In her foundational biography of Lee Krasner, Gail Levin tells a story of an artists’ sit-down strike in New York in 1936. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), the innovative government programme that allowed many American artists and writers to survive the 1930s, was about to fire five hundred workers. The police responded brutally to the protests this aroused; a number of artists were knocked unconscious, and many were arrested and imprisoned without food. At the police station they gave the authorities fake names. ‘Everybody from Cézanne to Michelangelo was arrested,’ one of those involved remembered. ‘Rubens was there, and Bruegel, and, oh, Ryder, and let me see, Turner.’ Levin records that ‘Krasner booked herself into prison as the painter Mary Cassatt. “I didn’t have a big selection, you know, it was either Rosa Bonheur or Mary Cassatt...”’
Born in Brooklyn in 1908, Krasner was a restless, incisive and brilliant artist who began her artistic career in the 1920s. She studied with Hans Hofmann and was influenced by Picasso and, especially, Matisse and Mondrian. Her circle included Perle Fine, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, Grace Hartigan, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock, to whom she was married for eleven difficult years. While some of her set were becoming household names, Krasner, much less well known, reinvented her own work again and again, and helped others, including Pollock, find their way through important transitions. Her work included large scale abstract paintings but also collage, mosaic tables and the smaller ‘Little Image’ paintings. It is often strikingly vertical, with black used as a radical, structuring force. She died in 1984, shortly after her first major American retrospective opened in Houston, having redefined the roles women played in the arts. It is testament to her work and influence that a young female artist arrested today would have so many names to choose from.
Levin’s Lee Krasner: A Biography, published in America in 2011, is being issued in the UK for the first time this month to coincide with the first European retrospective of Krasner’s work in over fifty years, at the Barbican. Together with the monograph accompanying the exhibition, Lee Krasner: