Sun Woman I is one of the largest and most important paintings from this crucial series. Included in Krasner’s pivotal 1983-85 travelling retrospective and featured on the front cover of her solo presentation at Robert Miller in 1982, the work is positioned adjacent to Seasons, arguably the artist’s greatest work, in the catalogue raisonné. Leaving evident the circular movements of the arm that delineated the composition, the work nods to the action painting of Krasner’s late husband but has an explosive ebullience that sets it apart from the work of her contemporaries. The measured play of color and form, pigment and canvas, scumbled and opaque paint creates what Griselda Pollock has described as “a dancing space…not like the literal dance performed by Pollock around his canvas and mythicized in photo session and film by Hans Namuth…[but rather] a created effect, a produced illusion, made through the play of color, the energy of line, the ebullient fullness of the image on the canvas.” (Griselda Pollock, “Killing Men and Dying Women,” in Mieke Bal, ed., The Practice of Cultural Analysis: Exposing Interdisciplinary Interpretation, Stanford, 1999, p. 100)
Indeed, Sun Woman I, to an even greater extent than the other works in the Earth Green series, can be read as a refutation of Pollock’s myth and the prevailing machismo of the age. After all, a huge part of Pollock’s appeal lay in his wild masculinity, and the fashion in which that was reflected in his painting. As Budd Hopper reputedly said, in a telling assessment following the artist's death: “He was the great American painter. If you conceive of such a person… he had to be a real American, not a transplanted European. And he should have big Macho American virtues – he should be rough and tumble American…and he should be allowed the great American vice, the Hemingway vice, of being a drunk… Everything about him was right.” (Budd Hopper quoted in Ibid., p. 86) What does this piece of adulatory mythologizing tell us about the reception of Pollock’s art? Determinedly American to the point of mild xenophobia, ruled by ungovernable urges and forces to reveal an inherent genius (at this juncture the Drip Paintings were thought of as gestures of wild abandon rather than highly energized but nevertheless controlled compositions that they are now considered to be), and most importantly, powerfully and overwhelmingly masculine; indeed, Pollock embodied the American ideal of the muscle-bound cowboy. In this context, the insistent femininity of Sun Woman I appears defiant. Undulating curves delineate breasts, buttocks and lips before giving way to green shoots in the upper left corner representing new life. As Barbara Rose observes in her essay for the 1984-85 retrospective, stalk-like limbs draw the composition up the canvas, lining up vertically with the framing edges, and the “heads and arms suggest flowers in an even further hybridization of form.” (Exh. Cat, New York, The Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, 1983, p. 108) This conjoining of the human realm and the plant kingdom leads Hobbs to conclude that these were “hybrids that were intended to be living forms in a state of metamorphosis.” (Robert Hobbs, Op. Cit., p. 70) Sun Woman I is a work dedicated to fecundity, growth and reproduction, inspired in part by Krasner’s enduring love for the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, with the very title signaling this opposition of male and female. Casting itself in binary opposition to Pollock’s Moon Women from the early 1940s, ominous totemic specters that positioned women as entities to be feared, Sun Woman I rejoices in its femininity. Just as the sun is reborn at winter solstice to initiate the new year, the present work represents Krasner’s rebirth as an artist, her declaration of independence.
Pivotal to our understanding of this proclamation of artistic identity is the abrupt incorporation of calligraphic signatures in Krasner’s work. Starting with Listen (1957), she began to incorporate a steadily more abstracted signature in the bottom right corner of the composition, to the point that it would become “an armature for the entire painting.” (Robert Hobbs, “Lee Krasner,” in, Exh. Cat. Los Angeles Museum of Art (and travelling), Lee Krasner, 1999, p. 130) This inclusion was in diametric opposition to the prevailing trend, which saw the Abstract Expressionists largely omit to sign their works, allowing their signature image – Gottlieb’s burst, Pollock’s drip, Newman’s zip – to speak for their artistic identity. Krasner’s inclusion of a signature can thus be read as both a rebellion and a parody of the idea of a signature image, especially in the context of an artist who was constantly reinventing her practice. However, it is also an invocation of self-hood, not, as Hobbs argues, “a holistic sense of self,” but rather fragments of the artist's persona in the form of both the signature and the emergent forms. This reflects the other key undertone of the Earth Green series – as much as they are a declaration of artistic identity and a radical break both formally and conceptually, they were also cathartic works following the death of her husband. Speaking years later, the artist recalled: “I can remember that when I was painting Listen which is so high keyed in color…it looks like such a happy painting… I almost didn’t see it, because tears were literally pouring down.” (Lee Krasner quoted in Ibid., pp. 130-37)
Although the Earth Green series undeniably saw Krasner grapple with Pollock, making explicit reference to his earlier works, the other painter with whom she had to contend was Willem de Kooning, whose Women from the early 1950s were some of the defining images of the era. Retaining a powerful indexicality to the bodily intensity of de Kooning’s gesture and movement, the Women are monstrous creations replete with blood-red smiles and wide staring eyes, imbued with the sensation of both violence and sexuality. They could not be ignored, and as Griselda Pollock observes, presented a serious challenge: “de Kooning was not only the other big name on the current New York scene to be dealt with. He was the painter of Woman… For an artist of Krasner’s, namely his, generation, that dominance… could not be avoided.” (Griselda Pollock, Op. Cit., p. 100) Needless to say, the contrast between the two representations of women is pronounced. In place of de Kooning’s violent and jagged application of pigment come Krasner’s looping lines, and in place of any objectification comes adulation. The figure is not sexualized so much as she is sexual and fertile, a reclamation of the body from male representation. This is described as “a joyful revelation of body schema on a canvas…a play around presence and absence that is pleasurable because it does not index an obsessive repetition of mastery (Pollock) or the need for violence (de Kooning).” (Ibid., p. 100)
Epitomizing the pervasive sense of life and growth that characterizes the Earth Green series, Sun Woman I is one of Lee Krasner’s masterpieces. Providing the immediate foundation for The Seasons, where the figurative elements of the composition further abstract into an assortment of body parts, the present work is clearly of foundational importance to Krasner’s oeuvre, as evidenced by the extraordinary echo of its bulbous forms and lips in Gaea from 1966 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Conceptually rigorous and aesthetically astounding, Sun Woman I rightly takes its place as one of the most influential, written about and accomplished paintings of Krasner’s career, and gives weight to her friend Edward Albee’s glowing review of her oeuvre in the catalogue for her show at Robert Miller Gallery: “I will book no interference when I assert that Lee Krasner is not only the finest woman painter the U.S. has produced in this century but – since sex is not really the vital matter here – is right in the top of the pile of the great 20th century American artists, period.” (Edward Albee, "Considering Krasner," Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Lee Krasner Paintings 1965 to 1970, 1991, n.p.)
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