A portrait of the artist who happened to marry Jackson Pollock
Lee Krasner has most often been dismissed as the loud, pushy, Jewish wife of Jackson Pollock. She has rarely been considered as the complex woman and uncompromising artist she was. Gail Levin has taken on the formidable task of rescuing her from personal misrepresentation and artistic erasure by describing the life of the woman and the career of the artist. She has succeeded masterfully in this dual purpose.
Krasner was born in 1908 to an immigrant Jewish couple in Brooklyn. As a young woman, she was determined to become an artist. Poor and struggling, Krasner studied painting, advocated left-wing politics, and practiced free love. Although hardly pretty, she had style and sex appeal sufficient to attract many men, including the suave, handsome Russian aristocrat, Igor Pantuhoff, with whom she lived for a decade. During the Depression, she found work at the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. At the WPA, which hired based on talent not gender, she worked alongside many New York artists Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning.
When she met Pollock in 1941, she was attracted to the man and impressed by his painting. He was a tough, hard-drinking macho man from Cody, Wyo., who was devoted to and enthusiastic about art. A narcissistic bad boy, he required capable handling, constant support, and attentive mothering. He needed Krasner’s encouragement and love, and she, believing in his genius, was happy to provide it. Jackson, when sober, was dour, reticent, and silent, needing Krasner’s articulate intelligence and forceful personality to promote him. When drunk, he was belligerent, noisy, and reckless, needing her to control his behavior and curtail his drinking.
Shortly after marrying in 1945, Krasner and Pollock left the distractions of the New York art scene and moved to Springs on the tip of Long Island. Many other artists followed them, forming a lively community of artists, their wives, and friends. Krasner was sensitive to being viewed merely as one of the wives in this group, insisting on her position as an artist. Not that being a woman artist was much better than being a wife. The prevailing phallocentric view was that women artists were inherently inferior, derivative and silly. Ignored or excluded by the powerful art establishment, Krasner persevered with her work despite discrimination, discouragement, and neglect. Painting was her primary job, but calming Pollack’s erratic behavior and monitoring his destructive drinking were also her constant cares. He was only 44 when drunk and driving with two young women, he flipped his car over, killing himself as well as one of the women not the one he was currently sleeping with. Krasner became a widow at 47.
For the rest of her life, she had two roles as an artist struggling to gain recognition as a pioneer in the abstract expressionist movement and as Pollock’s widow fighting to secure his place as the great innovator of action painting. She was especially successful in managing Pollock’s estate and establishing his reputation as the most important artist of his generation, while grappling with dealers and critics, along with the feuds, jealousies, and petty politics of the art world. She was less successful in gaining recognition for herself until the feminist movement of the 1970s insisted on the importance and inclusion of women artists.
Levin, a biographer of Edward Hopper and an art historian who knew Krasner as a friend and mentor, is an ideal biographer for her subject. Sympathetic yet scholarly, she inserts her own opinions or interpretations with great restraint and tact, relying on a vast amount of research. When she does insert herself, she does so in measured, thoughtful, succinct passages that explain, clarify or reconcile difficult pieces of personal, social, and intellectual history. She allows the portrait of Krasner to form itself slowly. In the end, a reader comes away with enormous respect for Krasner as a woman and a painter. When she asserts, “I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock,’’ a reader not only understands her point, but applauds her for insisting on it repeatedly and forcefully.
Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at email@example.com.