I n 1976, while cleaning out her studio, the painter Lee Krasner discovered some charcoal drawings she had made as a student 40 years earlier. By this time, Krasner had already created many of the works that would define her as one of the great Abstract Expressionists, alongside Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. The drawings she found were figurative – mostly nudes created from life. After putting a few of them aside, she cut the rest up, carving them into strips until they were barely recognisable.
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The shards of these early, Cubist-inspired works became material for a new series of collages which Krasner exhibited the following year at Pace Gallery in New York. According to John Bernard Myers, an art dealer and writer who chronicled four decades of the New York art scene, Krasner stated at the time: “The first collage of the new work is called Imperative  – meaning I experienced the need not just to examine these drawings, but a peremptory desire to change them, a command as it were, to make them new.”
This process was not a new one for Krasner. She had been willfully destroying and recycling her art for decades, which is one of the reasons her surviving body of work is relatively small. Krasner’s destructive impulse was driven in part by her refusal to be known for a signature style, putting her in opposition to other painters from the New York School, an informal group of artists who had pioneered the Abstract Expressionist movement and which included Krasner and her husband, Jackson Pollock.
“Painting is not separate from life. It is one.”
“The fixed image terrified her,” says Eleanor Nairne, curator of Lee Krasner: Living Colour at the Barbican Centre in London this summer. “She felt that it was an inauthentic gesture to think that some singular imagery could contain everything that she was as a person. She went through these cycles of work and these rhythms, and it was often a very painful process.”
Despite her dramatic shifts in style, Krasner often used texture, collage and gestural paint strokes in her work, and became known as a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism alongside her husband, whose work was influenced by her own paintings. After Pollock died in 1956, Krasner decided to move into the barn, where his studio space had been. It is here that she made her largest works, the Umber series, named for its neutral palette of browns and whites. “It must have been a very loaded space emotionally, but she’s very practical,” says Nairne. “It’s the largest space… and suddenly it allows her to take unstretched canvas, to tack it to the wall, and to make paintings that are 15ft in length, which she has never done before.”
Suffering from insomnia and painting only at night, she was also grieving the loss of her mother, who died soon after Pollock. “Krasner was asked by an interviewer afterwards, ‘How do you manage to do that? How do you paint in the depths of that degree of grief?’,” says Nairne. “She said, ‘Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It’s like asking, “Do I want to live?” and my answer is yes, and so I paint.’ I think you really feel that sense of life force in these works.”
Joe Townend is a writer and editor based in London.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour, Barbican, London, 30 May–1 September. Sotheby’s is proud to be a sponsor of this exhibition.
Contemporary Art Evening will be on view in New York from 3–16 May. Auction: 16 May.
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