It was to be expected that when the time came to organize a definitive retrospective exhibition of the paintings of the late Lee Krasner (1908-1984), the task of providing an unclouded account of her artistic accomplishments would prove a difficult undertaking. As the wife and widow of Jackson Pollock, Krasner had long been either overlooked or underrated as an artist in her own right. During the years of Pollock’s highly publicized ascendancy on the New York art scene, she was better known to the public–to the extent that she was known at all–as his long-suffering spouse than as a serious painter. And in the decades following the scandal of his violent death in 1956, she suffered the additional burden of serving as the all-powerful “art widow,” presiding over the disposition of a multimillion-dollar estate while attempting to establish an artistic identity of her own.
Add to this the biographies of Pollock that often had the effect of turning both her private life and her artistic aspirations into a public soap opera, and the recent Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that contributed further layers of mythification to her husband’s life and work, in the development of which she often played an important role. Now there is a movie about them, too. Is it any wonder that Krasner’s own paintings have not always met with the attention they merit?
Given this melancholy history, I wish it were possible to say the retrospective that has now come to the Brooklyn Museum of Art writes “finis” to the muddle, hearsay and question-begging that have long surrounded Krasner’s work. But this, alas, is not the case. For this exhibition, organized by Robert Hobbs for a group called Independent Curators International, is so heavily burdened by an attempt to reinvent Lee Krasner as one of the intellectual heavyweights of her time that it, too, only succeeds in making yet another mess of her artistic oeuvre .
Suffice to say that it is Mr. Hobbs’ solemn but mistaken opinion that Lee Krasner was, of all things, a “postmodernist,” long before the term itself even existed. To support this preposterous claim, Mr. Hobbs is obliged to engage in some tortuous psychobabble about Krasner’s alleged “investigation of selfhood through decades of modernism, existentialism, analyses of language and the problems of communication.” All sorts of subjects–the psychoanalytic theories of Harry Stack Sullivan, the Holocaust, the post-World War II discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even the Trotskyism of the New York intellectuals–are pressed into service to support this notion of Krasner as some sort of postmodernist avant la lettre . The only thing missing in this inventory of interests is some close attention to Krasner’s artistic thought.
The paintings on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum of Art tell a different story, of course: the story of a gifted, dedicated follower of modernist painting who sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed in her fierce but troubled ambition to create the kind of aesthetically demanding abstract painting that would meet the standards set by the modernist masters. If divorced from this commitment to a modernist aesthetic, which dominated Krasner’s work from her years of study with Hans Hofmann to the end of her career, her art cannot be understood.
On what basis, then, does Mr. Hobbs assign Krasner to the ranks of the postmodernists? Well, because over the course of her career as a painter she was, in his words, “unable to settle for long into the comforts of a distinctly individual style.” But this was true of a great many modernist painters. It was even true of Pollock for most of his career. It was only for a very few years, after all, that he concentrated on the so-called “drip” abstractions that won him his greatest fame. Both before and after that brief period, he too was “unable to settle for long into the comforts of a distinctly individual style.” Does this make Pollock a postmodernist as well?
None of this nonsense would matter much if it were confined to the show’s catalogue, which, except for its chronology of Krasner’s life and work, is a litany of postmodernist academic twaddle. (Even the color plates badly misrepresent Krasner’s color in some of her most ambitious pictures. Is this to be taken as a postmodern commentary?) Unfortunately, the wall texts which festoon the installation of this retrospective in Brooklyn recycle a good deal of this twaddle wherever one turns. This is one of those exhibitions in which the curator insists upon telling us what to think about what we see–or, even worse, what the pictures might mean or refer to, or be construed to refer to, at every shift in the artist’s life.
This is a terrible way to exhibit abstract paintings, for its implicit message is that the paintings are incapable of speaking for themselves. It takes an immensely powerful talent to transcend this reductive practice, which brings every aesthetic decision down to the level of gossip and anecdote, and Krasner was only intermittently a painter in command of that level of talent. The first big moment in the show comes when you enter the huge gallery containing the artist’s two most ambitious Abstract Expressionist pictures, The Seasons (1957) and Celebration (1960), paintings that put to rest any doubts we may have about the scale of Krasner’s artistic aspirations. Yet even these paintings, fine as they are, turn out to exhaust the very impulse that is essential to their vitality. Some of the smaller paintings from the same period– Birth (1956), Thaw (1957) and Cornucopia (1958)–have something of the same headlong vitality, but then it begins to recede. The hot color, which was one of Krasner’s strengths when she was equal to its demands, abruptly disappears. It is last seen at full throttle in the huge Gaea (1966), after which the paintings slump into Abstract Expressionist boilerplate.
Still, there is a final moment when Krasner moves into a more subdued mode of abstraction, which Mr. Hobbs mistakenly labels “Minimalist Abstract Expressionism.” (He apparently means “Hard-Edge Abstraction,” but “Hard-Edge Abstraction” and “Minimalism” are by no means identical.) This, too, is primarily a vehicle for color, and is obviously inspired by Matisse’s late cut-out pictures. After that, she took to making collage compositions out of her earlier Cubist drawings. The result is something of a downer after the high-energy Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950′s and 60′s.
It should not be necessary to observe that Lee Krasner was not a major talent, but recent attempts to elevate her achievement to major status require that it be said. She was, however, one of the most gifted minor painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation, and her work, uneven as it may be in quality and conception, deserves a more intelligent presentation than it has been given in this ill-conceived retrospective. She was famous among her friends for despising art-world cant; she was positively furious, for example, about Harold Rosenberg’s blather about “action painting,” which she understood was a cynical anti-aesthetic slander of Abstract Expressionism. I think she would have been equally furious to see herself packaged as a postmodernist. But this is the situation that now prevails among our art curators and art historians, and it is a pity that she isn’t around to tell them off.
Still, the best of her work survives such nonsense, and for souls willing to brave the barricades of postmodernist twaddle, this retrospective remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through Jan. 7.
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.