Lee Krasner’s Earthly Visions

Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner struggled to make a name for herself in the New York art world of the mid-20th century. But her work – like Earth #1, from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection – offers powerful insights into our world.
Lee Krasner, American (Brooklyn, New York, 1908 – 1984, New York, New York), Earth #1, 1969, gouache on linen fiber paper, 18 ¼ x 22 ½ inches, Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection: Purchase, Tabriz Fund.

In abstract works – like her 1969 gouache Earth #1 – Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner made strong visual statements about the elements and life of our planet. But it was not easy for her art to get noticed. “There were the artists and then there were the ‘dames.’ I was considered a ‘dame’ even if I was a painter too,” she said of the New York City art world of the 1940s and 1950s where her art had matured.

For decades, as the Abstract Expressionists became the first American artists to step into the international modern art spotlight, the women artists of the movement were left in the wings. Krasner was best known as the wife and champion of the leading Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who was notorious for placing his vast canvases on the floor of his studio to stream and drip paint onto them.

Pollock was one of the art world’s biggest stars when he died in a violent car crash in 1956. Krasner was distraught. But being widowed meant that she was finally able to put more time and effort into her own art after the exhausting years taking care of her brilliant – but often emotionally unstable – husband. Not that Pollock’s death made it any easier for Krasner to emerge from his long shadow. She said the influential art critic Harold Rosenberg always called her “Lee Krasner, widow of Jackson Pollock, as if I needed that handle.” Even as her own art blossomed, Krasner continued to put substantial effort into promoting Pollock’s legacy. “Being Lee Krasner Pollock is a full-time job,” she said.

Krasner’s art had always been important to her. Although she had been born to a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn in 1908, Krasner had managed to study art since her childhood. She spent time at the Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design, all in New York City. Krasner was a leader and organizer among the politically active artists on the New Deal art projects of the 1930s. And she had a sophisticated grasp of current art from around the world – Cubist painter Pablo Picasso was among her strongest influences.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Krasner was friends with and showed alongside the leading New York School painters, such as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Alexander Calder. All the major modern art galleries and critics in New York knew Krasner through her association with Pollock and his colleagues. But despite the freedom she gained with Pollock’s passing, her own art career did not take off until the late 1960s, when she was nearly 60 years old. In 1965, she had successful one-woman exhibitions in London and Detroit. In 1968, she began her association with the prestigious Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York with a solo exhibition of abstract oil paintings that earned enthusiastic critical praise in The New York Times and ARTnews – among other high profile publications. By that time, Krasner had developed a distinctive visual vocabulary of curving abstract shapes in vivid pink, acid green, and rich red that played against black lines and white or grey planes.

Lee Krasner, American (Brooklyn, New York, 1908 – 1984, New York, New York), Earth #1 (detail), 1969, gouache on linen fiber paper, 18 ¼ x 22 ½ inches, Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection: Purchase, Tabriz Fund.

What is gouache?

Gouache (pronounced go-wash) is an opaque watercolor. Like transparent watercolors, gouache is made of dry pigment mixed with a gum binder and thinned with water, but it has white pigment added to make it opaque. This fast-drying medium is popular with designers and commercial artists, as well as fine artists. American Abstract Expressionist painters like Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell often found gouache on paper a good alternative to their usual large oil paintings on canvas.

In October 1969, Krasner’s second solo exhibition at Marlborough-Gerson featured a series of works in gouache, an opaque form of watercolor often used in design work. The gouaches were painted in pink, blue, purple, and brown curving brush strokes looping over luminous grounds. The works were smaller, more flowing compositions – but still related to the much larger paintings on canvas Krasner was making during the same period.

The works in the 1969 show were numbered in sequences with the titles Hieroglyph, Seed, Water, and Earth, including Earth #1. Krasner’s concern with the natural world reflected the rise of the environmental movement during the 1960s. Her show was lauded in reviews both in New York and in San Francisco when the show traveled to Reese-Paley Gallery. Prominent New York Times art critic John Gruen said, “There is all manner of invention and all manner of sensitivity at work here.”

Krasner made these elemental gouache drawings on hand-made linen paper sheets created by Douglass Morse Howell (1906–1994). Howell was an artist who introduced a new creative approach to hand-making art papers after World War II. The richly textured paper brings a special beauty to Earth #1. Unfortunately, linen tends to distort in response to changes in humidity. This has stressed the delicate layers of gouache on this work and caused breaks in the paint. Earth #1, which was acquired into the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection in is currently undergoing conservation.

Conservation of artworks from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation Collection is generously supported by the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation.

– Dr. Ann Prentice Wagner, Jackye and Curtis Finch, Jr. Curator of Drawings

Learn more about works from the AMFA Foundation Collection currently undergoing conservation.

A Historic Transformation

While the new Museum of Fine Arts is under construction, works from the AMFA Foundation Collection are undergoing a transformation of their own.