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Review: ‘Lee Krasner: A Biography’ by Gail Levin



By Gail Levin

William Morrow, 459 pages, $30

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It’s about time someone set the record straight about artist Lee Krasner.

For decades, the defining footnote to Krasner’s life was her marriage to legendary artist Jackson Pollock, a long-suffering relationship that overshadowed Krasner’s own talent and contributions to American abstract expressionism.

But now in the absorbing Lee Krasner: A Biography, art historian Gail Levin looks well beyond the Pollock factor to detail Krasner’s own brilliant career. She manages to do this in succinct detail stretching from Krasner’s Brooklyn childhood and involvement in the early 20th century New York art world to the decades after Pollock’s death and the eventual recognition of her own artwork.

Levin, also the biographer of artists Edward Hopper and Judy Chicago, first met Krasner in 1971 and considered her a mentor and friend. The biography is peppered with the artist’s own commentary, which offers an invaluable direct connection. Over the years, Levin was introduced to many of Krasner’s friends, whose comments also help enhance this evenhanded portrait of the artist.

Lee Krasner was born Lena Krassner in 1908 to Russian emigre parents living in Brooklyn. At 13, she knew she wanted to be a painter but she got no help or encouragement from her family. Establishing oneself in the male-dominated New York Art scene of the 1920s and ’30s was not easy, but Krasner was independent, spirited and determined.

“She had a healthy sense of her own ability and her work’s value, even if others initially failed to agree,” writes Levin. “She repeatedly brushed off her teachers’ negative criticisms and pushed ahead. Self-confidence and firm resolve were, in the end, more valuable than talent alone. Sometimes, when asked how she dealt with issues, she would respond, ‘I guess that I’m just a tough cookie.’”

Krasner attended the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, and later the National Academy of Design. Early influences included Giorgio de Chirico and Joan Miro, but it was teacher and artist Hans Hofmann who guided her to her own artistic voice. “His serious commitment to art supported my own,” Krasner said.

Krasner was outspoken, politically progressive and “wanted to be part of what was new and revolutionary.” She supported herself during the Great Depression by painting murals for the WPA.

In 1936, she met Pollock at an Artist Union dance and ran into him again by chance in 1942 when they were both included in the same group show. They married in 1945 and, in an attempt to curb Pollock’s depression and drinking and to nurture his talent, the couple left the city for rural Long Island. There they became the center of an avant-garde artists colony.

Over her life, Krasner readily admitted that Pollock’s work took precedence.

“I had a conviction when I met Jackson that he had something important to say,” Krasner explains in the book. “When we began going together, my own work became irrelevant. He was the important thing. I couldn’t do enough for him.”

But, encouraged by Pollock, Krasner also continued to work and develop her own artistic vision. After Pollock’s untimely death in 1956, Krasner became a champion of his legacy while also realizing the importance of establishing her own connections and contributions to abstract expressionism.

Inspired early on by Matisse and Mondrian, Krasner was on the cutting edge of abstract expressionism well before she met Pollock. Levin uses this key fact as a cornerstone in her portrait of the artist.

By the late ’50s and early ’60s, Krasner created many of her most memorable works, including the large paintings in her Umber and White series, as well as monumental, expressive collages.

As Krasner’s story unfolds, Levin skillfully takes the facts of a remarkable life and folds them into a compelling biography that is as important an addition to the library of American art as any book on Pollock.

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