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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

FROM THE FORTIES: LEWIS, KRASNER

Installation view of From the Margins: Lee Krasner/Norman Lewis, 1945-52. (c) The Jewish Museum, New York. Photo by: David Heald. 2nd from left: "Twilight Sounds;" 4th from left: "Stop and Go;" 5th from left, "Black and White Squares No. 1;" 1st from right: "Magenta Haze."
At The Jewish Museum, we have “From the Margins: Lee Krasner / Norman Lewis, 1945-1952” (through February 1). The implication of this title is that these two artists have been unfairly marginalized in the critical dialog surrounding abstract expressionism because one artist was a woman and the other was of African descent. (Here we go again – that old devil Clement Greenberg was a racist & a sexist, and Harold Rosenberg must – for once – have been just as bad.)

The show was organized by Norman Kleeblatt¸ chief curator at the Jewish Museum, and Stephen Brown, his assistant curator. In their bold and forthright catalog introduction, they proceed upon the assumption that both Lewis and Krasner were abstract expressionists.

So do Mia L. Bagneris, in her perceptive catalog essay on Lewis as a “loner” at abstract expressionist meetings and (though to a lesser degree) Lisa Saltzman, in her sensitive essay on Krasner as the maker of widely-sourced “Little Images.”

Myself, I’m not so sure. I would certainly agree that these two artists suffered from sexual or racial prejudice, that this show very much deserved staging, and that it presents two formidable talents—at its best, memorably.

Nobody can dispute that, although Lewis and Krasner came from widely varying backgrounds, they developed styles that offer certain superficial similarities. And these similarities, as outlined by Drs. Kleeblatt and Brown, are hallmarks of abstract expressionism: a rejection of realist representation and “naturalistic” color, as well as a decentered, “all-over” approach to the picture plane.

Still, to assume that these two artists are members of the abstract expressionist movement begs the question of whether or not their work truly resembles other abstract expressionist work—or whether it might not have more in common with some of the other many artists working in New York in the 1940s, if not the 50s.

In the Wall Street Journal’s article on this show, by Andy Beta, Dr. Kleeblatt is quoted as saying, “They were two artists who were part of the scene, but who were overlooked in all of the critical writings of the time.”

Beta picks up this idea of “the scene” in his own text, saying that “From the Margins” investigates “how these two artists…remained at the periphery of New York’s postwar art scene….”

The implication of both passages is that abstract expressionism was THE art scene in the 1940s. This was not my experience, when I researched my dissertation, which was entitled “Directions, Concerns and Critical Perceptions of Paintings Exhibited in New York, 1940-1949.”

But before I get started on what that manuscript does say, let me progress to a presentation of the two artists, and an evaluation of “From the Margins.”


BACKGROUNDS:

Norman Lewis (1909-1979) was born in Harlem, the child of immigrants from Bermuda. His father was a stevedore, his mother a teacher and housekeeper. The family lived on Lenox Avenue in Harlem during a period when (according to his own recollections) the neighborhood was still largely white (a mixture of Italian, Irish and Jewish). In high school, he studied drawing and began to amass a collection of art books before getting a job on a freighter and sailing throughout the Caribbean and South America.

Returning to New York in the early 1930s, he met Augusta Savage (1892-1962), the African American artist known for her moving academic sculptures. She maintained a workshop in her Harlem basement, and invited promising younger artists like Lewis to work there with her. Through her, he became acquainted with leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.

More particularly, he became friends with other African-American artists in Harlem, including Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence & Romare Bearden (shows of the last two in particular enjoying very favorable receptions in the downtown galleries of Manhattan during the 40s).

Later, Lewis became an art teacher under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, and, throughout his life, would continue to teach. Though he exhibited with the Willard gallery in Manhattan from 1949 to the mid-60s, and has become somewhat better known in the twenty-first century, his art never sold well enough to support him during his lifetime.

During the 1930s, his work reflected the “social realism” that was such a powerful presence upon the New York scene at that time, but in the 1940s, his imagery began to become more and more simplified and abstracted.

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrants, who came from Odessa and in Brooklyn maintained a family produce store. They spoke Yiddish in the household, kept a kosher kitchen and sent their children to Hebrew school as well as public school.

The future artist (known originally as Lena) studied art at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design before taking a series of jobs in the Federal Art Project.

While working for the FAP, she started taking art classes with Hans Hofmann, whose passionate advocacy of cubism and Matisse led to a modernization of Krasner’s style.

Hofmann was very impressed by Krasner, even if his way of expressing his approval strikes a somewhat jarring note today: “This is so good,” he is said to have said, “you would not know it was done by a woman.”

LEE & JACKSON

In 1941, she participated in a group show organized for the MacMillen Gallery by John Graham, painter-philosopher. The show also included Pollock & de Kooning. Krasner was so impressed by Pollock’s work that she re-introduced herself to him (they’d met earlier at a party, but Pollock had been drunk, so nothing had come of it).

Thus began a relationship that lasted until his death in 1956. Throughout that period, she divided her energies between her own painting and managing her husband’s career—courting dealers, curators, critics and collectors on his behalf while keeping him on a straight and relatively booze-free path, especially during his “classic” period between 1947 and 1950, during which he created his greatest works.

They were married in 1945, the year that they moved out to Springs on Long Island, and the move seems to have been largely (if not entirely) her idea, in hopes that it would get him away from the bars and parties where liquor was so freely consumed.

