Lee Krasner: Living Colour @ Barbican Art

‘I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.’ Lee Krasner

On 11 ‎August 1956 the world-famous artist and leader of the school of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, crashed his Oldsmobile convertible while driving drunk. His wife of 11 years, Lee Krasner, also an accomplished artist, heard the news while away in Europe, and hurried home to New York to sort out the arrangements for his funeral and Pollock’s affairs.

Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, New York City, where she was working on a WPA commission (c. 1940) Photo by Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c.1905-1984

She moves into the big barn

Ten years earlier, and soon after marrying (in 1945), the couple had moved to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island, and bought a wood-frame house and barn, which they converted into studios.

Of the buildings at their disposal, Pollock had early on nabbed the biggest available space – the barn – as a studio, and it was here that he created many of the masterpieces that made his name in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Sometime in 1957, the year after his death, Krasner moved Pollock’s paints and equipment out of the big barn and her own stuff in, and began to paint in the largest space she’d ever had at her disposal.

The result is a decade’s worth of quite extraordinarily powerful and enormous abstract paintings which make up the core of the major retrospective of Lee Krasner’s art, which is currently being held at the Barbican Centre in London. They are absolutely stunning. Breathtaking. Wonderful. Huge!

Installation view of Another Storm (1963) by Lee Krasner at the Barbican. Photo by the author

A light and airy space

For this exhibition the Barbican has removed some of the partitions which usually divide up the main ground floor exhibition space, and also removed some of the temporary walls which previously concealed wall-sized windows in the exhibition shop and at the end of the main gallery. The combined effect of this decluttering is to make the big central space (technically ‘room 10’ of the exhibition) feel long and bright and airy. From the moment you arrive at the ticket desk, the new lighter, brighter space feels like the perfect environment in which to hang Krasner’s huge and awe-inspiring works.

It is a genuinely uplifting and life-affirming experience to wander among these paintings, I felt like a mortal wandering dazzled through a mansion of the gods.

Siren by Lee Krasner (1966) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver

Her early years in self portraits

The exhibition is arranged in broadly chronological order, and you are directed to start on the upper floor of the Barbican galleries, which houses eight living-room-sized spaces. These eight rooms take us from Krasner’s birth, in 1908, in New York, into a family of Orthodox Jewish Russian émigrés, and onto the early art school training she got (at the Women’s Art School at Cooper’s Union, Art Students League, National Academy of design. From her student days there’s a room of self-portraits in oil, which are OK.

Nudes classical and modern

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (when she was 21) Krasner began training as a teacher and attended life school classes. On one wall of room four are the extremely accomplished nude studies she did in the style of the Renaissance Masters in 1933 – very accomplished, very traditional. On the opposite wall is a selection of charcoal nudes she did just six years later, in 1939, which are completely different in style, riven by big abstract angular lines, showing a complete assimilation of European modernist trends.

By 1942 she was a respected member of New York’s artistic community. She had been included in an exhibition of contemporary painting in New York alongside friends Willem de Kooning and Stuart French. Piet Mondrian admired her work. As a result she was given a number of commissions by President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, including a job to oversee the design and execution of twenty department-store window displays in Manhattan advertising war training courses. She adopted a cut-up-and-paste collage approach, and room five shows blow-ups of photos of these wartime artworks. Well, sort of interesting as a) social history b) if you really a completist looking for evidence of every step of her artistic development.

The Little Images

She knew most of the exhibitors in that 1942 show except one, a guy named Jackson Pollock, so she dropped round to his Greenwich Village studio to seek him out and say hi. One thing led to another and they were married in 1945. They moved to the farm on Long Island and, in the winter of 1947, Krasner embarked on what became known as the ‘Little Images’ series, abstract paintings made up of tightly meshed squares and shapes which some critics described as ‘hieroglyphic’. Rooms one and two kick off the show with some fine examples of these ‘Little Images’ and it’s amazing what a variety of design and visual effect you can achieve from such a seemingly simple premise.

Composition (1949) by Lee Krasner © Philadelphia Museum of Art

The collage paintings

Krasner was given her first one-woman show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in October 1951. The work didn’t sell and, although she began a new series soon afterwards, she quickly became despondent and ended up tearing some of the new work to shreds in frustration.

