Review | Lee Krasner at the Barbican

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Lee Krasner, Icarus, 1964, Thomson Family Collection © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, Photo by Diego Flores.

Lee Krasner’s work was central in the proliferation of abstract expressionism in the United States. A new show at the Barbican, Lee Krasner: Living Colour, plots the unfolding of her artistic identity, from the muted cubist works of her earlier years, to the saturated, rhythmic abstractions of her later practice, bringing together works from over 50 public and private collections from around the world. Krasner enrolled onto the art course at Washington Irving High at the age of 14 – an education that would provide a foundation for an illustrious artistic career.This major retrospective of Krasner’s work further entrenches her importance in the unfolding of abstract art. Previously, she has been overshadowed by Jackson Pollock, whom she married in 1945.

Krasner’s abstract expressionism was organic, for she never wished to develop a ‘style’; seeking instead to experiment with different forms of painting. This constant cycle of reinvention does not appear precarious, however, for each of the chapters is as captivating as the last. There is a clear artistic purpose to each of Krasner’s experiments, which cannot often be said of an artist’s oeuvre. Her use of collage in works such as Blue Level (1955)  developed entirely naturalistically, as, unhappy with her work, she tore it into pieces, finding the relationship between the resulting shapes to be of interest. Also incorporated are pieces of Pollock’s discarded drawings.  

Lee Krasner, Blue Level, 1955, © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photograph by Diego Flores

The piece Prophecy, painted in 1956, reflects Krasner’s faltering relationship with Pollock. The  work is dark and psychologically disturbing, as flesh tones and rough, curving marks render a human-like form. Shortly after the conception of the work, Pollock was killed in a car crash. Krasner returned to the painting soon after finding herself a widow, accompanying it with three other works, plotting the cycle of birth, life, and death. There is a poignant sense of grief and sorrow in these works, that is far removed from the abstract compositions of her earlier paintings. The pieces tread the line between figuration and abstraction. The next body of work, Night Journeys, is a monochromatic series of earthy abstractions. Having moved into Pollock’s studio following his death, these pieces present an unavoidable emotional depth, as grief still weighed heavy upon the artist. Suffering from insomnia, the works were created at night, as reflected in their inherently haunting quality. Triple Goddess (1960) is a solemn, spiralling confusion of line and form. As the artist moved into the 60s, colour began once more to dominate her practice, utilising the same naturalistic marks, with new found vibrancy.

Lee Krasner, Prophecy, 1956, © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Kasmin Gallery, Photo by Christopher Stach

The ‘Primary Series’ on display in the lower gallery, is a collection of Krasner’s work from the early to mid sixties. These large scale pieces are captivating; they are energetic, alive with colour. Despite the ostensible freedom that pieces such as Combat (1965) present, there is a concealed harmony of line and shade that brings the works together,  ultimately demonstrating the skill of the artist. The vibrancy of the work confronts the viewer, as they are drawn into the sublime ‘landscapes’, reflecting the unbound energy of 60’s New York. Following these pieces, in the early 70s, Krasner moved to create more subdued, mathematical works, that lack the freedom of the earlier period. Utilising sharp lines and angles, these pieces appear draw upon imagery of industrial design, perhaps of Charles Eames, a life-long friend of Krasner. Olympic (1974) maintains some of the saturation of the early body of work, while appearing as the the antithesis of the previous forms. The composition of the piece is reflective of Krasner’s earlier uses of collage, as the rigid shapes maintain some sporadic nature, that separates them from similar works by other artists.

This cycle of experimentation and creation is epitomised by the final works in the show. Eleven Ways presents a collection of works; collages of earlier, previously unseen pieces. Imperative (1976) provides a survey of the multifarious styles of the artist’s work across her career, demonstrating the organic, cubist extractions of her early years, alongside the rigid, modernist forms of her late practice, intertwined with bright splashes of colour. This final room is a fitting end to a fascinating retrospective of Lee Krasner’s work, and her vital position in the unfolding of abstract expressionism, within America, and the world as a whole.

Words by Charlie Dixon.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour is on at the Barbican until 1st September. For more information and tickets, visit the Barbican.


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