"Lee Krasner: Little Image Paintings 1946-1950," Aug. 1-Oct. 31, 2008, at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, 830 Fireplace Road, East Hampton, N.Y. 11937
Lee Krasner moved to Springs in East Hampton in 1945, where, influenced in part by the gestural frenzy that was taking shape in her husband Jackson Pollock’s converted barn-studio nearby, Krasner undertook a series of modestly formatted works that were executed on her table or floor in her tiny second floor bedroom, in a vigorous attempt to get away from an easel esthetic. These intimate paintings, rich in surface texture, often loosely structured in a grid yet full of energy and improvisation, she called her "Little Image" paintings.
Now on view in the very house in which they were painted, the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, are ten works from this series, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, AXA Financial and several other collections. The accompanying catalogue features an essay by the art historian Gail Levin. The exhibition affords a rare opportunity to assess Krasner’s work at a critical period of transition, when it moved from an American cubism of the Hans Hofmann school to a distinct, visceral approach to image and surface.
The signs of a dialogue, or perhaps dueling, between Krasner and Pollock is visible in the earliest works from the "Little Image" series -- works not in the show, but documented by Herbert Matter at the time -- which have an all-over gestural thrust, even as they appear to be thicker and more heavily layered than Pollock works made during the same period. At the same time, the paintings of the two artists practically collide after 1946, as both were so intent on ejecting former doctrines and stylistic habits as to break ranks together. Pollock’s famous battle with his training (with the Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton) and the European Modernism in the late ‘40s did not seem to be as much of an issue for Krasner, whose admiration for Modernism, from Mondrian to Matisse, according to Levin, was clearly evident in her late ‘40s paintings.
By 1947, however, Krasner was moving toward a more color-saturated, almost pointillist approach. In Shellflower and Noon, she allowed color to take over for gesture as the expressive element in her work. If color slowed down the gesture, it gave it more substance in the process, more body than feverish energy. Levin notes her essay that Krasner’s little image paintings "range from a delicate lyrical sensibility with pastel colors, to a bolder hieroglyphic form emphasizing black and white," evident in Black and White Squares No. 1 from 1948.
Also compelling are those compositions from 1949-50 that are constructed on a rudimentary grid and overlaid with a pattern of squares, rectangles, triangles and diamond shapes, mostly on a tonal ground with some bright flashes of color. Levin’s observation that Krasner "adored calligraphic complexity, perhaps as a result of her childhood study of Hebrew" seems particularly evident in a work such as Untitled, 1949, as well as more obvious resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Mostly these small paintings are impressive for their unique vision and vitality, works that were distinctly Krasner’s own in both substance and iconography. Not shown in public during those years, no doubt in part due to the prevailing art world machismo, the "Little Image" paintings were admired by fellow artists and critics when they visited Krasner and Pollock in the Springs. Krasner recalled that Clement Greenberg had stopped by, and spotting an early work from the series remarked "That’s hot, it’s cooking." Later, despite the remark’s possibly derisive double entendre, Krasner said, "I considered it a compliment."
ROBERT G. EDELMAN is an artist and critic who is director of Anita Friedman Fine Arts.