Weeks later, returning to the studio, she realised that the torn strips lying about on the floor got her juices flowing. Quickly she began incorporating them into a new series of collages. She layered pieces of fabric over the paintings shown at the Betty Parsons show, adding pieces of burlap, torn newspaper, heavy photographic paper and some of Pollock’s discarded drawings. The resulting ‘collage paintings’ were exhibited in another gallery show in 1955, and there are several rooms of them on display here.

Blue Level (1955) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Diego Flores

Strikingly different from the ‘Little Images’, aren’t they? The very tightly-wound hieroglyphs of the Images are completely different from the violently torn strips of the collages.

Prophecies

In the summer of 1956 Krasner began work on a new series. The dominant tone of pink made me think of human flesh and nudes, but nudes severely chopped up and filtered via Demoiselles d’Avigon-era Picasso.

The first example of this new style was on Krasner’s easel when she left for France that summer. In the first half of their marriage, her husband’s career had gone from strength to strength, peaking around 1951, as he became world famous for his ‘drip paintings’, getting on the front cover of Time magazine, promoted by the American government as a home-grown genius, snapped up by collectors. But when, after 1951, Pollock tried to change this winning formula, he met with incomprehension and sales slumped. Pollock lost confidence, his drinking increased, he began an affair, which Krasner knew about, in early ’56.

That was the troubled background to the first of these flesh paintings and then – mid-way through her visit to Europe, she got the call that he had died in the car crash. Just weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to the style and quickly made three more big, torn-up flesh paintings which she titled Prophecy, Birth, Embrace and Three In Two.

In the last room of the first floor of the exhibition, these four paintings are reunited, one hanging on each of the four walls, and it is impossible not to be powerfully affected by their eerie, agonised power.

Prophecy (1956) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Christopher Stach

The night journeys

So Jackson dies and Lee moves into the big barn studio and she is afflicted with insomnia and can only work at night, and she decides not to use any colour in her new paintings because she prefers to judge colours by daylight – and so, from the late 1950s, Krasner began to make a series of paintings combining just black and umber and creamy white onto huge, unstretched canvases.

Wow! These are great swirling, turd-coloured pieces, full of energy and despair. A poet friend of hers labelled them ‘Night Journeys’ and to follow any of the angled, curved or circular lines which strike across the surface is, indeed, to go on a churning, bitter journey though a landscape in torment.

Polar Stampede (1960) by Lee Krasner. Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Krasner exhibited these big brown works in 1960 and 1962 to critical praise, and half a dozen of them dominate the first half of the enormous ground floor space in this show. You can stand in front of them, or there are benches where you can sit down, meditate on them, and be drawn into their drama and action.

Primary series

But the jewel in the crown is the Primary series. In the early 1960s Krasner replaced umber with a range of vivid primary colours. When she broke her right arm in a fall, she taught herself to work with her left, squirting paint directly from the tube, using her right hand to guide the movements.

Critics often use the word ‘gesture’ or ‘gestural’ but in this case it really is justified. As you follow the great sweeping arcs and patterns of paint, and note their dribbles and dynamic interactions, you can almost feel and see the great sweeps of the arm they must have required, the leaning of the whole body, the straining, the movement from one zone of focus to the next. They are extraordinarily vibrant and exciting paintings.

Icarus (1964) by Lee Krasner. Thomson Family Collection, New York © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Diego Flores

I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. I wandered up and down the central room, enjoying all the views of the works offset against each other, glimpsed behind the one central supporting wall of the main exhibition space, addressed front on, strolled past, studied up close, looked at from the other side of the room.

Wow! What a space, and what works of staggering brilliance to fill them with!

Later works

The Umber paintings and the Primary series cover the decade from the late 50s to the late 60s. What a brilliant decade it was for her.

Then, in 1968 Krasner discovered a stash of handmade paper in the farmhouse, and decided to make a new series of works, on a much, much, much smaller scale. She decided to experiment by making each of these small, crafted works from just one or two pigments. A dozen or so of them are in a room off to one side (room 11).

They require a completely different way of looking. Much more conventional in size they require the viewer to step forwards and examine the detail, rather than step back and admire the scale, as with the Primary series.

