NoteWorthy Shows- November, 2016

Things are reaching a fever pitch in the Galleries as the year end approaches, with nary a Black Friday Gallery sale in sight, allowing me to sleep in this year. Still, there was plenty to see and be Thankful for, along with the usual smattering of turkeys, but let’s get right to dessert, shall we? As in October, here’s my list, in no particular order, of what I found NoteWorthy in November. Once again, each one of these deserves a longer, in depth piece that I’m not going to have time to do, but I would be remiss in not mentioning them at all. November, also, marked the end of the world as we know it, so…

The world looks different…Brian Dettmer’s “Western Civilizations 3,” 2016. A “Book Sculpture.” More below.

“Faberge from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection” @ The Met- Will the artist in modern history who is a greater craftsman than Carl Faberge please stand up and make yourself known to me? Thank you. While I’m waiting on that, this is the first show of the work of Faberge in New York since 2004. As small as one of the details on his timeless (and priceless) masterpieces, this show in a hallway at The Met is easy to miss (countless thousands do just that as they wait in line for the elevator to the roof, right in front of this very show). Ms Gray began collecting Faberge in 1933, when prices for his work were cheaper than they will ever be again. Money aside, Faberge combines the equally rare gifts of ingenuity, vision, craftsmanship and delight in works that are a century old but have lost none of their grace, beauty or charm. Scheduled to end on November 27, this show has been extended until 2021, giving you plenty of time to see it.

“Imperial Lillies of the Fields Basket,” 1896, Yellow & green gold, silver, nephrite, pearl, rose-cut diamond. This is considered THE most important Faberge piece in the USA. It was presented to the wife of Czar Nicholas at her visit to the Pan-Russian Exposition in 1896. This is only 7 1/2  x 8 1/2 inches!

“Imperial Napoleonic Egg,” 1912, gold, enamel, rose-cut diamond, platinum, ivory, gouache, velvet, silk. One of the infamous “Faberge Eggs,” this was presented by the Czar to his wife for Easter, 1912. Designed to commemorate the 100th Anniv of victory over Napoleon. This is 4 5/8 inches tall! The inside is solid gold, and holds…

a six-panel screen depicting paintings of six regiments she was an honorary colonel in.

Description in next photo. Click any photo in this Blog to see it larger.

“Imperial Caucasus Egg,” for Easter, 1893. This is 3 1/2 inches high!

Easy to miss, this is the whole show!

“Joan Mitchell: Drawing Into Painting” @ Cheim Reade- Yet another good sized show of an Abstract Expressionist, “second generation” this time, and the most renowned female (Lee Krasner may be gaining on her) AbEx painter, right down the street from the blockbuster “Mark Rothko: Dark Passage” Show, it makes the perfect before or after bookend to it. I owned a Joan Mitchell print until a few years ago, so I lived with the energy and lyricism her work is known for. Looking around, her work is in most major museums, though it’s been 12 years since an American museum gave her a show. So, it’s been left to Cheim & Read to fill the gaps, and they’ve mounted Joan Mitchell shows every two years, or so, going back to the late 1990’s. This one does make for fascinating pairing with the Rothko show- they couldn’t be more different, while sharing what the scholars call Abstract Expressionism, I’ve heard some of the Artists, including Philip Guston, say they prefer the term “New York School.”

“UNTITLED,” 1958, oil on canvas

“LA GRANDE VALLEE XVI POUR IVA,” 1983, oil on canvas

“UNTITLED,” 1982. oil on canvas

“Man Ray: Continued and Noticed” @ Francis Naumann- It’s been too long between Man Ray shows. Readers already know my fondness for Man Ray. Francis Naumann Gallery opened 15 years ago with a Man Ray show, so they revisited him for this anniversary show and they did it in style. Man Ray was so prolific, and so prolifically diverse he can be hard to “sum up” in a gallery show, but this one was an out and out winner, a must see, especially for anyone who thinks of Ray as “only” a ground breaking photographer. While featuring a wonderful selection of his photos, portraits and “Ray-o-grams,” it also included his drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, and even no less than 2 Ray designed chess sets.

“Paletteable,” 1969

The great Man (Ray). Self-Portrait, 1948. A card under speaks of his concerns in his early work- “1) a defiance of artistic convention replaced by steadfast commitment to absolute freedom in the arts.” That says it all.

…and seen again. “Autoportrait,” 1917/70, Screen print on plexiglass. Really? Hmmm…

…and again. “Self Portrait,” 1914

Yes, that’s one of the chess sets Man Ray designed to the left of the chair.

“Lampshade,” center, surrounded by an astounding range of creativity.

“Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971  & 1975” @ Hauser & Wirth- There was no more auspiciously timed show than this one which not only brings us the 73 drawings Philip Guston selected for his “Poor Richard” series but 100 additional drawings that didn’t make the cut and 3 wonderful paintings that are related or have relevance to them. Opening exactly 4 months after Hauser’s last Guston show, it would be very very hard to find work more different than those in seen in “Philip Guston Painter, 1957-67,” which I wrote about here, perhaps the “darkest” of his career, in many ways. Though the show’s title refers to the presence of “laughter” here, make no mistake it is more than tinged with darkness, especially because viewing them now, we know how things turned out for Nixon. These were dark times for the country, and many of these drawings were Guston’s “at the moment” reaction to unfolding events. Even before Watergate, the Nixon Presidency was not without a sizable opposition, for more reasons than the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Everything about Nixon rubbed many people the wrong way, and provided a brilliant Artist ample fodder for “political satire” of the highest order. Most interestingly, for me, these are works in which Guston turns his focus outwards for, perhaps, the only time in his post 1940’s career. “Poor Richard” was published in 2001 and is still in print. You can see it here.

The 73 drawings that Guston selected for “Poor Richard” are shown, here (and below), together.

Title Page. Guston Depicts Nixon with VP Spiro Agnew (triangular skull), Attorney General John Mitchell (with his pipe) and Advisor Henry Kissenger (as glasses) as the cast of characters

Guston’s series begins with young Richard Nixon.

“Jeff Elrod: This Brutal World” @ Luhring Augustine- Chelsea & Brooklyn Galleries. It pains me not to write a longer piece on this. Jeff Elrod has been at the cusp of reinventing painting by combining digital drawing and computers with the end result of that stage outputted to canvas.where it may, or may not be combined with analog, old fashioned painting (at least those on display here). Dealing with blurriness from my recent eye treatment, my initial reaction was, “Hmmmm…If I close my right eye, my good eye, this is how the world looks to me these days.” But, I was drawn back repeatedly, even compelled to make the (unheard of for me) trip to Brooklyn to see the Bushwick segment of this show. In both locations, the effect was the same- I couldn’t get them out of my mind. They’re like something you see when you’re not really looking, or when you’re not fully awake after dreaming, or about to fall asleep…My initial reaction was “This looks easy to do on a computer. Take a photo, blur the heck out of part of it in Photoshop. Add a layer of a frenzied drawing and output to canvas. Then, I remember people say the same thing about Pollock and Rothko, yet no one else has done them. Some works remind me of passages of Monet, some of Yves Tanguay. But not really. They weren’t created like those were and so they don’t look like anything else. Mr. Elrod’s work commands some fancy prices. Ah well…They’re much too big for my place, anyways. If there’s a “cutting edge” in painting in 2016, Jeff Elrod’s work is the closest I’ve seen to being on it. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this is going.

“Auto-Focus,” 2016 UV Ink on Canvas 9064 inches. Mystifyingly alluring.

“Rubber-Miro,” 2015 Acrylic and UV Ink on canvas. His uniquely shaped canvases give the work a different feel from most square/rectangular paintings.

“Rake-Adaptable,” 2016 UV Ink on FIscher canvas. The ghost of Robert Motherwell? “Haunting” is a word his work brings to my mind most often.

“Under The Skin,” 2016 UV Ink on canvas, 108 x 84 inches.

“Plume,” 2016 as seen in Bushwick, Brooklyn. 16 1/4 feet long by 9 1/2 feet tall.

After countless visits, I began to “see” “Jeff Elrods” everywhere I went. Like here-

Life Mirrors Art.

Honorable Mention- “Brian Dettmer: Dodo Data Dada” @ P.P.O.W. Mr. Dettmer creates “Book Sculptures,” something new to me. As far as I can tell, he takes a scalpel to a book, or books, and carves away all but what he wants to remain. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

“Funk and Wag,” 2016. As in, the whole encyclopedia.

“Ew Ass,” 2016

PostScript.- And meanwhile, over at Gagosian, Richard Serra’s MASSIVE “Every Which Way,” 2015, all 16 slabs of it was coming down, making way for the next show there…

Richard Serra, “Every Which Way,” 2015 @ Gagosian

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “It’s The End Of The World (As We Know It)” by Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry of R.E.M. and published by Warner/Chappell Music, Inc and Universal Music Publishing Group, from their 1987 album “Document.”

Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

Having It Out With Philip Guston

I had mixed feelings when I heard about “Philip Guston Painter 1957-67,” on view from April 29 to July 29 at Hauser & Wirth’s temporary Gallery in the former Roxy Nightclub space. On the one hand, large Guston shows are a rarity, on the other hand, I have long struggled with his works of this period. So, it was with a desire to have it out with them in a battle to the death, over the very generous 3 months it was up, and either, finally, “get” them, or not that I climbed their candy-cane striped stairs to enter a space I had known in it’s previous incarnation.

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This space had a “colorful” past, in a different way. One that involved roller skates.

I am happy to report that July 30th dawned to find me still among the living.

