I’ve continued on with my reading of Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership. Since the book is a series of essays, I can skip around the chapters. Anne M. Wagner wrote “Fictions: Krasner’s Presence, Pollock’s Absence”. This essay explores the relationship and artistic identities of two amazing abstract painters: Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) and Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984).
Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in Pollock’s studio, ca. 1950 / Rudy Burckhardt, photographer. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
This particular chapter was one that I couldn’t read all at once. Pollock and Krasner had a much different type of relationship that Sonia & Robert Delaunay, one that left me thinking quite a bit. Pollock was troubled. He was an alcoholic, had a mean temper, and was very insecure about his work. While he has gone down in art history as one of the major contributors to abstract expressionism, Pollock often doubted his own abilities. Lee (Lenore) Krasner, his wife, remembers him often asking:
“Should I cut it here? Should this be the bottom? Is this even a painting?” (231)
Number 8 by Jackson Pollock. Oil on canvas, 1949. Image courtesy of MoCA
“Is this even a painting?” is a question many people ask when first learning to appreciate a Pollock. But coming directly from an artist reveals self-doubt. I tend to think that these types of questions are common of the creative act. Responding to color, to emotion, to life itself while creating a painting is intangible. It can be difficult to label, to create a collective meaning in words so that others can find value in the work. The ineffectiveness of words is often what drives people to paint. So what, then, if you are forced to describe the indescribable?
Composition by Lee Krasner, 1949. Image courtesy of By Tale or History
From what I read by Wagner, Krasner tried her best to encourage Pollock without influencing him too much. A painter herself, Krasner’s own artwork was eclipsed by the popularity and fame of her husband. Her public identity was marginalized to that of “Mrs. Jackson Pollock” – an aside, a footnote. She seemed to always be placed into context as second, either because of the fame of her husband or because she was a woman. Hans Hoffman, another major abstract painter and teacher of the era, shows us precisely what I mean. Hofmann saw Krasner’s work in the 1940s and paid her the following “compliment”:
“This is so good you wouldn’t know it was painted by a woman.” (234)
Bald Eagle by Lee Krasner. Oil on canvas, 1955. Image courtesy of Totalcult
A volatile marriage, infidelity, the struggle to establish an independent identity, an art scene that negates the capability of women painters – it all seemed so dismal. These all had an enormous impact on Krasner’s paintings. She sought to make herself, and her artwork, deliberately different than that of Pollock.
Blue Poles, Number 11 by Jackson Pollock. Oil on canvas, 1955. Image courtesy of wsu.edu
They both agreed that painting should be removed from any type of allegiance – art could be non-representational, it could break with tradition, it should make the viewer think. But their approach when working at the canvas was starkly different. I think this is evident in their paintings. Pollocks work is reactionary. The wild gestures, the flinging and splattering of paint, the capturing of energy – it all illustrates how he felt. There is a sense of risk, insecurity, ambition, anxiety, curiosity, and fear. It seems like the chaos inside his mind took over while he painted. What drove him to drink is what also drove him to paint.
Thaw by Lee Krasner. Oil on canvas, 1957. Image courtesy of Wikipaintings
The reasons for Krasner are all together different. Painting was a means of escape. It allowed her to shed guises of gender and marital status. None of these things mattered while she painted. Wagner argues that her method “keeps the self out of it”. But I find this a bit hard to believe. Krasner avoided certain methods of application and color while her husband was alive to affirm her own separate identity. I think painting gave Krasner an outlet to create the self she wanted to be, even if she did not allow herself certain modes of expression.
Mural by Jackson Pollock. Oil on canvas, 1943. Image courtesy of Art & Coin TV
Which made me think: how much of our own identity do we sacrifice when in a relationship? Obviously, if it is a healthy relationship, this is not an issue. But there are lots of unhealthy relationships, and we’ve all had at least one. There are parts of yourself that you repress in hopes of making things “right”. This idea never works.
Untitled by Lee Krasner. Gouache on paper, 1965. Image courtesy of Artnet.
Life can be tricky. As humans, we start to judge ourselves early. Social cues lead us down the road of “should do”. Go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, start a family. It’s so easy to settle into a pre-made identity. This can cause a sense of disillusionment – maybe this is what Pollock felt. A disconnect with desire and reality. Then, if you are with someone that is unhappy, you start to repress what was already undeveloped – Krasner?
Brown and Silver I by Jackson Pollock. Enamel and silver paint on canvas, 1951. Image courtesy of Art.sy
I can’t answer the questions about the personal relationship between Krasner and Pollock. It was problematic. A lot went wrong. Yet painting offered each of them a space to express themselves and their identities- as individuals and as a couple. And even though they deliberately tried to have different styles, they influenced one another.
Untitled by Lee Krasner. Ink & watercolor on paper, 1969. Image courtesy of Wikipaintings