‘Lee Krasner: Living Colour’ Review – Barbican Art Gallery

30th May – 1st September 2019

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Many texts on Lee Krasner emphasise her “breaks”; she would mercilessly abandon a set style in pursuit of a more authentic mode of expression. Upon enrolling at the Hans Hofmann School on West Ninth Street in 1937—where Hofman advanced a form of Cubism to his American students—she stated that ‘to move from the Academy into Cubism was a violent situation’. The Barbican Art Gallery’s 'Lee Krasner: Living Colour' exhibits plenty of these violent breaks. Yet a viewer is struck when, in the last room, one encounters her saying: ‘I am never free of the past, I believe in continuity’. Why does an artist intent on reinvention insist upon continuity?

Lee Krasner, Abstract No. 2, 1946 – 48, IVAM, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Generalitat, Spain. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo provided by IVAM.

This is the first retrospective in Europe of Lee Krasner's work in over fifty years. The gallery space is abound with paintings, drawings, photographs, and even furniture. Stark white walls are renounced in favour of light pinks and deep greens; roof lights are removed for natural light to seep in. These design choices highlight the versatility of her works – they are open to changes in context. Even Stop and Go (c. 1949)—a round canvas stuffed with barbed, dark shapes—finds light when enveloped in pink.

Retrospectives allow one to chart continuities in an artist’s development. From repeated pigments—fuchsia pink was a personal favourite—to uniformly intense geometries, a single ingenuity is felt behind all works. Krasner did break tired styles, but she used the same pieces to create new ones. And this process was physical too. For the 1955 Stable Gallery exhibition, she composed a series of "collage paintings". She had previously torn up unsold paintings in frustration, but the shreds regained her interest. Assembling a collage from them resulted in the physical manifestation of violent continuity. ‘I am not to be trusted around my old work for any length of time’, she said. For Krasner, the past was always up for grabs.

Lee Krasner, Icarus, 1964, Thomson Family Collection, New York City.© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo: Diego Flores.

Krasner’s husband, Jackson Pollock, has a presence in the retrospective too. They shared artistic drives and lived together but in her artistic drive, one sees a mission to bring the background forward. The relationship between ground and content is at stake in her paintings. In Through Blue (1963) one is captivated by the vibrant bursts of blue – they are its content. However, bursts need a stable, overlooked ground to define themselves against. The blue is vibrant insofar as it catches attention away from the ground. The majority of the visual field, on the other hand, lays uncovered and stable. Krasner encourages this background forth; it reveals itself as a major shaping presence. And if a single painting can appreciate both the overlooked and the looked, a whole continent can appreciate both Krasner and Pollock. It has been fifty years too many since Europe got the chance.

Lee Krasner, Palingenesis, 1971, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Image courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York.

'Lee Krasner: Living Colour' exhibits a breadth of work. A versatile gallery design endows these works with new contexts. The paintings resulting from Pollock’s death are tenderly displayed in an intimate room. Monumental canvases, such as Another Storm (1963), claim presence among big Barbican tooled-concrete columns. The viewer finds a single intelligence behind wildly different works. She wanted a canvas to ‘breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point’. These paintings—too long overlooked—do breathe. The bring forth new qualities of painting and suggest new ways to appreciate them. Krasner’s vibrant splendor shakes viewers into attention. The subject matter, school, and materials change, but a radiant vigour always lies behind the brush.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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