The show is focused on paintings from 1957-1965, 8 of Guston’s most “abstract” years , and drawings dated from 1967-69, at the beginning of his return to “figurative” work.  The 1957-65 period of Guston’s paintings is, perhaps, his least known, possibly least loved, (according to one owner- Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer’s, experiences when guests have seen it) 1, and least seen works by this Artist, who Hauser & Wirth calls “the preeminent 20th century American Artist” in their press release.

Really? I am very interested in his work, and have a lot of respect for him, but “the preeminent?” Hmmm…Comparing Artists qualitatively is against my religion, though some other candidates are here2. Still, a group of 35 of these is unheard of, and seems unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

While his early abstractions from 1950-55 are seen regularly and much admired, the works of his next period are very different. Gone were the luminous colors and shimmering qualities of the earlier works replaced by a darkness that feels to be continually encroaching as these 8 years progress.

What came before... "Painting," 1954, on view at Moma

What came before… “Painting,” 1954, on view at Moma

“What shall I paint but the enigma?”

A revealing quote from Philip Guston in 19693? Possibly. Guston, apparently, mis-translates, or misquotes a translation of the inscription on a “Self Portrait,” from 1911, by Giorgio de Chirico, a major lifelong influence, who he was speaking about when he uttered it. It’s de Chirico’s motto. The original reads- “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?” Most of the translations I’ve seen of it are- ‘What shall I love if not the enigma?’ Maybe it’s Guston’s interpretation of it?

It would, also, seem to be a fitting motto for this show.

This show begins. "Fable II," 1957,

The show begins… “Fable II,” 1957,

Guston came to abstraction very gradually, the end result of a period of consternation over his direction during which his work was gradually leaving figuration behind. In late 1948 he took a break from painting and armed with a Prix de Rome and a grant from the American Academy of Art and Letters, made a trip to Italy to see the works of his early Reinassance heroes, Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. To that point, the dissolution of the figure in his work can be traced through “If This Be Not I,” 1945 (perhaps my favorite work of his), to “The Porch I & II,” 1947, and especially in “The Tormentors,” 1947-48, his last work his trip to Italy. Upon his return, his “Red Painting,”1950, and “White Painting,” 1951, begin his “non-figurative” periods, from which the works on view eventually followed. He said,“The 1950-55 paintings, (see “Painting,” 1954, above), in general, were very diffuse lyrical pictures. About 1956 I began to become very dissatisfied. I began to feel a need for a more solid painting. I began to look at my earliest work with a kind of renewed interest, the solidity of that. I found it a terrific challenging problem, in my own terms, to create forms.” 4

"Traveler III," 1959-60

“Traveler III,” 1959-60

Then, in 1956, right on the cusp of the period in question, he told writer and friend, Dore Ashton, “I’m in love with painting.5” Looking around this show, that was the first thing that struck me- how painterly these paintings are. Guston’s brushwork has never been so nakedly at the forefront, even in the abstractions from 1950-55, as they are in every work here. It feels like it would be possible to follow each and every one in some of these works.

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“Position 1,” 1965, Detail.

They have a freedom, a rawness, an energy that strikes me as being completely opposite from his earlier abstractions, someone dubbed “abstract impressionism,” a term he hated, works that are calm, subtle, delicate.These seem almost defiantly, perhaps reactionarily, different. They all contain shapes. At first, a mass of them, later individual shapes, and finally one shape, on a murky grey/blue with pink background. After all the depth of field has gone out, which began in his mid 1940’s work, completed from 1950, after the variety of color has gone out. The enigma remains.

"Turn," 1959

“Turn,” 1959

“There can be no adequate understanding of Guston’s life work unless we are prepared to go back over the whole road,” Dore Ashton wrote in 1990 6. In the earlier work, the enigma was different. It came with, and in the guise of persons, places and things. Guston’s work begins, as far as public collections go, in 1930. And? Talk about starting with a bang!

Guston was a lifelong creature of habit. Some of those, possibly, led to his early death at 66 in 1980. As a child, he retreated from the world to his closet, where he would read, and even paint, by the light of a single light bulb. He painted hooded KKK guys7, who he actually saw break up strikes. At age 13 he discovered his father, hanging, having committed suicide.(!) At age SEVENTEEN, he created this-

"Drawing for Conspirators," 1930, Whitney Museum

Drawing for “Conspirators,” 1930, at the Whitney Museum

There’s so much going on in this. First, note the figure hanging in the background. Then, the figure in the foreground handling rope. In the 1970’s when these hooded figures8 returned to his work, he said they were self-portraits9 Is this Guston pondering guilt over his father? Look at the abstraction of space- everything is enclosed in a very narrow area, which would reappear in the 1940’s, and again in the late work. The faceless head shapes, the narrow stage, and the brick wall are reminiscent of de Chirico. The angled cross from Piero della Francesca. Many of these elements, along with the single light bulb, his fascination with shoes, as well as many of the lessons he had picked up from his beloved early Renaissance Masters and, de Chirico, we see in the late work of the 1970’s. Also seen in the late work is Guston’s early love of comics. He reacted strongly when someone mentioned this to him, yet, I think it’s undeniable. As I wrote, I wonder what influence R. Crumb may have had on him. Though most of these are not readily apparent in the work in this show, they set me wondering how far away he ever got from them. After returning from Italy, his work shows an ever gradual reduction of elements, especially in his work from 1956-65, until he even stopped painting. Such was the effects of the admitted despair he was in, again, in 1966, as he was stuck before his next direction, which led to the outpouring of his final decade.

