Lee Krasner at the Schirn Kunsthalle – now showing at the Guggenheim in Bilbao: 18 Sept – 10 Jan’21

She was certainly a female force to be reckoned with, Lee Krasner! Artist, pioneer, feminist…and wife of world-renowned artist Jackson Pollock. However, she made her stands quite clear in a famous quote, when she said: ‘I painted before Pollock, I painted during Pollock and I painted after Pollock’ – no arguing there then. She came across as thick-skinned, brusque and abrupt, but that armour she had to put on to survive and fight her way in the art world, which in the 40s, 50s and 60s, was quite clearly a man’s world. Picture this: you create stunning, visual artworks, only to be told by a galleries, that if it had been painted by a man, it would definitely sell.’ Painted by a woman? Unthinkable…in today’s world, precisely this scenario would be unthinkable, but Lee had to fight for her laurels, which also made her the driven artist and completely unique and strong-willed woman she became. Her life journey was not an easy one, she knows she upset many people on the way, but she was determined nevertheless.

Expressing herself in these different styles throughout the various phases of her life, she permanently seemed to reinvent herself, making it impossible to pin her down on one genre only. That was exactly what she wanted: to be known for her all her ability as an artist, lasting over decades, not just known for a single style that could define her, as there where so many different facets to her. To be known ‘only’ for her vivid canvases in American Abstract Expressionism does her a great deal of injustice, as she was also highly accomplished in life drawing and painting self-portraits. Claudia Peifer liked those in particular, as they were already showing Lee’s serious streak as a girl and young woman. However, this was not enough for her – she needed to explore art and herself fully to stay fresh and unconventional – impressive!

Our exclusive interview with art historian and the Schirn’s director, Dr. Philipp Demandt, was hugely interesting and funny too. Discussing her plight in life for making her own name, and advising on the fact, that there isn’t much American Abstract Expressionism to be found in Europe, bar Anglo-Saxon countries, we realised then what a gem this show really is. Curated and organised by the Barbican Centre in London, in collaboration with Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), as well as the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern (Switzerland), this blockbuster retrospective about one of the most important artists of the 20th century is a real treat!

Lee Krasner – The Artist

Hailed as a pioneer in Abstract Expressionism, this all-encompassing exhibition, showing almost 100 works, definitely cements Lee Krasner as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Celebrating her life & work, we get an idea about a very complex mind and possibly an even more complex woman. Eclipsed by the name of her world-famous husband for decades, she never seemed intimidated by his name, even when she became Mrs. Jackson Pollock.

In the struggle to stay true to herself and her own work, Lee Krasner had to be driven, single-minded, super focused and undeterrable. To be all this in the 40s, as a woman, in an art world that was controlled and directed mainly by men, was not an easy task. This retrospective shows the entire works of Lee Krasner…and that she was a survivor, as a person, as well as in her art.

As a member of the American Abstract Artists group, her contemporaries were Ray Eames, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and of course, Jackson Pollock, as well as Mark Rothko. Defining her adult life in different work phases, she kept on experimenting, and decided to move in Pollock’s studio after his death in 1956, where yet another new phase of her career as an artist began.

She had come very far from life-drawing nudes, to self-portraits in oil to creating works in her geometrical ‘Little Images’ series, now embarking on large canvasses and subsequently her famous collages. Stepping out of Pollock’s shadow, she became this trailblazer of a female force in American Abstract Expressionism in the following years, hence her pioneering input for women in art must never be underestimated.

American Abstract Expressionism

Developed in New York in the 40s, American Abstract Expressionism is a post-World War II art movement not just in painting, but collages and sketches as well. Specifically, it was the first American art movement as such to gain international recognition and influence, putting New York on the map as the new centre of the western art world, taking over from Paris.

Abstract Expressionism intends to ‘make art’ that is expressive or emotional in its effect. Originally inspired by surrealism, in as much as that art should derive from the unconscious mind, Amercian Abstract Expressionism represented freedom of expression at a time when many other countries were under some sort of political dictatorship. Whereas the United States of America allowed its artists to work freely and in an uninhibited way, artists in many other western countries were still ‘gagged’ by political censorship.

Although the actual term ‘abstract expressionism’ was first applied to American art in 1946 by the art critic Robert Coates, it apparently was coined in Germany in 1919 by the magazine ‘Der Sturm’, with regards toe German Expressionism. However, Alfred Barr was the first to actually use this kind of terminology in the US in 1929, talking about Wassily Kandinski. German Expressionism has its roots in emotional intensity and self-denial – Futurism, Bauhaus and Cubism came to life.

And although it is true, that the impression of spontaneity and ‘feeling things’ at the spur of the moment characterised many of the works in Abstract Expressionism, most of these works required careful planning, also considering the large size format they were created in. Artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinski, and later on in the post-World War II movement, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman and Franz Kline, amongst many others, all seemingly applied abstract art as an expression of the mind, the spiritual and the unconscious.

There Are Two Kinds Of Abstract Expressionism

Fascinating fact: did you know, there are two groupings, in which Abstract Expressionism can be broken down to: the Colour-Field Painters and the Action Painters

Colour Field Painting – the focus is on colour and contrast, applying a more passive painting style, whilst exploring fields of colour and the reflection on mood. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko could both be categorised as Colour Field painters, wanting to capture the attention and the emotion of the viewer by application of coloured fields and spaces.

Action Painters – this style name says exactly what it does ‘on the tin’: vivid and lively streaks of colour with often overlapping lines create sensation and emotion in an active, gestural style. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning are known for practicing this particular style, often in large size formats, using layers of paint and rigid contrasting edges to evoke emotion in the viewer.

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