“Lee Krasner is one of the most significant painters of the 20th century–an artist whose importance is only now being seen.” This prophetic statement made by art critic Barbara Rose in 1977 leaves the reader questioning: What is it that has made the work of Lee Krasner such an integral and irreplaceable chapter in the progression of American art?
Lee Krasner’s place in American art can be qualified in many ways, including through her role as a forerunner of the first original American art movement, Abstract Expressionism. This style can be seen as a manifestation of the horror felt in the wake of WWII, a horror unique to most Americans. The calculated slaughter of innocent Jews, the use of the first weapon of mass destruction on the citizens of Japan, the first direct attack on US soil—these were all unprecedented events in the minds of most Americans. Emotions of helplessness and confusion overwhelmed these artists and created a state of mind that we can identify with today, in the wake of the tragedies of our own era.
Seed No. 5
While trying to come to grips with the ever-complex world, Abstract Expressionist artists found no form, no figure or landscape that could judiciously represent their sentiments. Only pure, unaltered paint and canvas, works stripped to their most basic elements could begin to express these inexpressible feelings. This revolutionary style came forth without the contamination of recognizable form.
Craftsmanship, attention to realistic detail and pleasant subject matter all became secondary to the most important element of the work: expression.
Untitled (Variations on a Theme No. 1)
Lenore Krasner was never one to do what was expected. At an early age, she boldly announced that her goal in life was to become an artist and she never strayed from this idea. The defiant qualities of this young girl stayed with her as her work grew from various experimental periods to the abstract expressionist style that is now her signature.
It was these same traits that compelled her to push the accepted norms in every instance of her artistic career. She was not satisfied copying the plaster casts given to her in traditional art classes. She needed to be challenged, to be working in a more meaningful manner. In 1938, Krasner began studying with the infamous Hans Hofmann. It was during this period that “Nude Study from Life” was completed in a manner distinctly contrary to conventional drawing. Hofmann encouraged students to forsake the prosaic and soon found Krasner to be one of his best students.
Sun Woman II
“Nude Study from Life” demonstrates Krasner’s curious and daring nature while hinting at revolutionary works to come. The heavy, slashing lines that compromise the figure vibrate with emotional intensity, an intensity that Krasner is able to maintain and utilize in later works such as “Meteor”.
Nude Study from a Still Life
“Nude Study from Life” also demonstrates Krasner’s keen spatial intuition, which is crucial to a successful non-representational work. Without recognizable subject matter as a crutch, the artist is forced to create harmonious spatial relationships with the forms on their canvas. The apparent ease with which Krasner has created successful interactions between line, plane and tone demonstrates her natural propensity towards abstract art, and her success in dealing with the difficulties of creating a cohesive abstract painting that are faced by every artist attempting to work in this manner.
Krasner’s study of the figure in Hofmann’s class surely became a factor in her later works that utilize bio-morphic forms, strongly suggesting a human origin. Elements of the human anatomy appear in works such as “Prophecy” (1956) and “Sun Woman”(1957). In “Prophecy” the long, slender forms are reminiscent of tangled arms and legs with two glaring eyes confronting the viewer and causing a sense of uneasiness that surely would have pleased the artist. “Sun Woman,” completed during a happier time in Krasner’s life, brings to mind singing cherubs whose plump, round bodies are much less menacing than the jagged, violent shapes of “Prophecy”. Through the use of flesh tones and abstracted human forms, both works seem to pay homage to earlier studies of the human body such as “Nude Study from Life”.
Every artist has a period of experimentation, during which they are searching for their own creative voice. This period of work can be seen as the most crucial, as it points the direction that the rest of the artist’s career will follow. This is indeed true of the work of Lee Krasner who she saw no purpose in keeping unsuccessful experiments and is known to have destroyed many of her early works.
Evident in the fact that it was never destroyed, one can surmise that Krasner too saw the importance that “Nude Study from Life” had as a predecessor of works to come. Early drawings such as this are crucial problem solving exercises that built the foundation on which Krasner’s most powerful works stand. Krasner herself knew that no successful process ends at its apparent completion, but rather that all experiences will be revisited, changed and utilized at a later date.
She was fond of a particular quote of T.S. Elliot that exemplifies this thought:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know it for the first time”
Krasner never stopped exploring and utilizing lessons from the past. Her life’s work is an intricate balance of both her past and present, one that did not take any experience for granted. Her work is rich in experience, reflection and understanding. Barbara Rose said it best, Lee Krasner is indeed one of the most important painters of the 20th century.
The artwork of Lee Krasner is owned by The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The National Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and many others. Most recently, a retrospective of sixty works, including this one, was held from Octobter of 1999 to January 2001. This exhibit began at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and traveled to the Des Moines Art Center, the Akron Art Museum, and ended at the Brooklyn Museum.