"Accord I," 1962

“Accord I,” 1962

Meanwhile, I was in the middle of my struggle with these works. It was on my 3rd visit, sitting in the nicely cavernous space that a key question hit me-

“Exactly HOW ‘abstract’ are these works?”

Look at the titles. “Painter,” “Actor,” “Alchemist,” “Vessel,” and “Portrait I,” among them. Guston commented that the titles were added after the piece had been completed. It’s rare for abstract works of the “New York School” Artists of this period to have such blatantly suggestive titles such as these. They make it impossible to give one’s imagination the completely free reign the usual “Untitled” does. In fact, they force one to attempt to “see” what the title “means” in the work. This brings you back to the way you experience figurative painting. Once this happened to me, I was never able to go back to seeing them as completely abstract again. I began to “suspect” the other works. More titles- “Rite,” “Traveler III,” “Turnabout,” “”The Room,” “Garden of M.” and “Inhabiter.” Without trying very hard, that’s 11 titles of the 36 paintings. Hmmm…

 

"Inhabiter," 1965

“Inhabiter,” 1965

“I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean himself in this environment, in this total situation.’– Guston said in 1960.

The evolution during this period can be seen in this next photo. Note the differences between the works on the left, and those on the right. Color has largely gone out, forms have been reduced. The overall feeling becomes one of darkness and isolation.

Left- 2 works from 1960. Right- one from 1964, one from 1965

Left- 2 works from 1960. Right- two from 1965

This reduction would continue through 1965, until he was left with one dark form against a murky blue/grey over pink background, with (see “Portrait I,” 1965, below), now, the white of the naked canvas encroaches. After these, painting itself, went out. In 1967, he would start all over by drawing. But, he’d quickly come to see that this new direction offered insufficient room to grow. These zen-like drawings (see the 3 photos following “Cabal,” below) were their own end game. Shortly after, he would make yet another new start. Now, pieces of his past were everywhere to be plainly seen.  This would see him create his long misunderstood, now quite popular and influential final works, like “Cabal,” below.

"Cabal," 1977, The Met

“Cabal,” 1977, at The Met

While the “figure” went out of his work from 1950-1965 in works that are called “abstract” (a term he loathed), there is much in his work before, and after that is, also, “abstract”- even in his late work, where people and objects return. After all, isn’t this late work, which is called “figurative,” really “abstract?”

When you look closer at this hooded head in the foreground of “Conspirators,” above, with it’s two black eye holes in the white bedsheet, which somehow manage to be quite expressive. I couldn’t help but think about that when I saw this, “Untitled” drawing among those on the final wall at Hauser & Wirth.

"Untitled," 1968. Drawing.

“Untitled,” 1968. Drawing.

Then, again? With an “Untitled” work, the mind is free to go where it may, right?

Revisiting his subsequent later work while looking at the show of the Small Oils Guston did from 1969-73, that was up at the McKee Gallery in 2009, and you can see here, in addition to the hoods, shoes, single light bulb and other elements from his past, cigarettes, books, the modern city, and his wife, Musa, from his present, I suddenly see other connections (hindsight being 20/20). The same murky grey over pink backgrounds appear in a number of his smaller oils (“Cabal” has a dark background, too.). Some of these also have strange forms alone against this background. All of a sudden they don’t look like they were created by an entirely different Artist than the one who created the works in this show. Well, Philip Guston was a different Artist than the one he was in 1957-65, but he’s still Philip Guston. Since there is much that is common between his early and his late works, it makes me wonder about all of his work. That was my initial question before seeing this show- Would what came before, and after be evident here? Using hindsight you can see connections. How he didn’t completely forget this period. Parts of it remained in his work until the end of his life.

"Untitled," 1968 Drawing

Starting over, again, from the beginning. Abstract or figurative? A pencil? A line? A tightly sealed mouth? “Untitled,” 1968 Drawing

Guston was not considered a founding member of the Abstract Expressionists, nor does he appear in the famous “Irascibles” photo which defined the movement’s members for many. The Met now lists him among the 14 Artists they group in the first group, along with Lee Krasner (the circle is now complete)! I think that part of the reason he wasn’t initially considered part of the group was that he was moving in that direction slowly from 1945 to 1950 which made him miss the first round of fanfare these works received, and which subsequently “grouped” them as “Abstract Expressionists,” a term Guston loathed10. Rothko, himself had called it “their enterprise 11.” Philip Guston, eternally, followed his own star. Though Jackson Pollock was his closest childhood acquaintance and the two were expelled from Manual Artis High School12 together for calling out the fact that more money was being spent on sports than on the “Arts,” and someone who remained in his life until his death in 1956, Guston was his own man, who’s Art owed more to the early Italian Renaissance and Giorgio de Chirico than it did to Pollock, or Rothko, who he was on friendly terms with.

