Executed in 1956, the most critical and heart-wrenching, yet profoundly brilliant year for the artist, Lee Krasner’s Cauldron is an enveloping, autobiographical canvas that encapsulates a range of emotions for the newly widowed artist. Husband Jackson Pollock’s untimely death on August 11, 1956 drove Krasner home from a European tour (harrowingly, the first time Pollock and Krasner had been separated in fourteen years) and propelled Krasner into a realm of other-worldliness in her work—a place where she no longer needed to act as the stable pillar upon which Pollock could lean.
Though now regarded an influential artist who significantly contributed to the dialogue of American art in the 20th Century, Krasner’s early work was the result of her struggle for identity and recognition among the elite of the New York’s art scene—a stark contrast to Pollock’s incomparable success. As the sixth of seven children to immigrant parents, Krasner (born Lena Krassner) was strong-willed from the start, yet it is clear she constantly treaded the conflicting identities of wife and independent artist prior to Pollock’s death. Devastated and fuelled by her loss, Krasner immediately took to painting, producing an authoritative body of work that maturely broke with the restrained collages and somewhat derivative themes she had been exploring. As historian Barbara Rose astutely notes, “No longer could she hold back the anger that is and always had been a dominant characteristic of hers; nor could she keep at bay the demons that disturbed her sleep, finally bringing down the walls of the iron discipline that had confined her will to self-expression […] As long as Pollock was alive, Krasner could not afford to enter the world of trancelike ‘otherness’ in which he operated when he painted. Her feet, at least, had to be securely planted on the ground […] While Pollock lived, Krasner could not afford to float away into outer space because she, like her mother, took on the responsibility of dealing with the practical matters of daily life” (Exh. Cat., Houston, Museum of Fine Arts (and travelling), Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, 1983, pp. 97-98).
Cauldron epitomizes the voracious outpouring of emotional creativity after Pollock’s death, a shift she perhaps was already engaging with on her own, having already participated in several psychoanalytic sessions before her husband’s accident. Thick black lines, heavily painted in the automatic style so championed by Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky, dominate the composition and outline the layered biomorphic forms, reminiscent of the forms in de Kooning’s Painting (1948). A visually stimulating juxtaposition of rich blacks, tones of slate and golden cognac delineated by the confident but chaotic slashing gestures across the canvas evoke the inexorable feelings of loss that undoubtedly consumed Krasner during this period. Nearly abstracted, a single fiery lily, accented in bright magenta and tangerine oranges, emerges from the turbulence, suggestive both of the pure state of peace and tranquility which Pollock had descended into, and the hope for Krasner’s own rebirth as an independent artist. This engaging interplay of dark and light coloration and abstracted, amorphous forms harken back to Pollock’s Easter and the Totem (1953) which was painted during a moment of sobriety and clarity for the notorious alcoholic. Drips that emerge below each form further testify to Krasner’s deft handling of paint in a variety of styles and stand, of course, as homage to her late husband.
The emotionally charged title of the present work—Cauldron—cannot be overlooked. The composition is visually structured as if a pot: the dark outer edges reveal an interior burning with Krasner’s artistic passion and fervor now finally able to be released. An alternative definition for “cauldron” reads: “a situation characterized by instability and strong emotions.” Without question, the present work serves as a metaphor for the tumultuous yet stimulating relationship between Krasner and Pollock that ended in an emancipation of sorts for Krasner. Overcome with grief and anguish, Krasner has managed to channel every sentiment into Cauldron, producing a piece that offers a glimmer of hope for the future.
Two weeks after Pollock’s death, Krasner is seen sitting in front of an unfinished version of Cauldron in her studio. Prophecy, the work still on her easel as she departed for Europe and thus at the time of Pollock’s death, rests adjacent to the present work. The two paintings together represent the birth of Krasner’s most moving and emotionally charged works—that Cauldron is one of these two not only heightens the importance of the present work but further implicates the biographical nature of Krasner’s oeuvre. Cauldron, along with Prophecy and a selection of other post-1956 works were exhibited in 1958 at Martha Jackson Gallery in Krasner’s first exhibition since her husband’s death. Not only was the showing critically acclaimed, but B.H. Friedman, Pollock’s biographer and, of course, brother-in-law to Kalman and Judith Noselson, eloquently captured the aura of works such as Cauldron in the following statement: “In looking at these paintings, listening to them, feeling them, I know that this work—Lee Krasner's most mature and personal, as well as most joyous and positive, to date—was done in a period of profound sorrow for the artist. The paintings are a stunning affirmation of life" (Exh. Cat., London, Whitechapel Gallery, Lee Krasner: Paintings, Drawings and Collages, 1965, p. 13).
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