It seems more than apt that, by the end of Gail Levin's new biography of American artist Lee Krasner, the reader might feel as if they have journeyed through a hurricane -- a whirlwind of nonstop action, emotion and gritty integrity.
Let's not call her "the little engine that could," but there is the perpetual sense, through a story that barrels through seven decades of the 20th century, that Krasner was a living embodiment of artistic purity. Perhaps even more so than her husband Jackson Pollock, but then we'll get to him.
Actually, we should qualify that it doesn't take nearly as long as the entire book length for Levin to evoke this sensation. When Krasner first meets Pollock, about 150 pages into the tale, we're solidly invested in the ferociously independent character named Lee Krasner. The eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Krasner was born in 1908 and there's an extraordinary confluence of her unshakeable character and the dramatic sweep of the century she was living through.
If you want an example of a woman who stuck to all of her guns in the face of a culture that, for most of her life, did not accord women -- particularly women artists -- their appropriate regard, then Krasner would be an iconic case study.
Despite the orthodox culture of her family, Krasner ignored the conventions of her background and was, from the start, independent-minded and artistically driven. I can't recall any mention of anything else that ever interested her. Her singularity of vision in this regard is such that there's no indication she ever wanted children (though Pollock later did) and when her sister died, leaving a husband and child, Lee refused to obey custom and marry her brother-in-law, leaving that to another sister.
It's a significant moment because later she would meet an alcoholic man-child with whom she became involved without hesitation, knowing full well that he had crippling insecurities and a dangerous addiction.
I would like to tell you she did it for love, though the extent of romantic yearning is not always clear in the tale. Certainly, it was there somewhere -- Pollock was, after all, classified 4-F and hence one of the few single men around her circle when they met in New York during the Second World War -- but the pervading sense is that Krasner recognized immediately the genius that was before her and she opted to support that recognition in full. She saw that Pollock, whose flaws were as epic as his talent, was a painter engaged in the essential question of what painting was and what was to become, and her opinion of his abilities never wavered, however trying the man might be.
Most of us could not apply her Job-like patience. Yet, far from being the long-suffering wife of tortured genius, Krasner never stopped painting herself, despite periods of dissatisfaction with her work, and there's no evidence she ever complained about how difficult Pollock was, recognizing quite clearly that his sales were a means for both of them to live and continue working: "I don't know how I would have felt if he had said, 'No, I don't want you to paint,' or acted it out in some way. It's inconceivable that I would have stopped painting if my husband hadn't approved. Of course the issue never arose. Since Pollock was a turbulent man, life with him was never very calm. But the question -- should I paint, shouldn't I paint -- was never a problem. I didn't hide my paintings in a closet. They were always on a wall next to his.' "
The portrait Levin paints of Krasner is a full-bodied treatment, including the perspectives of some who felt she was, in some fashion, a domineering mother figure who treated Pollock as a misbehaving child; a woman of boundless ambition for Pollock and herself; and an individual rarely exhibiting the trait of compromise. And while these characteristics are true, Levin's detailed portrait (made rich by an absorbing amount of detail, particularly from correspondence between Krasner and her many friends) frames Krasner in such a way that it's difficult to ever feel anything but great empathy for this woman who aspired to find the great, elusive sublime in her life and work.
From her teenage years studying art, to her Depression-era work on WPA murals, to her persistence in the preposterously male-centric universe of Abstract Expressionism, Krasner seems to have never entertained the notion of defeat. She simply endured, nay prevailed, against a tide of history that was never quite on the side of an independent Jewish woman artist. That included a seemingly unending array of petty behavior from burgeoning critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the eccentricities of Peggy Guggenheim, and her observation that, for all their aesthetic significance, it was the European Surrealists whose debased attitude toward women fed the unnecessary machismo of American painters and encouraged similar behavior.
In many ways, it's a tough tale. While in Paris, she learns of Pollock's untimely death, screams "Jackson's dead" and begins walking toward an open balcony, only to be physically restrained by friends. It's a harrowing tale too and her journey to emerge from the shadow of Pollock, as his widow, is a long one. But it's notable that, as an artist, she continued to exhibit regularly and was, in the end, rewarded with significant recognition of her own, as a pioneer of a significant 20th century art movement.
Krasner's friend Terence Netter provides one of the best encapsulations of her character and motivation: "Lee was almost like a nun -- so single-minded and obsessed with the art world that she really didn't live in this world I'm certain Lee believed in God, but she wasn't someone who thinks a 'religious' painting is one which has religious imagery. Rather, she was interested in the whole notion of art as a sublime statement -- Man trying to get beyond this world to reach some transcendental reality."
John Massier is the visual arts curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.
LEE KRASNER:A Biography
By Gail Levin William
451 pages, $30