The dozen or so examples on display here are all lovely – free-spirited dances of colour, and interplays of defined brushstrokes against broader washes, all given a wonderful background texture by virtue of the expensive paper they’re painted on.

Untitled (1969) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York

In the early 1970s, Krasner made a significant step change in style. Still completely abstract, her works changed from soft biomorphic shapes to hard-edged abstract forms. I found them a shock to the system after the huge works in the central hall.

I liked even less the works in the final room, dating from 1974. In that year she stumbled across a portfolio of work from her art school days, the kind of angular nude studies which we saw examples of way back in room four.

Now Krasner took a pair of scissors to these early studies and cut them up into jagged shapes. Most of the source material was black and white drawings, but she interspersed some coloured strips into the collages, and also left other areas blank, apparently ‘echoing the empty space around the nude model’ which had served as the subject for many of the original drawings.

They were exhibited in 1977 under the title Eleven Ways To Use The Words To See. I didn’t warm to them.

Imperative (1976) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

No, I went back up to the first floor and walked back through the eight rooms soaking up the evolution of those early works and admiring, in particular, the ‘Little Images’ series. And I revisited the rooms holding these later 1970s works, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — but all the time I just wanted to go back into the massive main gallery space and be swept off my feet and ravished all over again by the huge, vibrant, dancing works of the 1960s.

Summary

This is the first European retrospective of Lee Krasner’s career for over 50 years. It brings together nearly 100 works from some 50 galleries, institutions and  private collections. It must have been a labour of love to assemble them all, and was totally worth it.

The exhibition ends with a 15-minute video made up from various interviews with Krasner towards the end of her life. She was one tough lady, and she told it like it was, still, in her 70s, harbouring a bitter resentment at the sexism of the New York art world which she had to combat all her career.

If you start reading up about her life you quickly find people claiming that, far from being overshadowed by her famous husband, Krasner was in fact the driving force behind his career. And, from some of the interviews, you get the impression that, having seen what really high-profile high pressure publicity did to an artist (Pollock), she was quite content to avoid that level of scrutiny, and just get on with what she loved doing.

The publicity material accompanying the exhibition quotes the playwright Edward Albee commenting at her memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that in both her life and her work, Krasner ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’.

That seems a perfect description of both a tough lady, and of her extraordinarily resolute, exuberant and unsentimental art.

A short film about Lee Krasner


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

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Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs @ Tate Modern

Tate Modern has collected some 120 Matisse cut-outs into a stunning blockbuster show. The commentary claims that, due to their fragile nature, we are unlikely to see such a large collection of these works ever again gathered into one place.

Brief resumé

Matisse (b.1869) made his reputation as a post-Impressionist, one of the so-called Fauves, and first exhibited in 1905. Critics and punters laughed at his garish and unrealistically-coloured nudes and portraits. Thirty years later, Matisse was well established as a twentieth century master when, now in his mid-60s, he began to experiment with cutting out large shapes from coloured paper.

The earliest cut-outs were created as aids to composition. The exhibition starts with some of some basic examples, still lifes where Matisse has cut out the shapes of apples and a vase in paper, which he then moved around the canvas until the arrangement looked right. All this was preliminary work, preparatory to creating an oil painting.

In 1941 Matisse almost died after major surgery. He made a will and prepared for death. When he survived it was in a greatly weakened, often wheelchair- or even bed-bound state. He continued to paint in oil but the prolonged periods of standing were beyond him, and painting from a sitting posture was an arduous process.

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown 1943-4 (Download high resolution image 1.61 MB) Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown (1943-4) Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet. © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS.

Oceania

His illness was just one of several streams which came together in the 1940s to make the idea of cutting out coloured paper and arranging the resulting shapes and patterns seem like a new and appealing activity. The privations of war in occupied Paris were another contributory factor.

His assistant tells the story that in 1946, more or less confined to his Paris apartment, Matisse cut out the shape of a swallow and asked it to be stuck over a blotch on the wall. He cut out some more shapes and asked them to be placed next to each other. Eventually the whole wall was covered and that is the origin of the two large cut-out compositions, Oceania: the Sky and Oceania: the Sea.

They consist of cut-out birds, fish, coral and leaves stuck directly onto the wall. As they grew in scope Matisse drew inspiration from a trip he made to Tahiti 16 years earlier. (There is a cartoonish self-portrait of the artist swimming round using primitive goggles to marvel at the undersea world).

