Coming to terms with Lee Krasner has not been easy. Unlike other Abstract Expressionists, such as Franz Kline, with his muscular black scaffoldings, or Mark Rothko, with his billowy rectangles of vibrating color, Krasner did not have an immediately recognizable (or easily marketable) style – what today we’d call a brand. Because even her most celebrated paintings suggest the earlier achievements of others, her originality is not immediately apparent. And even now, sixteen years after her death at 75, she is best known as the wife of Jackson Pollock, the signature Abstract Expressionist, who died in a car crash in 1956 while driving with his lover as Krasner was vacationing in Europe at the beginning of their trial separation. Because Krasner never demanded a place in art history, as Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, and the other Abstract Expressionist guys did, her work can still be lost in the Pollock-Krasner spectacle of art, cars, booze, sex, guilt, and death that really is the stuff of myth.
For the most part, the retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art serves Krasner well. Charlotta Kotik, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, has given her paintings the space and light they need. Its relatively small size – only 60 works are exhibited – brings out the intimacy of the work and helps make Krasner’s oeuvre accessible. We get to the important paintings quickly. Krasner’s academic and modernist art training and her important early interests in Surrealism and Picasso are acknowledged succinctly. With the “Little Image” series of 1946 to 1950 – dense, intricate paintings, crowds and forests of tiny jumbled marks and ancient-looking signs – we are plunged into Krasner’s world. In the more expansive collages of the early fifties, the compacted energy of the “Little Images” seems to explode, and Krasner’s jagged strips and ovals begin to suggest arenas of conversation and violence, laughter and threat.
The heart of the retrospective – organized by art historian Robert Hobbs for Independent Curators International, an exhibition-organizing institution in New York – is a large gallery of paintings from 1956 to 1960. It begins with the eerily fateful 1956 Prophecy, which Krasner painted before her European trip. Pollock was disturbed by what Hobbs describes as “the unsettling, accusatory” eye that appears to be incised into the darkness in the upper right-hand corner – watching over the tense interaction between pink and red body parts and hard yellow light – and asked her to remove it. She refused and left it on her easel in July. In August, he was dead.
In the “Earth Green” and “Umber and White (Night Journeys)” series, painted after Pollock’s death, Krasner made her biggest leap. Her surfaces open up. Her paint now seems to nestle onto the canvas rather than blanket or silence it. “I am nature,” Pollock had declared. Krasner credited him with helping her to understand the difference between observing nature and then painting what she saw, and making the act of painting itself an expression of the movements and rhythms of nature. The Seasons (1957), nearly eight feet wide and seventeen feet long, looks as if it was painted less by the hand than by an entire body, feeling its cycles and finding its measure by circulating within the landscape of the canvas. No previous painter gave a female vocabulary of curvilinear forms such monumentality and dramatic potential.
The gallery ends with the magisterial 1960 painting The Eye Is the First Circle (1960), which is almost as large as The Seasons but monochromatic in feeling. “I couldn’t sleep at night,” Krasner said of the “Umber and White (Night Journeys)” series. “I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead. And I realized that if I was going to work at night, I would have to knock color out altogether, because I couldn’t deal with color, except in daylight.” With its tornadolike webs, its field of eyes, its thrown, rubbed, and smudged paint, its fertile yet burnt browns, this painting compares favorably with any other Abstract Expressionist attempt to paint the sublime. It is an epic poem of freedom and entrapment, intimacy and annihilation, revelation and terror, with the intensity, ambition, intelligence, and courage of art that lasts. Painted a few years after young hotshots like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had mocked the vivid gestures and romantic claims of the Abstract Expressionists, The Eye announced that Abstract Expressionism was still alive.
Then, however, the show loses momentum and purpose. A good deal less attention is paid to the work of Krasner’s last 25 years, and we are given little preparation for the two seventies series that the show zeros in on. One, inspired by ancient alphabets, is marked by clean gestures and clearly delineated, Robert Motherwell-like processions of forms. In the other, Krasner cut up many of the charcoal drawings she had made as a student of Hans Hofmann in the late thirties and collaged them – upside down, right side up, every which way – onto canvases. This was not an artist who treated everything she produced as an artifact of greatness. These paintings are not as immediate as those of the fifties, but they are smart and bold. Though this retrospective makes the case that Krasner was a major artist, it is far from the final word.
Edward Steichen, who died in 1973 at the age of 93, is not easy to come to terms with, either. His reputation is secure as a master photographer with an exquisite sensibility and eye who inventively explored the technical possibilities of the medium and created unforgettable images of plants, landscapes, cities, objects, and people. In the unusually ambivalent retrospective at the Whitney, his photographs of trees and buildings, avocados and sunflowers, are as remarkable as ever. He began as a romantic who believed that if you knew how to wait for the essence of something without cornering or smothering it, it would emerge, and it would be beautiful and good.
But Steichen’s full-time commitment to art photography really ended in the early twenties. While chief photographer for Condé Nast (1923-1937), photographing fashion for Vogue and celebrities for Vanity Fair, he became vitriolic about the preciousness of much art photography. In her catalogue, Whitney curator Barbara Haskell cites his remark “I don’t give a hoot in hell” about photography as a fine art. A wall label declares: “He soon came to believe that no qualitative distinction existed between fine and commercial photography and that propaganda had been art’s historical function.” He began spouting noble-sounding ideas about the populist potential of photography even as his ingratiating idealizations of the fashionable and famous, in Haskell’s words, “offered an escape into a fantasy realm of wealth and privilege.” Steichen talked democracy and served power.
As much as Steichen may have believed in blurring the line between high and low art, in his work that line remained clear. The most prominent part of the Whitney retrospective is a curved wall with more than 50 celebrity photographs that we arrive at after around two dozen tedious fashion photographs of demure, youthful, and elegant women. In his photographs of trees and plants, Steichen was in search of the spirit or soul of nature. In his commercial photographs, he was intent on investing his glamorous subjects with the same aura of purity and mystery that he saw – and so memorably recorded – in the natural world. Steichen’s photographs of Isadora Duncan and Charlie Chaplin, among others, may be memorable, but none of his commercial photographs has the affection and belief that kept drawing him to his beloved delphiniums. Steichen was indeed a master photographer, but his rhetoric of populism and democracy while he was extolling glamour and money make him one of the most exasperating of photography’s pioneers.