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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: Lee Krasner Living Colour

    Early summer is the perfect time of year to visit the Lee (Lenore) Krasner: Living Colour exhibition at the Barbican Gallery, when the vibrant colours of her paintings, especially of her late works, reflect the bloom and abundance of the season. Krasner encountered several obstacles on her journey as an artist. Born in Brooklyn, she lived in an era dominated by Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian. Although her work was overlooked during her marriage to Jackson Pollock, the central figure in the American Abstract Expressionist Movement, she continued to paint. This retrospective exhibition seeks to celebrate her career which spans over 5 decades.

    Nearly one hundred of Krasner’s works are spread out over both levels of the Barbican. Anything produced before and during her time with Pollock is displayed on the upper level while the more accomplished paintings made after he died are downstairs on level one. To highlight Pollock’s influence, Living Colour starts with her abstract, jewel-like ‘Little Images’ which she painted after they moved to Springs, Long Island in 1945 where Krasner got over her creative block. The Little Images are displayed beside photographs by Ray Eames of the wildflowers surrounding Springs which inspired them.

    Early on Krasner avoided developing a signature style, shifting from style to style instead. There is a virtuoso self-portrait painted outdoors in woodlands when she was nineteen, referencing Claude Monet. Her teachers didn’t believe that the picture was painted by her. The dynamic Cubist life drawings produced while she was under the tutelage of art critic Hans Hoffman are also on display. These are Classical in style in terms of their bulk. There are bright collages such as Blue Level (1955), made from pieces of her paintings torn up (in agitation) which were influenced by Matisse and Miro in their colour schemes.

    Prophecy (1956) is the first in a series she produced while Pollock’s alcohol addiction worsened. It is part abstract, part figurative with seething, fleshy forms, reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Krasner didn’t incorporate a feminist or political agenda into her work (although she did campaign for artist’s rights) but Prophecy followed by Birth and Embrace painted after Pollock’s fatal car crash are amongst her most troubled paintings. She said her work was often autobiographical ‘Painting is not separate from life’.

    Krasner’s more abstract works are downstairs on level one. She had (in her own words) ‘transitioned to Pollock’. He was an innovator. She said ‘I knew he was important, I felt I was holding a comet by it’s tail’.

    The Night Journey series including ‘The Eye is the First Circle’ (1960) was painted when Krasner was suffering from insomnia related to anxiety from the passing of her mother and bad reviews and an exhibition cancelled by art critic Clement Greenberg. The pictures were painted at night. Krasner couldn’t use colour without daylight and here her palette was limited to white and umber (brown). These massive works were painted with big, swirling, turbulent brush strokes at Pollock’s former studio in Springs.

    And then in the early 1960s something new happened. Krasner embarked on works with names like Icarus, Kufic, Siren and Combat in bright, organic colour which are the exhibition’s highlight. These are immediately engaging, covered in rounded lines and shapes and colours that reflect the outdoor environment, but there is also a sense of control and of clear thought process.

    Finally, there is video footage of various interviews with Lee Krasner threaded together, which might be better viewed at the outset. We learn about her formidable personality, her love of jazz music and how she once danced with Piet Mondrian at a Jazz club in Paris. We hear about her arbitrary working practice. For instance, she didn’t sketch out her work, and the size of the canvas might depend on her energy levels or the weather.

    Living Colour tells the story of Krasner’s life and her struggles in a clear narrative with entertaining footage and those wonderful, colourful paintings. She achieved limited success during her life. Krasner died in 1984 months before the MOMA show of her works that she had waited a lifetime for. This exhibition recognizes her original contribution to the Abstract Expressionist Movement.

    Until 1 September 2019   




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