Zen Master. 48 "Untitled" Drawings, 1967-69.

Zen Master. 48 “Untitled” Drawings, 1967-69.

Philip Guston was never a painter of “realism.” It now appears to me that though the end results look different as his style changed and evolved, he was continually bluring the lines between figuration and abstraction all through his career, in the service of painting images that expressed himself as he evolved in his times and in his environment. It’s obvious that he never forgot his past, or the past masters who’s work he loved. The more I look at his work, from all periods, the more I see the impact of, perhaps, his biggest influence, Piero della Francesca, in it. Piero’s figures have the most inscrutable, almost deadpan expressions. Their faces, often, reveal little to nothing of what they are feeling. They take that crutch of reading a whole image from the face away from us. That feeling stays in my mind when I approach a work of Guston’s now, no matter if there are “figures” or objects in the work or not. (Many, even most, of his figures are hooded, or masked, anyway). “Reading” a Guston is a little like to trying to “read” a Piero (or de Chirico). It’s not the expression on the face, it’s the whole thing- the figure in it’s environment, to paraphrase Guston’s quote, above (in Piero’s case, each one is placed with utmost mathematical precision as part of the whole). Guston’s masks are akin to Piero’s inscrutables. We can’t read the expressions or the feelings of these figures. This makes them “abstract,” in another sense, too. I wonder about them. Since they are hooded, or masked, or a black form in his “Portrait I,” 1965, we’ll never know what they are feeling- like in Piero.

"Portrait I," 1965

“Portrait I,” 1965. As if hooded(?), in his environment.

It’s not only his 1957-65 paintings that mystify us.

“You see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.” “Philip Guston Talking” 1978, two years before he passed away.

Yet, he has left clues, along with the enigma.

(This is the third, and final, installment in my cycle of Posts on the recent, concurrent shows of Jackson Pollock, Lee Kranser & Guston- three Artists who’s lives are eternally intertwined, personally, and Artistically.)
*-Soundtrack for this Post is “For Philip Guston,” by his close friend, the brilliant composer Morton Feldman. If you have 4 hours to spare, check this out.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. Musa Mayer, “Night Studio,” Da Capo Press, P.102
  2. Hopper, Stuart Davis, Pollock, Rothko, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Sheeler, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, insert your own.
  3. Guston, “Collected Writings,” University of California Press, P.125
  4. Schimmel, Exhibition Catalog for this show, P.15
  5. Dore Ashton, “Philip Guston,” Grove Press, Inc.,1960 P.49
  6. Ashton, “A Critical Study of Philip Guston,” University of California Press, 1990,  P.9
  7. Ashton points out “At the time Guston was working on this painting it was estimated that there were more than 4.5 million members of the Klan in the United States, a great many of them residing right in Los Angeles, where they burned crosses and raised hell all during Guston’s childhood and youth.” Ashton, “A Critical Study,” P.7
  8. Ashton points out that hooded figures “not only recalling the Ku Kluxers of his early paintings but also the artists in the scriptoria of the medieval plague years who donned hooded gowns in the vain hope of avoiding the plague Ashton, A Critical Study, 1990, P.156
  9. Guston- “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself being behind a hood. In the new series of “hoods,” my intention is not really to illustrate, to do pictures of the KKK as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me… Guston, “Collected Writings,” P.282
  10. Schimmel, Show catalog, P.9
  11. Ashton, “Critical Study,” P.79
  12. Mayer, “Night Studio,” P.13

Lee Krasner- Surviving Jackson Pollock, And An Oscar

Recently, the Art Show Scheduling Gods smiled, and? Voila! A rare chance to see shows of three Artists with an intriguing connection (almost) side by side. I bowed to give them thanks for concurrent shows of Jackson Pollock (at Moma), Lee Krasner (at Robert Miller Gallery) and Philip Guston (at Hauser & Wirth Gallery). The common thread being Pollock. One was married to him for 11 of the 14 years they knew each other. The other considered him his closest boyhood acquaintance. Pollock’s sudden death on August 11, 1956- 60 years ago this week as I write, left a personal and professional void in the lives of both. Then there was the “shadow” of Pollock’s legend they lived under the rest of their lives, which delayed full understanding and appreciation of their own accomplishment and importance. Delayed. Thankfully, not cancelled. Having already written about the Pollock show, this Post is about the Lee Krasner show, and a Post about the Philip Guston show follows.

Lee Krasner @ Robert Miller Gallery.

Lee Krasner @ Robert Miller Gallery. Click any photo in this Blog to see a larger image.

