A Review of Lee Krasner: Living Colour at Barbican Art Gallery, London

Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.


New characters are entering the abstract expressionist picture, long perpetrated by art history as a ‘male-only’ club. These artists are female — Lee Krasner, protagonist of a major exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, and Anna Frankenthaler with her small show at Palazzo Grimani in Venice. 

The Barbican retrospective, the first in Europe for over fifty years, presents some one-hundred works, many of which are available to the UK public for the first time. Organised chronologically, and ranging from early monochromatic, cubist drawings to large scale, colourful abstract paintings, it shatters the image of that Krasner as merely the wife of Jackson Pollock. The same old question of ‘who influenced whom,’ was surely important when it first pierced the public’s consciousness. However, it is significantly less relevant today and this particular exhibition slowly liberates Krasner from the suffocating image formerly imposed on her by a male dominated audience.

Lee Krasner: Living Colour proves Krasner was a fully formed artist long before meeting Pollock in 1941. She began her academic study of art early, enrolling specifically at Washington Irving High School for Girls (note ‘girls-only’) since they offered a major in fine art, and earned the praise of Piet Mondrian only a few years later. Pollock’s help surely gave her some visibility, but her talent was evident from a young age and stood on its own. Sadly, critics were never completely convinced of her talent, seen in their tepid response to her works and exhibitions. Always negatively dubbed as ‘feminine,’ this predictable slight would not discourage her. Her solo show at Betty Parsons hardly sold any canvas, so she later tore many of them into pieces and collaged them onto other existing works.

Photograph of Lee Krasner  1938,  courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Photograph of Lee Krasner 1938, courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.


Overall, Krasner’s work is marked by a dynamic eclecticism and an eye for colour and movement. It seems evident in her early contained drawings, that black and white images of dry academicism were unsuitable for her exuberance. She would go back to gloomy hues only after the death of her husband, when she was only able to paint at night, cloistered in his former studio. And yet, she would also do so creating vibrant, large scale compositions, pullulating with energy. 

As the exhibition develops, Krasner’s canvases are seen imbued with protruding, thick clots of paint that closely resemble chunks of glass. Created shortly after moving to Springs, these inaugurate a new technique and vivacity. Worked from above, a small work like Shattered Colour (1947) presents an astounding richness of layers, creating a jewel-like impression. The same luminosity and game of colours is played out in Mosaic Table (1947) displayed in the same room. Enriched with found objects, such as a key, tesserae from Pollock’s WPA project, glass bottles, and other discarded objects; Mosaic Table is a highly personal and astounding work. 

Further along, Prophecy (1956), together with three other similar works— Embrace (1956), Birth, (1956) and Three in Two (1956) — create a cycle filled with existential anguish which coincide precisely with Pollock’s untimely death in 1956. Here, abstract expressionisms merges with human shapes. We are compelled to recognise human bodies in the amalgam of pink, fleshy tones; even more in the eye shaped black contours on the top left corner of Three in Two. Embrace has a Picasso-esque stature, disturbed by the visible brushwork and dripping paint, not able to be contained; not even by the thick contours around it. 

Lee Krasner  Mosaic Table 1947,  courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Lee Krasner Mosaic Table 1947, courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.


The organic, nostalgic qualities of these paintings foreshadow the outburst of colour and free lines seen in her later works. Huge canvases are here pervaded by thick slashes of bright pinks, oranges and heavy whites, as in Combat (1965), dominating a whole wall of the Barbican. Her colours collide; amorphous shapes are suggested and take a life of their own. There is a free exploration of colour and painting techniques; simultaneously we feel a need to leave the work free of determining itself, with its large spaces of unprimed canvas left visible among the tangle of bright hues. 

The exhibition makes clear that Krasner never stopped seeing and using art as a means of introspective exploration. ‘I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point,’ she famously remarked. From an early self-portrait (c. 1928), presented at the National Academy of Design, to Bird Talk (1955) her presence is ever felt. ‘It [was] clear that my “subject matter” would be myself … The “what” would be truths contained in my own body.’ All of abstract expressionism is generally discussed in terms of an outpouring of emotions; a stream of consciousness spilling from the artist’s core and becoming visible as pigmented matter. Here, the artist’s personality comes out in the canvas itself, and even more in the extremely hands-on, tactile process of the work. 

The cutting of old, unsold paintings, and, later, the reconfiguration of these shattered pieces into ever changing compositions is probably the most engaged approach to abstract expressionism we have seen thus far. Krasner is not dancing, from a distance, around her canvases, only occasionally leaving fingerprints (Pollock); nor is she enveloped into a mystical atmosphere (Mark Rothko). She destroys her creations with her hands, only to inject a new, vibrant life to other compositions.

Lee Krasner  Combat 1965,  courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.

Lee Krasner Combat 1965, courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery, London.


Written by Irene Machetti, a Contributor to Arteviste