PROPERTY FROM THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF SARAH WITTENBORN MILLER
“I wondered how it would cope with the contenders on the other walls? This huge space included Mural and Pollock's crackling envoi, Blue Poles (1954). The answer was that The Eye is the First Circle held its own and more. At once in dialogue with the Pollocks yet altogether distinct, Krasner’s painting did in a single act what the rest of the Umbers do supremely as an ensemble. Pretty explosive, in fact.” (David Anfam, “Mood Umber,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 2018, p. 14)
Surging across the monumental canvas in a riotous tumult of gesture, pigment, and mark, The Eye is the First Circle triumphantly declares Lee Krasner’s supremacy among the celebrated icons of Abstract Expressionism in twentieth century art. At once unruly and lyrical, combative and delicate, utterly expansive and intensely intimate, Krasner’s soaring masterwork hums with the irrepressible energy of wind-whipped storms and apocalyptic events, her gestural ferocity bridled only by the specificity of her virtuosic painterly touch. Painted in 1960, the present work is the crowning embodiment of Krasner’s Umber paintings, the highly lauded series of twenty-four works that, in recent years, have risen to acclaim as the creative pinnacle of her celebrated oeuvre. Created in the years following the sudden and tragic death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, the Umbers are defined by a gestural intensity and ambition of scale unprecedented in Krasner’s earlier output; serving both as testament to and catharsis of the intensive emotional turmoil which fueled her practice at this crucial nexus, these extraordinary paintings remain the most compelling and psychologically evocative compositions of Krasner’s career. An unparalleled masterwork within this already rarified group, the immense surface of The Eye is the First Circle invokes the legacy of her late husband’s action painting as elegiac foil to Krasner’s own, fiercely distinctive brushwork and refined palette of umber and cream hues. Testifying to the significance of the present work, The Eye is the First Circle has been featured in virtually every major survey of Krasner’s work since its execution, including the 1983-1984 exhibition Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and travelling to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the 1999-2001 survey Lee Krasner, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and travelling to the Des Moines Art Center, Akron Art Center, and Brooklyn Museum of Art, amongst numerous others. Most recently, curator David Anfam selected the present work to represent Lee Krasner in his widely acclaimed exhibition Abstract Expressionism, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2016—2017; of installing the present work alongside several masterpieces by Pollock at the Royal Academy of Arts, Anfam reflects: “I wondered how it would cope with the contenders on the other walls? This huge space included Mural and Pollock's crackling envoi, Blue Poles (1954). The answer was that The Eye is the First Circle held its own and more. At once in dialogue with the Pollocks yet altogether distinct, Krasner’s painting did in a single at what the rest of the Umbers do supremely as an ensemble. Pretty explosive, in fact.” (David Anfam, “Mood Umber,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 2018, p. 14) Held in same distinguished private collection for over two decades, The Eye is the First Circle emerges as a singular and defining masterpiece, of not only Krasner’s oeuvre, but of the Abstract Expressionist era.