First, consider Lee Krasner’s Short “Curriculum vitae,” i.e.- some of what she had to overcome-

  • -Being an “Artist’s wife,” while married to Jackson Pollock from 1945-1956, a man she would remain devoted to from when they met in 1942, on.
    -Pollock’s rise from barely known to sudden fame in August, 1949. A fame he never adjusted to placing immense burden on her.
    -His death in a car crash (beside another woman, who later wrote a book about she and Pollock) while Krasner was away in Europe. She never remarried.
    -Pollock’s legend, gowing larger in death, helped in no small part by her own efforts, and it’s impact on her own career
    -Working as a Painter for 50 years- before, during and after him, in a somewhat similar realm
    -Knowing personally, and working among, many of the greatest “first generation Abstract Expressionists,” from which she was unfairly excluded.
    -Being a woman in a man’s field.

Sounds like a character in a movie. Lee Krasner had to overcome all of that, and yes…the movie. The movie being 2000’s “Pollock,” featuring Marsha Gay Harden’s Oscar winning portrayal of herself, which Krasner’s biographer, Gail Levin, summed up saying “Inaccuracy about Krasner’s life” was “endemic in the film.” 1 As I wrote about the recent Miles Davis film, and while I am al for artistic license and freedom in the Arts, not nearly enough respect gets paid to the lasting impact to historical persons in so-called “bio-dramas.” The effect of the damage these films do is real and long lasting. It makes me wonder what “good” they do. Most often, the subject is dead and can no longer do anything to defend themselves. Digging out from the wake of Jackson Pollock (who’s work she said first hit her “like an explosion”),  the man, the legend, and the shadow, has been a long, arduous and thorny road. It’s a jumble that is still being traversed, and reversed, as we speak.

"The Eye Is The First Circle," 1960, 70 x 109"

“The Eye Is The First Circle,” 1960, 70 x 109 inches.

In spite of having been an Artist before she met Pollock in 1942, and for the better part of 30 years after his passing, it must be made clear that Lee Krasner was in no small way responsible for his shadow having grown so large 2. She did more than anyone to further Jackson Pollock’s career and his Art, during and after his life, and, as a result, and with the assistance of many others holding her back, her own Art has had as hard a road to acceptance as almost any other Artist in the 20th Century. Much more so than even Pollock’s, who was considered the “ultimate outsider.”

Ever so slowly, but surely, her Art has grown in stature over time. Unfortunately, she died just months before Moma gave her a retrospective in 1984, making her (still) one of the few women to have gotten one. In 2011, Gail Levin released the first full-length biography of her mentioned above. The auction market has been increasingly responsive to her work, as well. First, the Cleveland Museum bought “Celebration,” from 1960, for 1.9 million, then in May, 2008, her “Polar Stampede” sold for 3.1 million3. Based on how much the work of the other first group of Abstract Expressionists sells for, I think her market still has a ways to go. Beyond transactions involving Museums, I care not about how much anyone else pays for Art- it’s meaningless, IMHO, since individuals buy Art for personal or investment purposes, to discussions about “Art.” In Lee Krasner’s case, I merely point it out to show another wall coming down.

"Sundial," 1972

“Sundial,” 1972

In spite of all of this, I believe that Lee Krasner is, still, under appreciated- for her impact on the world of Art, as well as for her Art, which finally can be seen on it’s own, as it is here.

So, with all this in mind, my path still freshly worn, and my shoes, apparently, retaining their muscle memory of the way from the baker’s dozen visits I had just made to Robert Miller Gallery for “Patti Smith-18 Stations,” which had ended the week before, I returned to darken the doorway of this all too familiar space yet again. I will admit- it was a strange feeling to turn that corner half way down the gallery and not see Patti Smith’s chair & table (let alone, Ms. Smith, herself!) from Cafe ‘Ino and “M Train,” and not to see the handwritten pencil notations she’d written on the eastern wall (did they paint over them? Or are they possibly now hidden but protected behind a fake outer wall, like Leonardo Da Vinci’s long lost “Battle of Anghiari” may be?).

The room where Patti Smith's Table & Chair stood 1 week before. "Equilibrium," 1950, center

The room where Patti Smith’s Table & Chair stood 1 week before. “Equilibrium,” 1950, center, with “Lava,” 1949, left and “Untitled,” 1949, which seems to anticipate Jasper Johns, right Ms. Smith’s pencil inscriptions were to the right of the left rear corner pillar.

Yet, Ms. Smith was not entirely absent from this show. Even before the Moma Retrospective, Lee Krasner’s influence had been felt by other artists, especially women artists- including Patti Smith, who wrote of her influence in the introduction to the show’s catalog-

“In 1967 I came to New York City, at twenty years old, with the knowledge of her reputation in tow. I sensed her strength of purpose and aspired to be like her one day. I also hoped, as she, to meet a fellow artist and work with him side by side. It would take, as attested by her choices, much personal strength to commit to the dual sacrifices required by art and love, yet it was my greatest wish.”

Completing the circle, a portrait of Lee Krasner by none other than Robert Mapplethorpe was also included in the catalog.

