Paintings made by Lee Krasner after she and her husband, Jackson Pollock, moved out to the East End from Manhattan in 1945 are the subject of a wonderful exhibition at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, in East Hampton. The show celebrates the centenary of Krasner’s birth, in October 1908, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Pollock-Krasner House as a museum.Skip to next paragraph IN HER REALM Top, “Self-Portrait” (circa 1929) and “Shellflower” (1947), bottom, both works by Lee Krasner.
After Krasner’s move, she thrived as an artist in her new environment. Within a few months of taking up residence in the country, she made her first all-over abstractions, which she later referred to as the “Little Image” series for reasons that are not clear; the artist never explained it. The current show, organized by Helen A. Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House, is the first to focus on this important moment in her career.
Krasner’s early abstractions are pure joy. Spontaneous and emotional — hallmarks of good Expressionist painting — their richly patterned, impasto surfaces recall mosaics or stained-glass windows. Other paintings possess a calligraphic complexity, with a density of hieroglyphic forms, while still others suggest sensitivity to the beach environment, in particular to the changing effects of sunlight.
Krasner’s abstractions sometimes appear related to Pollock’s paintings from this period. Like Pollock, she worked with the canvas on the floor or on a table, occasionally dripping or pouring small squirts or blobs of paint onto the surface. But other paintings, made using a palette knife or brush, are Impressionistic, almost Pointillistic, in style and completely different from anything Pollock ever produced.
Krasner worked at first in the living room of the house, where the bulk of the paintings in the current show are installed. They look great in the place where they were created, surrounded by original furnishings, including a mosaic table made by Krasner in 1947 (about the same time as the first paintings) using glass and found objects. The table design and paintings share a delicate, lyrical sensibility.
Later, Krasner worked in a small upstairs room that had been Pollock’s studio before he moved his work space to a converted barn. Here Ms. Harrison has installed a self-portrait, circa 1929, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is an accomplished picture, showing the artist, in her early 20s, in the basement of her childhood home in Brooklyn. It was probably painted with the aid of a mirror.
It is easy to understand why Ms. Harrison chose to separate this painting from the rest of the exhibition downstairs; it is so radically different in its style, reflecting the artist’s training at the conservative National Academy of Design, where she was enrolled from 1928 to 1932. But the disparity only underscores how decisive a change in Krasner’s art took place after she moved out of the city.
Krasner produced 31 documented “Little Image” paintings from 1946 to 1950, a half-dozen of which are now lost. The dozen or so of them on view here are from this period, with the earliest dating to 1947. Among them is “Shellflower” (1947), on loan from a private collection in New York City. This astonishingly beautiful painting, a dense accretion of color splotches that is kaleidoscopic in its intensity, is enough to cement her place in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists.
Equally magical is “Untitled” (1948), another painting on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Erudite yet playful, it shows off the artist’s virtuosity with the drip pouring technique that Pollock was to make famous. On loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Composition” (1949), covered with white hieroglyphic forms, is arguably one of Krasner’s best abstract paintings.
Krasner did not exhibit the series of “Little Image” paintings at the time she produced them, according to Gail Levin, author of a brief but thoughtful essay for the exhibition catalog; during the 1940s Krasner did not have regular gallery representation. She showed them on and off in the 1950s, to a positive reception, but they were then forgotten until the ’70s, when Krasner was rediscovered by the art world.
According to Ms. Levin, it was the strength of the “Little Image” paintings, including “Composition,” shown in New York in 1978, that first prompted critics to reassess Krasner’s place in the pantheon of original Abstract Expressionist painters. That it took so long for her achievements to be recognized is an embarrassment to 20th-century American criticism. Still, it is better late than never.
?Lee Krasner: Little Image Paintings, 1946-1950,? Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, 830 Springs-Fireplace Road, East Hampton, through Oct. 31. Information: (631) 324-4929 or www.pkhouse.org.