Lee Krasner’s work is characterized by its variability; the artist continued to revise and redirect her style throughout her life. Untitled (1964) represents a pivotal moment in the artist’s development, in which she began to paint on small canvases and paper, foregoing the dark tones, and dense, knotted forms associated with her earlier work in favor a lighter, more effervescent style. Painted eight years after her husband Jackson Pollock’s death, Untitled stands as a testament to spiritual renewal and serves, as scholar Barbara Rose suggests, “to celebrate the vital rhythms of life” (Barbara Rose in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, December 1984 - February 1985, p. 130).
Krasner first became interested in abstraction in the 1940s, and, after studying under Hans Hofmann, her work took on a distinct cubist bent, emphasizing flat sharp shapes and vivid tones. Shortly after, she met the critic Clement Greenberg and started to associate and exhibit with a group of artists, such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, who would later be labeled the Abstract Expressionists. She began to explore the principles of automatism, which privileged gesture and unconscious expression over measured geometrics and balanced compositions. After marrying Jackson Pollock in 1945 and moving to Long Island, Krasner painted a set of works referred to as “hieroglyphs” in reference to the paintings’ compact registers of thickly-laid strokes which resemble an inscrutable linguistic system. These works earned the artist her first solo exhibition at Betty Parsons in 1951. After this show, her practice again shifted, as she took up the medium of collage and allowed her brushwork to become more fluid and her shapes more organic. While her work was certainly influenced by that of her husband, Bryan Robertson contends, “There was a mutual sympathy for an atavistic conception of painting and shared absorption in Jungian archetypal principles, but the greater part of her work was independent, with its own strength and momentum” (Bryan Robertson, “Preface,” in Exh. Cat., London, Whitechapel Gallery (and traveling), Lee Krasner: paintings, drawings and collages, September 1965—October 1966, p. 4). Following the death of Pollock, Krasner’s work again changed dramatically, reflecting both her isolation and her independence. Plagued by insomnia, the artist worked exclusively at night on large canvases, limiting her painting palate to a small set of dark tones. Her brushwork became increasingly fervent and the resulting compositions, full of ovoid shapes and sharp angles, radiate a combative, swirling sort of energy.
Inevitably, the raw, heated ethos of these paintings gave way to a new artistic vision, one which embraced the vivid colors of her early painting and applied them to decorative, allover compositions of feathery brushwork, such as the present painting. Art historians ascribe this shift to a number of circumstances. Barbara Rose notes that Krasner broke her right wrist, which necessitated that she paint with her left hand. This marked shift in her practice may have pushed her to explore looser compositions. Around this time, Krasner moved back into Manhattan from Long Island and began producing works on a smaller scale on paper. This smaller medium allowed the artist to experiment with new forms and concepts. Rose contends, “In 1964, she brought her painting to new lightness, transparent and more decorative, less aggressive style of allover painting. The imagery is related once more to calligraphy and ornament rather than to physical struggle or upheaval” (Barbara Rose in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, December 1984 - February 1985, p. 132). This work certainly demonstrates a keen awareness of the visual powerful of decorative, repeated forms. Other scholars, such as Robert Hobbs, suggest that these new paintings herald Krasner’s reentry into the art scene. Hobbs explains, “Beginning in 1964, Krasner created works in response to current vanguard styles...During the 1950s, she had been too caught up with the traumatic changes in her life and too involved in a dialogue with the first generation of Abstract Expressionists” (Robert Hobbs, Lee Krasner, New York 1993, p. 75-76). After seeing the work of Joan Mitchell and other second generation Abstract Expressionist painters, she might have been inspired to pare down the architecture of her paintings and allow color to dictate composition.
Whatever the impetus, which was most likely a combination of factors, Krasner’s work began to display an unprecedented tone of exuberance. Rose declares, “The storm is over. It is as if anguish has been exorcised and rage disciplined to the point that Krasner is free to return to another aspect of her sensibility” (Barbara Rose in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, December 1984 - February 1985, p.130). Edward Albee who was a devout student of Krasner’s oeuvre, writes, “These paintings dance and prance and sweep and swerve and shout in their enthusiasm. It is not mindless outpouring, of course--intellectual control is behind the free spirit in every canvas. What it is, most precisely, is the joyous outpouring of a major artist who is sure of her gift and happy to share it” (Edward Albee, “Lee Krasner (1990),” Stretching My Mind, New York 2005, p. 122). The present work and its dashing, colorful markings do, indeed, hum with alacrity and anticipation. Untitled announces the emergence of a new phase in Krasner’s work, in which the artist was freed from previous psychological drama and able to explore new avenues of emotive expression and to create a style which was wholly her own.
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