A Genius for Visual Language

Long Island Books
The life of Lee Krasner (left, around 1940) is given a comprehensive examination in Gail Levin’s new biography. Maurice Berezov and Pollock-Krasner Foundation Photos

One of art’s sharpest, most dedicated personalities, Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was fiercely determined to produce paintings that pushed the envelope, and she was fiercely devoted to the work and career of her husband, Jackson Pollock. While acquaintances totally respected her intellect, most also regarded her as fiercely no-nonsense and direct.

Krasner looked to the evolving currents of 20th-century abstraction to arrive at her own style of painting, as seen in “Image Surfacing,” above, from 1945, and “Igor,” below, from 1943.

So what would she have thought of Gail Levin’s probing, thoroughly researched, and well-documented biography?

Speculations about any negatives make a rather short list: Like most artists, Krasner preferred to be known primarily for what she achieved in the studio. Second, she probably would have felt that her very subjective, ever-fertile thoughts about life’s existential character should resist confinement in a hardcover biography.

Yet Krasner’s keen mind understood and appreciated accomplishment, so it is likely that she would have admired Ms. Levin’s investigative efforts, including the detailing of the education of an immigrant girl growing up in early-20th-century Brooklyn and the detailing of financial struggles made worse by the Depression. Most certainly she would have been pleased by the interweaving of seemingly every document relating to her art career and by the solid review of the ideas that influenced artists of her generation. She probably would have welcomed the description of liberal attitudes toward sexual relationships, and welcomed the attempt at clarifying the desire to be modern and to rebel against traditional religious constraints.

Human-interest factors contribute to the book’s flow, but a broad, serious look at social issues provides shape to most chapters. The goal, early on, is to define a real person striving in a real world. There is plenty of context, and much introspection.

All the key elements of the Krasner-Pollock legend are here, including the couple’s permanent move to a farmhouse in the Springs section of East Hampton in 1945 and Pollock’s fatal car crash on Springs-Fireplace Road in 1956. Ms. Levin expands the history through the perspective of Krasner, bringing in the artist’s emotional drive and offering some rationale for her decisions in life.

Krasner’s roots in a traditional Jewish, Old World family are portrayed as a formative influence that remained part of her story long after she struck her independent path. One particularly interesting point emerging from the discussion of the artist’s siblings is the role her brother, Irving, played in introducing her to the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche while she was still a high school student.

Issues of anti-Semitism and issues related to widespread discrimination against women are part of this full saga. Pushing further, Ms. Levin — who first interviewed Krasner in 1971 while still a graduate student — has sifted through and added the artist’s occasional remarks about the range of feminist causes. In Krasner’s experience, it was acceptable to be a female artist enrolled in New York art classes and later at the Works Progress Administration, but everything changed once the European artists established themselves here during the war era, dominated the scene, and brought a change in attitude toward equality.

Perhaps the headiest social insights come from the section on New York’s avant-garde politics in the ’30s, when creative people and progressive ideas merged to launch important careers, new publications, and new alliances among artists. Ms. Levin’s treatment of the immigrant attraction to Communism is especially revealing. While not a party member, here is Krasner, engaged in the activist pursuits of the Artists Union. And here is Krasner agreeing with Meyer Schapiro in his argument (published in Art Front in 1936) against nationalism in art, against American representational art, and against fascism in art. Here is Krasner, about the same time, taking a role beside Ad Reinhardt, Ibram Lassaw, Balcomb Greene, and others in the American Abstract Artists group.

A very substantial portrayal of Krasner’s project responsibilities while involved in the W.P.A. and other federal support programs for artists provides valuable information. Interactions among project artists are well covered, and so are the specifics of mural assignments and the possibilities of fitting abstraction into the program. The seeds of Krasner’s interest in exploring the possibilities of abstraction on a very large scale are here, providing an illuminating thread leading to the sizable canvases she began decades later, after she turned Pollock’s barn-studio into her work space.

After Pollock’s death, people frequently looked to Krasner for further understanding of the couple’s life and work. She gave numerous interviews and must have become increasingly conscious of her participation in history. Ms. Levin, who has written biographies of Edward Hopper and Judy Chicago, has been diligent in studying this material and generous in inserting citations. For example, in discussing Krasner’s “Little Image” paintings, begun in 1946, the author brings in supporting information from at least seven sources.

Ms. Levin’s own very thorough oral history process includes interviews with scores of people who were involved in the artist’s life. Thus the sensitive issues surrounding Krasner’s handling of the Pollock estate take their proper, thoroughly interesting role in the biography. There are contracts, and then new contracts. Relationships develop. Relationships end.

An experienced art historian, Ms. Levin gives careful attention to the evolving stylistic adjustments in Krasner’s painting and integrates the information smoothly into the text — an approach that always helps in fully understanding an artist’s life. The view of Krasner’s developing interests is crucial, for we see them here in the context of her contacts with others in her New York circle. She cared about Picasso’s picture plane, Matisse’s color, Kandinsky’s rhythm, Mondrian’s space, and Miro’s synthesis, and she discussed turning them into a new visual language. It was her outstanding grasp of visual possibilities that enabled her to recognize Pollock’s path to genius.

Another parallel thread, the subconscious as an ever-present meaningful resource, runs throughout the book. It emerges in the form of Krasner’s dream content, as a long-term interest in psychoanalysis, and in her own comments about her belief in the intuitive, the subjective, the undiscovered or unknown. She was attracted to the words of writers like Rimbaud, whose philosophical insights lent comfort to her search.

Clearly many routes to abstraction were part of Krasner’s creative process, and of her world. Possibly some will regard the tale of this world as the book’s most significant contribution since it underscores Krasner’s role in Abstract Expressionism. Yet the full saga, with its multiple messages of 20th-century stress and achievement, makes a biography worth celebrating.

Gail Levin, a professor at Baruch College, lives part time in Bridgehampton.

Phyllis Braff is an art critic who has a house in Springs.