Jazz

Matisse had been a favoured artist of the French publishing house Tériade. He had used cut-outs to provide covers for their magazine from as early as 1937. After the war, Tériade commissioned a book of new works from him, and Matisse decided to explore the possibilities of the cut-out which now offered a way of keeping up his creative output.

He began by making variations of fairly small images of figures dancing, done in strikingly bright, pure colours. The exhibition uses one long wall to hang the original ‘maquettes’ or cut-outs directly above the images as they appeared in the large-format art book which was eventually titled Jazz (In fact, most of the images are less to do with hipsters blowing saxaphones in smoky basement clubs, and more about childhood memories of the circus. They are filled with a childlike wonder and awe.)

Henri Matisse, Icarus 1946 (Download high resolution image 2.46 MB) Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Henri Matisse, Icarus (1946) Maquette for plate VIII of the illustrated book Jazz (1947) Digital image: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Claude Planchet
Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS

Jazz represented a tipping point, Matisse’s conscious acceptance that this was a distinct new art form or genre or way of working, and some of the most vivid and imaginative images are in this section of the show.

Ville de Rêve

Matisse moved from Paris to the small village of Vence, near Nice, in the south of France. A great feature of the cut-outs was how quick and light and easy they were to make. Matisse is quoted as saying that making them represented a great psychological liberation from the hard physical labour of painting.

But as well as being easy to create, they were easy to move around. They could also be positioned very flexibly, shifted, re-arranged. They could be used to cover walls, as the Oceanie images began as covering for the wall of his Paris apartment.

Thus the exhibition devotes room 5 to recreating a set of cut-outs which originally covered one wall of his studio at Vence. Eventually they were broken up into individual works – but seeing them all together on one white wall is a revelation. What an amazing wall of art! Twentieth century frescoes of colour and exuberance.

The commentary makes the point that, although we now see all the cut-outs preciously preserved under glass, in the freedom of the studio where they were originally created, even when pinned to the wall, they would flap and move with the wind through the window. Taken down and repositioned, they were capable of infinite adjustments and perfecting. If he could no longer go outside, Matisse could bring the whole world into his studio – his garden, the sea and sky of Oceania, jungles and birds and everything bright and wonderful.

Blue nudes 1952

Matisse made four enormous blue nude cut-outs and they are brought together, here in one room, for the first time since they were created. The room also includes small statues of nudes from earlier in Matisse’s career to compare and contrast.

I loved these to bits when I first saw them in the 1970s and now I realise, with a shock, that they were then only 25 or so years old. They seemed like classics even then. They not only capture the human form but lift it into a new dimension using the roughness, the approximation, at the same time the liberating immediacy, of the cut-outs.

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) 1952 (Download high resolution image 1.99 MB) Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas 106.30 x 78.00 cm Foundation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2013

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude (I) (1952) Gouache painted paper cut-outs on paper on canvas. Foundation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel. © Succession Henri Matisse / DACS

The chapel at Vence

Matisse spent four years (1947-51) using the cut-out approach to create the stained glass windows of the Dominican chapel of the Rosary in Vence. A room here gives you a rather feeble approximation of what is obviously a wonderful, light-filled space and which has now become a pilgrimage destination for art lovers from all over the world.

Bigger and better

In the early 1950s, Matisse expanded the size of the compositions, creating bigger and bigger works which take up whole walls. Big walls. The whiteness of the walls is an integral part of the effect. My favourites were:

I had never seen these before and they made a much bigger impact me than the Blue Nudes or the Snail, one of the prizes of Tate’s collection but which have a little of the over-familiarity of old friends.

The Snail 1953

Henri Matisse, The Snail (1953) Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted to canvas. Tate. © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS

In the final rooms of the exhibition entire walls are covered by these last creations. They have an astonishing clarity and simplicity and beauty and wonder about them, amazing for man, unwell and in his 80s – an astonishing triumph of the human spirit and imagination.

Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks 1953. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1 Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS 2014

Henri Matisse, Large Composition with Masks (1953) National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1973.17.1. Digital Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork: © Succession Henri Matisse/DACS

BBC Culture Show about Matisse’s cut-outs


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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