The show, simply titled, “Lee Krasner,” consists of 33 paintings, drawings and collages the Artist created over the FIFTY Years between 1931 and 1981. What struck me most was the dazzling array of styles it contained, beginning with a realistic Self Portrait, painted at about age 25 (1931-33). She seemed to be trying on painting styles the way other women try on fashion styles. Another interesting thing was that while some works were bursting with color, others were monochrome.  “Color, for me, is a very mysterious thing,” she told Barbaralee Diamonstein in 1978.

DSC_1843NEFPNH

“Lavender,” dated 1942, which is the year she met Pollock.

But what about that “shadow?” When asked about Pollock’s influence on her, here’s what she said (in two different interviews) in my transcriptions-

In one, she told Dorothy Seckler– ” Certainly a great deal happened to me when I saw the Pollocks. Now Pollock saw my work too – I couldn’t measure what effect it had on him. We didn’t talk art – we didn’t have that kind of a relationship at all. In fact, we talked art talk only in a shop sense, but never in terms of discussions about art, so to speak. For one thing, Pollock really felt about it. When he did talk it was extremely pointed and meaningful and I understood what he meant. Naturally he was seeing my work as I certainly saw his.”4

"Equilibrium," 1950. Right in the middle of her marriage to Pollock. Pretty hard to see him in this.

“Equilibrium,” 1950. Right in the middle of her marriage to Pollock. Pretty hard to see his style of the time in this.

While some of the works had elements of Pollock’s techniques, many others did not. Interestingly for me, except for “Lava” dated 1949 when they were married and living together in the Springs, Long Island, the works that had a bit of Pollock in them were from the 1960’s, well after Pollock’s passing. In fact, and most surprising, while I don’t see any works here that scream “Pollock,” there were works that were blatantly in the style of other Artists, including Mondrian, who she knew, and, perhaps most of all, Matisse, who she revered.

Mondrian? No! Krasner's "Untitled," c. 1939-40

Mondrian? No! Krasner’s “Untitled,” c. 1939-40

"Rose Red," 1958. Something of the feel of Matisse's recent Cut-outs.

“Rose Red,” 1958. Something of the feel of Matisse’s recent Cut-outs in this for me.

In the second interview, Barbaralee Diamondstein asked her directly in 1978- “What did you learn from Pollock’s work?”

“I don’t know. I just re…Let me put it this way. Other than what I’ve said before that the transition was as great…Let’s see. If we think of the Renaissance’s concept of space. …Where you are the artist up here, and whatever it is you are using perspective as your means. And you are making you, whatever you are doing with it…And if we go from that concept into cubism the thing is still there in the same sense. Nature is there. I am here as the artist. I observe the only thing is frontal now and that much has taken place. Now, in Pollock, once more there’s another transition. I can’t define it for you, sorry. It’s not my job.”

Lee Krasner's "Brown print variant," Lithograph, 1970

Lee Krasner’s “Brown print variant,” Lithograph, 1970

From what I’ve read, they worked separately. Krasner in a bedroom turned studio and Pollock out in back of the house in the amazing barn with the huge window on one side. I dont’ get the sense there was any collaboration. They would look at each other’s work, when asked to, but there was no direct “teaching” or anything like that. When asked (by Diamondsteen in the same interview)- “There are many who thought that all the while you were nurturing his career- you were not working. What were you doing during that period?” She said, again in my transcription- “I was working all the time. I doubt our relationship would have existed at all if I wasn’t working. In therms of what other people think, I can’t do anything about that. As long as I was able to work, I went about my business.”

"Bird Image," 1963

“Bird Image,” 1963

For me, at least, all of this puts this “shadow” myth to rest, once and for all. Here is an Artist that was left out of the first rank of Abstract Expressionists, many of who appeared in that infamous Life Magazine picture titled “The Irascibles,” which should have included her. She was there in the beginning, knew many of them (even introducing Pollock to de Kooning), and her work was known and respected by them, and, shown with theirs.

So, why did she change her style so often? What was she seeking?

She told Dorothy Seckler- “Well, I do find that I swing from the lyric, to the dramatic and it doesn’t – you know, I have no way of knowing which phase is going to take over.”

And-

“I think my painting is so autobiographical if anyone can take the trouble to read it.” 5.

"Self Portrait," 1931-33

“Self Portrait,” 1931-33

Hmmm…Based on the evidence at Miller, it’s very hard to read her work. Take “Rose Red,” dated 1958, 2 years after the death of her husband. It certainly doesn’t look it. It looks more like Matisse’s late cut-outs, full of life, joy, happiness and spring colors, interspersed with the titular red. Earlier and later works seems to be dialogues with other Artists- Mondrian, Matisse, as I said, maybe Paul Klee. (Untitled, 1949), but yes, there are elements of style that remind of Jackson Pollock, too. Yet, there are works that look ahead, as well. “Untitled,” 1949, as well as her “Hieroglyphic” works and “Little Paintings” of the same period now look like precursors of Jasper Johns. Her later collages, where she uses cut up, or torn pieces of figure study drawings (“Murdered,” she told Diamondstein) she had done in the 1930’s, casting them in a startling, unprecedented way, in a sort of new take on cubism, that also speaks to the amazing capabilities of her eye, first in seeing which drawings to reject, and then seeing this other possibility in them. Amazing.