In its unavoidable psychic urgency, The Eye is the First Circle speaks to the pivotal juncture at which Krasner found herself at the end of 1950s; still reeling in the wake of Pollock’s fatal car crash in 1956, followed closely by her mother’s passing in 1959 and the cancellation of a planned exhibition at French & Co. that same year, Krasner plunged into a new series of paintings, her emotional turmoil serving as crucial catalyst for the first, monumental Umber paintings. Amongst the earliest works in the series, the present work was painted in Springs, East Hampton, where Krasner had moved her practice into Pollock’s former studio in the barn, the larger space enabling her to experiment on canvases far more massive than any she had used before. These new paintings, in their monumental scale, invoke the largest of Pollock, Kline, and Still’s mural-like masterworks: like those paintings, they cannot be absorbed from a single glance, instead encompassing the viewer within their massive surface. Scholar Barbara Rose describes: “One is ‘in’ them, as one is ‘in’ Claude Monet’s huge pools of Water Lilies, paintings both Krasner and Pollock admired…There is no way in or out of a painting like The Eye is the First Circle, a nearly sixteen-foot long oil on canvas. The painting has become a place rather than an object.” (Exh. Cat. Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, 1983, p. 125) Upon the monumental canvas of the present work, Krasner’s psychic angst is translated in arcs of pigment which writhe, splatter, and dip across the canvas with a sense of untempered motion and force. Describing the emotive intensity of the Umbers in a conversation with the artist, critic Richard Howard noted: “It seems to me that the fact that the pictures were so big suggests a willingness to project movement and even agony in its literal sense, the sense of struggle, on a very considerable scale; that you were aware that the content required such an…”, to which the artist supplied the term: “Arena.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Lee Krasner: Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 1993, n.p.) Krasner’s emotional turmoil at the time was such that, many nights, she found herself unable to sleep. The artist reflects: “I was going deep down into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant. In fact I painted a great many of them because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead.” (The artist cited in Robert Hobbs, Lee Krasner, New York, 1993, p. 151) Without daylight to illuminate her canvas as she worked, Krasner began to eliminate color from her palette, working instead within the nuanced range of amber, cream, and umber tones used in the present work; in the years since their creation, Krasner came to refer to the resulting Umber paintings as the Night Journeys. The title of the present work, The Eye is the First Circle, came to Krasner as, surveying the completed painting, she was struck by the myriad hooded and half-lidded eyes which seemed to peer out from the dense thicket of pigment. The phrase is drawn from the first line of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay ‘Circles,’ which begins: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Essays: First Series, 1841, n.p.) Indeed, within the seemingly frenzied melee of The Eye is the First Circle, essential forms and gestures appear repeatedly to create a coherent and compelling pictorial structure. Despite their raw intensity, each gestural spray of pigment is balanced and counter-balanced by its echo, testifying to the deliberateness and fierce intention with which Krasner built her triumphant masterpiece.
Executed with virtuosic certainty and vigor, The Eye is the First Circle declares the painterly confidence and technical sophistication of Krasner at the singular peak of her powers. Anfam describes: “With the twenty-four works collectively described as The Umber Paintings (1959-62), Lee Krasner’s art came decisively into its own…in the Umbers, various forces coalesced. They exemplified Krasner’s most outstanding achievement to date, a crucial nexus, and overall high-point of her career.” (David Anfam, “Mood Umber,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959-1962, 2018, p. 9) Amongst the most formative forces behind the Umbers was, without question, Krasner’s confrontation of Pollock’s legacy as figurehead of the action painters and larger New York school. In its explosive physicality, The Eye is the First Circle summons elegiac references to the full-bodied abstraction of such works as Pollock’s One: Number 31 and Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) – paintings created in the same studio in which Krasner now worked. Here, however, the spontaneity and combative force of Pollock’s signature mode is refined within the exacting terms of Krasner’s own, distinctive style; Anfam describes: “this is not Pollock’s ventriloquism as it were… but sovereign Lee Krasner at last speaking loud, clear, and often with anger.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959—1962, 2018, p. 10) Within Krasner’s refined painterly vocabulary, every bold action and delicate touch is tempered by a fluid grace that unifies the dynamism of the overall composition. At once unruly and lyrical, her powerful gesture advances with rhythmic certainty across the canvas, the great arcs of umber pigment interwoven with sprays of cream and earth-toned pigment to create a singular, captivating image. Describing the confident authority with which Krasner absorbed and manifested Pollock’s legacy in her large-scale masterworks, critic Hilton Kramer described: “This is Abstract Expressionist painting of the ‘classic’ type—all energy and struggle and outsize gesture—finally resolved in a pattern of hard-won coherence.” (Hilton Kramer cited in Exh. Cat. Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, 1983, p. 130) Perhaps heralding the interwoven referential and regenerative modes of the Umbers, Emerson’s essay, which begins with the title of the present work, continues: “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile…New arts destroy the old.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Essays: First Series, 1841, n.p.) Indeed, rather than invoke emotions of grief or loss, the radical exuberance of The Eye is the First Circle insists emphatically upon the vitality and primacy of the living; Anfam describes, “the final impact is electric, tonic, and thus life-affirming.” (Ibid., n.p)
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