Life and Work of Lee Krasner, Pioneering Abstract Expressionist

The artist Lee Krasner.

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Lee Krasner (born Lena Krassner; October 27, 1908–June 19, 1984), an American painter of Russian-Jewish descent, was a pioneering Abstract Expressionist of the New York School. For decades, her reputation was overshadowed by that of her late husband, painter Jackson Pollock, whose superstardom and tragic death distracted from her own career. Years after Pollock's death, however, Krasner received recognition for her own artistic accomplishments.

Fast Facts: Lee Krasner

  • Occupation: Artist (Abstract Expressionist)
  • Also Known As: Lena Krassner (given name); Lenore Krasner
  • Born: October 27, 1908 in Brooklyn, New York
  • Died: June 19, 1984 in New York City, New York
  • Education: The Cooper Union, National Academy of Design
  • Spouse: Jackson Pollock
  • Key Accomplishment: Krasner remains one of the few women artists to have her work exhibited in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Early Life

Lee Krasner was born in 1908 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Krasner was the first in her family to be born in the United States, just nine months after her parents and older siblings emigrated due to growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia.

At home in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the family spoke a mix of Yiddish, Russian, and English, though Krasner favored English. Krasner's parents ran a grocery and fishmonger in East New York and often struggled to make ends meet. Her older brother Irving, to whom she was very close, read to her from classic Russian novels like Gogol and Dostoevsky. Though she was a naturalized citizen, Krasner felt connected to her parents’ homeland. Later in life, she often bristled at the suggestion that she was a fully American artist.

© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; used with permission
Lee Krasner (American, 1908-1984). Untitled, 1948. Oil on canvas. 18 x 38 in. (45.7 x 96.5 cm). Promised gift of Craig and Caryn Effron, P.1.2008. The Jewish Museum, New York. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Education

Krasner always showed a sense of initiative. At an early age, she decided that the arts-focused, all-girls Washington Irving High School in Manhattan was the only school she wanted to attend, as its arts focus was a rarity at the time. Krasner was initially denied entry to the school due to her Brooklyn residence, but she eventually managed to gain admission.

Perhaps ironically, Krasner excelled in all classes except for art, but she passed because of her otherwise exceptional record. During high school, Krasner abandoned her given name "Lena" and took on the name "Lenore," inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe character.

After graduation, Krasner attended the Cooper Union. She was very popular (though not necessarily academically successful) and was elected to various school offices. At Cooper Union, she changed her name once again, this time to Lee: an Americanized (and, notably, androgynous) version of her given Russian name.

Having attended two art-centric girls' schools, the idea of being a woman artist was not remarkable to the young Krasner. It was not until she went to the National Academy of Design that she encountered resistance to her chosen career path. She was riled by the idea that women were sometimes kept from doing what the male artists were permitted to do at the traditionally-minded institution.

Lee Krasner
Ernst Haas / Getty Images

Life as a Professional Artist

1929 was a notable year for Krasner. That year marked the opening of the Museum of Modern Art, which exposed her to the Modernist style and the enormous possibility it represented. 1929 also marked the beginning of the Great Depression, which spelled disaster for many aspiring artists.

Krasner joined the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which employed artists for various public art projects, including the many murals on which Krasner worked. It was on the WPA that she met critic Harold Rosenberg, who would later go on to write a seminal essay on the Abstract Expressionists, as well as many other artists.

Krasner lived with Igor Pantuhoff, a fellow painter of Russian origin and an alumni of the National Design Academy, for most of their ten-year relationship. However, Pantuhoff's parents held anti-Semitic views of Krasner, and the two never married. (Pantuhoff realized his mistake after he left the relationship, and he eventually went to New York to win Krasner back. By that time, Krasner had already taken up with Jackson Pollock, who, in his typically bellicose fashion, physically chased Pantuhoff from the premises.)

Photo Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollack
Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollack in east Hampton, ca. 1946. Photo 10x7 cm. Photograph by Ronald Stein. Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner papers, ca. 1905-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Relationship With Jackson Pollock

In the late 1930s, Krasner took classes led by the expressionist painter and famed pedagogue Hans Hofmann. She also joined the Artist Union. In 1936, at an Artist Union dance, Krasner met Jackson Pollock, whom she would meet again several years later when they both exhibited their work in the same group exhibition. In 1942, the couple moved in together.

Pollock’s rise to fame, stewarded by his wife, was meteoric. In 1949 (the year he and Krasner married), Pollock was featured in Life Magazine under the title, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Some accounts suggest that Krasner spent so much time promoting her husband’s career that she did not have time to dedicate herself to her own work. However, this version of history is misleading. In Springs, Long Island, where the couple bought a house soon after they married, Krasner used an upstairs bedroom as her studio while Pollock worked in the barn. Both were known to work furiously, and would (when invited) visit each other's studios for advice and critique.

However, Pollock's alcoholism and infidelity damaged the relationship, and the marriage ended tragically in 1956. Krasner was away in Europe, and Pollock was driving under the influence of alcohol with his mistress and another passenger. Pollock crashed his car, killing himself and the other passenger (though sparing the life of his mistress). Krasner was bereft at losing her husband, and ultimately channeled this emotion into her work.

© 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation; used with permission
Lee Krasner (American, 1908-1984). Gaea, 1966. Oil on canvas. 69 x 125 1/2 in. (175.3 x 318.8 cm). Kay Sage Tanguy Fund. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Artistic Legacy

It was not until after Pollock’s death that Krasner began to receive the recognition she deserved. In 1965, she received her first retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. She experienced a surge of interest in her work in the 1970s, as the feminist movement was eager to reclaim art history’s lost women. The appeal of the sidelined wife of a storied American painter made Krasner a cause to champion.

Krasner's first retrospective in the United States opened in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art, just months after her death at the age of 75. Her legacy lives on at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University. Her estate is represented by Kasmin.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Hobbs, R. (1993). Lee Krasner. New York: Abbeville Modern Masters.
  • Landau, E. (1995). Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné. New York: Abrams.
  • Levin, G. (2011). Lee Krasner: A Biography. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Munro, E. (1979). Originals: American Women Artists. New York: Simon and Schuster, 100-119.