Finally, there was this quote- “The one constant in life is change 6

Lee Krasner was a unique Artist, who was capable of as many styles as almost any other Artist. For me, the most amazing thing about the Miller show was that every single work, no matter it’s style, holds up as a composition, something I feel is the hardest thing to do in so-called “abstract” (a term she didn’t like) Art, or in any work of Art. Part of this may be because she destroyed the works that didn’t hold up, leaving only 499 works in her Catalog Raisonne, a very small number considering her 50 year career- 10 a year! What does this tell me? She has one HELL of a good eye, which, in the end, is what I admire most about her work, and her. Along with John Graham, and others, she was among the first to “see” Pollock, after all- something I rarely see acknowledged. Seeing this show, with it’s amazing range of styles, it’s clear that she dabbled with influences but all the while stayed on her own path, following her own star, and relentlessly digging deep inside herself. From watching and reading her interviews, it quickly becomes apparent that she had a “strong personality”7. No doubt, she also had a very strong character, which served her in good stead in the company of all the other great artists of strong personalities, like Pollock, she was surrounded with most of her life. I doubt she’d have survived and gotten to where she got in her life, and where she is now, without that inner strength.

"Past Conditional," 1976, A collage of older drawings she rejected..

“Past Conditional,” 1976, A collage of older drawings she rejected..

As I mentioned, Lee Krasner’s legacy lives on, additionally to her Art, through the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (which, since 1985, has awarded over 4,100 grants totaling over 65 million dollars to artists in 77 countries) and the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center (their former home and studio), which I visited in 1999. It was, truly, an experience I will never forget, and one every Art lover should have on their bucket list. I was surprised how being in their environment gave me a completely new understanding of the Art they created there, which, all of a sudden, didn’t seem nearly as “abstract.”

In addition to this, there is the incalculable debt the world owes her for her generosity. A visit to the Moma website revealed 49 works by Pollock alone that she gifted to them (making her the “unsung star” of their recent Pollock show, as I mentioned in my Pollock Post), a visit to The Met’s site yields about the same number, but who knows what the real total number of works of art that bear the source, “Gift of Lee Krasner Pollock” really is? Overlooked is that we are also increasingly indebted to her for giving her own work.

Taken in total, the shadow SHE now casts looms larger every day. As for the work? As she, herself, said, “I think the process of re-interpretation will continue and that many things will now be re-evaluated. I’m sharply aware of my own re-evaluation.8” This, also, applies to Philip Guston.

"Untitled" (Study for a Mural), 1941. her cubist beginnings echo.

“Untitled” (Study for a Mural), 1941. Echoes of her cubist beginnings.

On the 5th Floor of Moma, her “Untitled,” 1949, hangs on a wall adjacent to “One: Number 31, 1950,” one of her husband’s most well known (and largest) masterpieces. On the wall on the other side of the door next to it hangs Mark Rothko’s “No. 3/No. 13,” 1949, another masterpiece. Facing them is Philip Guston’s “Painting,” from 1954, a shimmering masterpiece from his early “abstract” years.

Krasner, left, and Pollock

Krasner, left, and Pollock, at Moma.

At The Met right now, another Krasner hangs right next to another early 1950’s Guston. Both works directly face another huge Pollock masterpiece, “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),” 1950.

Lee Krasner, "Untitled," 1948, left with Philip Guston's, "Painting," 1952

Lee Krasner, “Untitled,” 1948, left with Philip Guston’s, “Painting,” 1952,  at The Met.

Detail, Lee Krasner, "Untitled"

Detail of Lee Krasner’s, “Untitled,” 1948.

For me? That is the ultimate test of any work of Art- Hang it next to some masterpieces and let’s see how it does.

To be hung within inches of masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock is about as hard as a test gets for American “abstract” Art of this period.

Lee Krasner has found her place.

At last.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Dream of Life,” by Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. Gail Levin, “Lee Krasner,” P.1
  2. Levin, P.269, etc
  3. Levin “Lee Krasner” P.4
  4.  Oral history interview with Lee Krasner, 1964 Nov. 2-1968 Apr. 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  5. Levin, “Lee Krasner” P.11 Levin continues- “A few years later, she said, “I suppose everything is autobiographical in that sense, all experience is, but that doesn’t mean it’s naturalistic reading necessarily. I am sure that all events affect one…but I don’t think it means using a camera and snapping events.”
  6. Interview, 1977
  7. Longtime associate B.H. Friedman in his “Intimate Introduction” to Robert Hobbs’ “Lee Krasner” P.25
  8. Levin, “Lee Krasner,” P12