Jun 7, 2023

Who was Lee Krasner? An Exploration of Krasner’s Life, Art, & Legacy 

Rachael Tullier

As we recently announced, our Jackson Pollock drop will be in partnership with the Pollock-Krasner House. The Pollock-Krasner House is a small farmhouse located in East Hampton, New York that abstract expressionists and newlyweds Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner moved to in November of 1945. There, the couple painted the majority of their masterpieces. 

Today, Jackson Pollock is a common name in American art, taught in art classes around the country. But what of the other half of the artistic power-couple: Lee Krasner? 

Lee Krasner, 1983, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd

Lee Krasner was born Lena Krassner to Russian-Jewish parents. Even as a young girl, she was passionate about art. In 1922, Krasner fought to attend Washington Irving High School, nearly an hour away from her home, because it was the only high school in New York that would teach girls art. Throughout her life she was described as a fiercely independent and determined woman, which sometimes ruffled the feathers of 1920s America, especially at her conservative high school.

For the ten years following her high school graduation, Krasner attended multiple art schools including the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science (1926-1929), the Art Students League (1928), and the National Academy of Design (1929-1932). After completing her studies at the National Academy in 1932 at the age of 24, Krasner worked a variety of jobs to support her art such as waiting tables, working in a factory, and decorating hats. And in 1934, Krasner was able to create art full-time for the first time through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project

Krasner continually reinvented her style over the course of her career, not feeling tied to any one technique or method, but, rather, working in cycles. However, there were a few constants throughout her work. Like Pollock and her mentor, Hans Hofmann, Krasner painted in an “all-over” style that completely covered the canvas. Another constant throughout her career was her use of contrasting colors, mixing bright hues with more subdued tones. Influenced by her surrealist roots, she would also mix organic forms with harder, geometric shapes. 

Lee Krasner, Untitled Mural Study for the WPA, 1940

In 1942, Krasner met Jackson Pollock. While visiting an exhibit at the McMillen Gallery they were jointly featured in, Krasner saw Pollock’s art for the first time and was immediately enthralled; she had never heard of Pollock before. She raced to his studio to introduce herself and see his work. Krasner’s introduction was the beginning of their love story; the pair married three years later.

After receiving a loan of $2,000 from Peggy Guggenheim, Krasner and Pollock moved into what is now the Pollock-Krasner House in November of 1945. Pollock took over the barn and painted the majority of his masterpieces there. The open floor space allowed him room to move around while painting his physically intense masterpieces. The rural area also gave him ample opportunity to observe nature, a major influence on his works. 

While Pollock had the large studio barn, Krasner was relegated to their bedroom. Because of space limitations, her paintings were much smaller than Pollock’s. From 1946-1950, Krasner painted her “Little Images” series, a series of 31 small paintings that incorporated densely drawn abstract symbols. These symbols are reminiscent of the Hebrew Krasner was taught as a young child, both in their style and in Krasner’s right to left painting method.

Soon, Jackson Pollock’s reputation grew. In 1949, Life Magazine wrote an article entitled “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” In some ways, Krasner’s art took a backseat as she sought to help her husband manage his fame, promote his art, and keep him away from drunkenness. Furthermore, though Krasner was a phenomenal artist and abstract expressionist like Pollock, her art was largely ignored by the male critics of the day. Her mentor, Hans Hoffman, once gave her the backhanded compliment that her art was “so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” 

Krasner was a very harsh self critic and destroyed many of her early works. Much of her art was in a continual cycle of rebirth as it was revised, destroyed, and created anew. In the 1950s, she was dissatisfied with some of her older paintings after an unsuccessful show, so one night she ripped them up and reassembled them as colleges. While the destruction of the older paintings means we cannot view them in their original form, the resulting collages were arranged into a 1955 exhibition. Critic Clement Greenberg later praised Krasner’s creation of the transformative collages as one of the most important events of the decade. Despite the challenges and little recognition Krasner faced as a female artist in the 20th century, she persisted in creating art.

Just one year after her 1955 exhibit, in August of 1956, Pollock and another person, Edith Metzger, died in a car accident while Pollock was driving under the influence of alcohol. The only survivor of the accident was Pollock’s mistress, Ruth Kligman. At the time of the accident, Krasner - fed up with Pollock’s drinking, episodes of anger, and affair - was away in Europe visiting friends. After hearing the news, she raced home to set matters in order. 

After Pollock’s death, Krasner took over his studio barn. With the new found space, Krasner finally had room to paint larger pieces. The spaciousness of the barn allowed her to create many of her major canvases from 1957 to 1982. Examples of these impressive works are Cool White (1959) and Gaea (1966). Whereas Pollock painted on the floor, Krasner painted her canvases against the walls. And like the floor bears the marks of Pollock’s creativity, so too do the walls bear the marks of Krasner’s.

Lee Krasner died in 1984, but her legacy lives on. And the survival of Pollock’s legacy is in large part due to Krasner. In her will, Krasner left a $23 million dollar bequest and plans to establish the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. 

For Krasner, painting was synonymous with life. After Pollock’s death she stated, “Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking—do I want to live? My answer is yes—and I paint.” Inspired by her time working in the WPA, Krasner started the foundation to provide other artists the same financial stability she was afforded to grow and mature in her craft. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation provides financial assistance to individual artists on the basis of artistic merit and financial need. It was the first Foundation founded by an artist, for other artists. Since its founding in 1985, the Foundation has awarded over $84 million to 5,000 artists and organizations. 

In her will, Krasner also established her East Hampton home of nearly 40 years as a public museum and library under deed to a charitable institution, so that it might serve as a place to study modern American art. It was during renovations and exploration in the years following her death that the paint-covered floor was discovered (it had been covered when they winterized the barn in 1953). Our access to this legendary artifact is due solely to Krasner’s generosity and intentionality in preserving the House as a museum. Today’s Beyond The Edge Collection would not be possible without her.