A survey exhibition of American artist Lee Krasner has opened at London’s Barbican Art Gallery.

Up until fairly recently, in the history books, Lee Krasner was known primarily as the artist wife of one of the world’s best known Abstract Expressionists: Jackson Pollock, the man behind the now ubiquitous ‘action paintings’. In this new show, covering 50 years of work, Krasner steps out from behind the large shadow cast by her husband’s famous paint splatters.

Born Leonore Krasner in Brooklyn in 1908 to Russian-Jewish émigrés, Krasner knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist. She succeeded, becoming one of the few women in New York’s art set in the ’40s and ’50s. Pollock and Krasner’s relationship began after they exhibited side-by-side in a group exhibition in 1942.

The Barbican lays bare Krasner’s diverse body of work, traversing many aspects of abstraction along the way. Rarely seen student self-portraits and art school nude studies lead to canvasesses marked with scratchy matchbox-sized shapes, quaintly titled ‘Little Images’. These images were created in the small room Krasner used as a studio in her home, which she shared with Pollock after they were married in 1945, three years after the group exhibition which brought them together.

Later, in works like ‘Blue Level’ (1955) Krasner moved to collaging paper and scraps of material, harking back to Rene Matisse’s paper cut-outs and the bold, urgent compositions of the Futurists. Collage made way for heavy-set cubist nudes such as ‘Three in Two’ and ‘Prophecy’ (both 1956), made of sloppy, drippy brushstrokes in hues of fleshy pink, yellow and black.

The exhibition comes to the boil in the 1956. Krasner knew she was going into unchartered territory as an artist at this time. Pollock’s violent alcoholism, his creative block, and an affair with another woman were putting a deep strain on the marriage. The same year, while Lee was away travelling in France alone, she learned that Pollock had died in a drunken car accident with his lover.

This abrupt, tragic change in circumstance catapulted Krasner’s work into new terrain. She started to use her late-husband’s huge studio space to make art. Insomnia drove her to work through the night. Her work in the following years grows in scale. There is still the recognisable talent for composition, for colour and form. Yet here, works like ‘Through Blue’ (1963) take on a new power; a similar squiggly cadance to those earlier ‘Little Images’ but with a new freedom.

The exhibition ends with a montage of video interviews showing Krasner delivering one-liners and wise-cracks about the art world and the space she occupies within it; her famous artist friends, the paths and the trajectories of her work. You’ll come away from this show both educated by her life and personality and her aptitude as an abstract artist. Being a woman, and being married to a titan of the art world like Pollock may have obscured Krasner’s place in art history, but the Barbican Art Gallery exhibition situates her clearly amongst the great painters of her generation.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour runs at Barbican Art Gallery, until 1 September 2019.
www.barbican.org.uk

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