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Wednesday, March 30th, 2011
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Lee Krasner: A Biography

by Gail Levin

A Painter in Her Own Right

A review by Jonathan Lopez

Shortly before World War I, Marie-Hortense Cezanne, widow of the painter Paul, spent a weekend in Monaco as the guest of an art dealer. He granted her unlimited credit at the casino, and after losing at the gaming tables, she had to cede him a cache of her husband's best watercolors to settle accounts. The heirs of a great artist must learn to swim with sharks.

Not such easy prey, however, was Jackson Pollock's widow, the tough-minded painter Lee Krasner. Aware that Pollock's legacy was potentially worth millions, she patiently cultivated the market for his work, sold nothing on the cheap and flatly rebuffed the art-world grandees who hoped to profit by "advising" the estate. Krasner even conducted business for a time through London dealers, cutting New York's culture vultures completely out of the picture. In 1967, the critic Harold Rosenberg noted that Krasner "almost single-handedly forced up prices for contemporary American abstract art after the death of her husband."

Money was important to Krasner, but so was the judgment of posterity. She carefully steered Pollock's best paintings to major public collections, where they could be seen by a wide audience; lent work freely to overseas exhibitions to advance his international reputation; and encouraged serious, wide-ranging scholarship. Although Pollock may not have been easy to live with -- he had been killed in an auto accident in 1956, driving drunk with his mistress near East Hampton, New York -- Krasner truly loved him, and her faithful tending of the flame was, in large part, a tribute to that sincere and lasting affection. She ensured that the man once mocked as "Jack the Dripper" had an eminent place in art history.

Yet as Baruch College professor Gail Levin shows in the first full-length biography of Krasner, there was a world of spite behind Rosenberg's "single-handedly" comment. Critics like Rosenberg and his archrival Clement Greenberg tended to dismiss women artists, and with their interest in Pollock thwarted by the widow, they made it difficult for her to gain recognition as an artist in her own right. "People treated me as Pollock's wife, not as a painter," she said in a 1981 interview. "Someone like Greenberg, because I didn't hand over to him the Pollock estate, did his job well to make sure I didn't come through as a painter. He had power." Although Greenberg was closely acquainted with Krasner for decades -- he met Pollock through her -- he never wrote a word in support of her art.

Ms. Levin's perceptive, judicious book reveals Krasner as a fine, important painter but steers clear of inflated praise. The formal richness of Krasner's work may never have approached that of Abstract Expressionism's greatest practitioners -- Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning. But she more than holds her own in the movement's second tier with such artists as Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell.

Unlike Newman, with his vertical "zips" of brightly colored paint, Krasner never had a signature image, repeated year after year. Her approach, like that of the European Modernists she revered, was unceasingly experimental and analytic, although the object of her investigations was art itself rather than nature. Her finest works, like "Celebration" (1960) and "Uncial" (1967), combine the all-over compositional structures of Pollock with the formal rhythms of Picasso and the subtle color harmonies of Matisse. They are technically accomplished and emotionally powerful; redolent of tradition, yet distinctly innovative.

Krasner also laid down the gauntlet to art historians, referring to her mostly nonrepresentational body of work as "autobiographical if anyone can take the trouble to read it." Ms. Levin takes up this daunting interpretive challenge with great subtlety and skill, relating the nuances of Krasner's artistic and personal development to the larger narratives of art history and societal change.

Setting Krasner's student years against the background of the Roaring '20s, Ms. Levin lets us see the young artist's career choice in the context of independent-minded "flappers," who challenged many established ideas about the proper role of women. A serious, somewhat shy child from a Jewish-immigrant household in Brooklyn, Krasner threw herself into the whirl of New York's downtown art scene. Waitressing and modeling to earn her keep, she engaged in a passionate affair with one of her fellow students at the National Academy of Design, the dashing Russian aristocrat Igor Pantuhoff, who later became a successful society portraitist.

Krasner showed promise as a painter of the human form. A fine self-portrait from 1928 depicts her working at her easel, confidently stepping into the role of the professional artist. But traditional portraiture interested Krasner far less than the groundbreaking exhibitions she saw at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art. Soon enough, she was irritating her instructors by introducing elements of Cezanne or Picasso into increasingly avant-garde pictures.

Depression-era relief programs funded by the Works Progress Administration allowed Krasner to devote herself full-time to painting -- partly by working on the decoration of public buildings. From that point forward, she immersed herself in the emerging trends of the New York School of abstract art, whose development was enhanced by the presence of an ever-growing number of European artists on the run from Hitler. One of the most amusing scenes in the book involves a star-struck Krasner going out dancing with Piet Mondrian, the Dutch master of geometric abstraction, whose famed painting "Broadway Boogie Woogie" was inspired by a genuine affection for cutting a rug.

Ms. Levin is a singularly able guide to Krasner's life: As a young art historian in the late 1970s, she came to know the artist personally while co-curating a major show at the Whitney Museum of American Art on the origins of Abstract Expressionism -- the first to make clear that Krasner had been working in an abstract mode long before meeting Pollock. The Krasner-Levin friendship lasted until the artist's death in 1984, and an ardent sense of loyalty and admiration shines through in the book. Ms. Levin forcefully takes Krasner's side against all detractors. In certain passages involving Robert Motherwell, who loathed Krasner, one senses that Ms. Levin might gladly exhume his body and do violence to his bones.

Rejecting the ideological cant that mars so much writing on modern art, Ms. Levin strives to sweep away "distorting agendas and theoretical fantasies." Occasionally this corrective impulse prompts her to rehash her own grievances by quoting from sources that diminish the standing of rivals or that sing her own praises. We learn, for instance, that art historian Ellen Landau had a fraught relationship with Krasner and once asked the artist to "stop holding Gail Levin up to me." Ms. Levin then mocks Ms. Landau for thinking "my work on Krasner was insignificant" and quotes a letter from Krasner describing Ms. Landau as "arrogant." There are further self-referential digressions in the book's later chapters, a petty trend that intrudes on the story of Krasner's life.

But Ms. Levin still tells that central story quite well. Overall, this is an insightful, sharply drawn portrait of 20th-century America from the vantage point of a creative woman swept up in a realm of remarkable artistic productivity.

Mr. Lopez is editor-at-large of Art and Antiques.

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