30 May – 1 September 2019 @Barbican
Thirty-five years after her death, Lee Krasner (1908-1984) is discharged from the duty of being Jackson Pollock’s wife and ‘Living Color’ can certainly reassure everyone of it.
A completely obscured genius while she was alive – from the famous husband or from the obtuse inclination to inequality and sexism that governed the 60s – through this brilliant exhibition at the Barbican we get a tremendous opportunity to see more than a hundred works from Lee Krasner’s repertoire.
We already knew Lee was a prodigy from the days she was a young student at the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union. Or when the German artist Hans Hoffmann (her drawing professor at the time) said that her work was so exemplary that “it seemed to be made by a man”. Sadly, times were against Krasner as for all female painters; so Lee had soon to give up the dream of becoming a full-time artist and applied herself to the most appropriate jobs – she became a maid, a waitress, or a model. Her name changed, altering her identity into an androgenic version of herself. Lena became Lee, a woman with a man’s name: though metaphorically equal to the other men, she became sexless.
From this perspective, the retrospective is an exposition of contexts: it leads us to know Lee and her works, starting from the first juvenile experiments to the most recent works, learning about uncertainties and joys characterizing her life. On the other hand, we get an archetype of the talented artist’s struggle and her conflict with the artistic world.
The reference of her name change is allegorical of her attitude towards art. Throughout all her life, Lee tried to confirm herself as an artist by getting rid of frivoulous and one-dimensional labels. She broke away from preconceptions, rebelling against being identified as a Cubist or Realist as of being a woman. This orientation was to be destructive for her – a position of which Pollock was, at the time, both cause and effect.
One of the main problems was indeed being stickered as “Mrs Pollock”, the artist’s wife. Krasner had already developed a prolific painting career when she met Pollock in 1941, being praised by artists of the caliber of Piet Mondrian. For as much as she didn’t need him to blossom, it is their relationship’s crisis first and Pollock’s death after that coincide with the mature period of Krasner. After these events, Lee’s art is freed, becoming wild and lush.
When the partnership with Pollock in 1956 begins to falter, she completely dives into Prophecy (1956). All of Lee’s worries and fears are poured into these clearly Picasso-inspired paintings, with his stormy experiences and visions. Pieces of breasts, an eye that secretly looks, buttocks, dangling objects that refer to testicles or private sexual parts, mouths that seem to be speaking. After that, she moves to France – a journey that prevented her from being present the day that Pollock crashed into a tree in 1957.
When she gets back, her work becomes feverish, using art as tool to react to the loss. Brilliant as well as painful paintings, where the artist’s voice is found in spectacular, enormous canvas, with a coagulated and organized chaos where you surrender to details. These are massive pieces of art, where the artist’s fervour is at its best. After that, she starts reconstructing images in brave collages: paintings produced in sleepless nights, clearly inspired by Matisse. A series of brown and white giant canvases follow one another in the room, as if they were large abstract expressionist protests. The color slips relentlessly, forming shapes that dance and flash, showing us Lee in all her essence, bringing her back to being simply herself.
The second floor of the Barbican leaves room for the artist’s biography; we can marvel at the young and bitter art of her self-portraits, whose passion recalls the art of women like Frida Kahlo. Through the designs inspired by Michelangelo, her sketches seem to be her first attempts to more mature painting – she calls them Little Images, paintings she works on relentlessly with manic precision and intensity.
An exhibition that proves that Lee was definitely the best amongst the men of her time.