s first-ever New York museum show was in 1973, and much of her belated recognition was thanks to the first wave of feminism. Though she was genuinely grateful for what feminism achieved in the arts, Krasner was never comfortable with the concept of “feminist” art, just as she always grimaced when experts blathered about “American” art. She didn’t know what that was either (and despised the Whitney for being a “Museum of American Art”). Krasner gained some comfort in her own skin in the ’70s, bluntly telling the Village Voice in 1977, “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
The last chapters also honor Krasner’s ferocious dedication to Pollock’s legacy in her supporting role of wife. Her wish for a catalogue raisonné of his works was published (in four volumes) by Yale in 1978, and she jealously guarded the Pollock estate, which he left entirely to her. “I can say no very harshly,” she boasted. Dealers growled that she inflated the Pollock market, and she doled out his paintings happily only to museums.
Thanks to rocketing auction values for Pollock, Krasner’s last years were financially comfortable. She left a $10 million estate, most of which funded the Pollock-Krasner Foundation to support “needy and worthy” artists, and there is a Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at SUNY-Stony Brook.
From its opening in 1929, Krasner harbored love-hate feelings about that male bastion, the Museum of Modern Art: “You attack it for everything, but finally it’s the source you have to make peace with.” One of her most cherished hopes was to get her own retrospective at MoMA (she had never had any retrospective in her entire career). At long last, one was planned that would open on Oct. 17, 1983, her 75th birthday, at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, then move to San Francisco. It would then go to MoMA. She made it to Houston with great delight, but by the time it was at MoMA she was too ill to attend. She had also missed getting her first honorary degree, from Stony Brook, in person in May 1984.
In June she was dead and lying near Jackson in a cemetery in Springs. Her grave is oddly placed not next to but at the feet of the great artist, and her small gravestone is overshadowed by Pollock’s much larger one. But never mind: Gail Levin and Lee Krasner get the real last word.
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