The standard way of dealing with this period in Krasner’s career is to bemoan the expenditure of her energies upon his career, and to suggest that her work suffered from its proximity to his, but you know, I think she got a pretty good deal---and not only the satisfaction she must have felt from knowing she was helping in the creation of his masterpieces.

I also think she learned a lot from his work, and from the art talk they must have had with each other. True, the two of them suffered financial hardship for most of his life, but the minute he died, his prices started escalating.

During the 28 years between his death and hers, she must have lived in relative comfort—considering the many works that seem to have remained in the estate to which she was sole legatee.

Another advantage she may have enjoyed was the power to advance her own career through his work. Florence Rubenfeld, in her biography of Greenberg, tells what happened, in the early 1960s, when Greenberg was working for French & Company. He wanted to give French a Pollock exhibition, but Krasner said that she would only cooperate if they would also give her a show.

Greenberg was agreeable – that is, until he saw Krasner’s recent work. Then – alas --he found it “hollow,” and made it so clear that he would be compromising his reputation by allowing French & Co. to hold a show of it, that Krasner called off the whole deal.

The first (and indeed only) time that I saw Krasner in person was in 1968, at the opening of her show at Marlborough-Gerson. Was it just coincidence that, four years earlier, Marlborough-Gerson had staged a Pollock show?

BUT TO THE ART ON VIEW

The opening gallery to this show combines introductory text with two entirely competent self-portraits, a gouache by Lewis done in 1939, and an oil by Krasner done around 1930. Traditional in manner, they show that both artists had mastered the academic elements of draftsmanship, color and composition.

The second gallery, entitled “Influence and Experiment,” is also modestly scaled. It presents four paintings apiece by Lewis and Krasner that show them experimenting with compositions that – while not necessarily earlier than those in the third and main gallery – play up the differences between the two artists, and their differing sources.

In Krasner’s case, this includes a small but vehemently cubist composition entitled “Lavender” (1942), exactly the sort of work one might expect from a talented Hofmann pupil.

An untitled canvas from 1950 contains long, narrow, mostly vertical rectangles in a complex arrangement; it is remarkably reminiscent of the paintings of Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971), an abstract artist who exhibited widely during the 1940s, at MoMA and galleries ranging from Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century to the A. C. A.

Finally, “Noon” 1947, a small canvas with brightly-colored, all-over curlicues, clearly suggests Pollock’s “Shimmering Substance” from his “Sounds in the Grass” series of 1946. “Noon” heralds the development of Krasner’s “Little Image” pictures from between 1947 and 1950. The artist had found a point of departure that would enable her to fly.

Three of the four Lewis paintings in this gallery, dated from 1946 to 1949, suggest that he was at a late stage in his evolution from social realism to semi-abstraction. Each composed of a row of vertical strokes, they suggest – with varying degrees of literalism – a series of standing human figures.

Given the knowledge that Lewis had, in fact, evolved out of social realism, and had lived fairly recently lived through the Great Depression, it’s difficult not to see these figures as homeless men, or unemployed ones, lined up to apply for a job or standing in a breadline. The somber brown, red, black, gray and gold tonalities of these paintings emphasize this impression.

The fourth painting is quite different, with one tall and quite broad rectangle suggesting a window, the straight lines surrounding it suggesting a building façade, and the reddish tonalities suggesting bricks. The label suggests this is meant to refer to the “vernacular architecture of Harlem.”

HIGHLIGHT OF THE SHOW

The following gallery is entitled “The Language of Painting.” It is the most successful of the show, and very impressive (primarily, of course, because of the quality of the work on view, but also because this wood-ceilinged space, the Joseph and Fanya Heller Gallery, seems to be particularly hospitable to the display of art—while, by the same token, the cavernous, white-ceilinged gallery succeeding it must be a headache for any curator).

In the Heller gallery are displayed eight paintings by Lewis and seven by Krasner, all but two of the fifteen done between 1947 and 1949 (the remaining two, showing both artists capable of making tall, narrow paintings, were done in 1950 and around 1952).

During this period, both artists were creating paintings covered with regular patterns of small, discrete images and in this, most nearly resembling each other. Yet at the same time, nobody with half an eye could mistake the handiwork of one for that of the other.

For one thing, Lewis rarely (if ever—at least in this show) really abandons the ghosts of figuration in his major canvases during this period (or perhaps, any other). His paintings in the later 40s are no longer so reminiscent of breadlines or unemployment, though.

One of the jollier images is entitled “Jazz Band” (1948), and is composed of squiggly little vertical lines incised on black-coated Masonite. Two others – “Twilight Sounds” and “Magenta Haze” – bear the titles of classical jazz melodies, and therefore similarly imply jazz bands..

Krasner, on the other hand, is always militantly abstract. This is true even in these so-called “Little Image” pictures whose “imagery” may or may not be traceable back to the Hebrew lettering she learned as a child (Saltzman suggests wartime cryptography and Minoan Linear B as added sources). Everything is either little squares or little triangles or little rectangles or little circles (though mostly squares of one kind of another).

Another subtle difference is the facture of the pictures, the way the paint is laid on. Lewis’s touch is lighter and more graceful, with mostly very thin layers of paint in softer, larger areas. Krasner’s paint is usually a lot thicker, and her surfaces a lot heavier. In a sturdy, almost stubborn way, she lays out her forms and lathers on the paint

Krasner’s most effective painting is the big tondo, “Stop and Go” (1949). It’s mostly little squares but with some little triangles and even a few little circles – all carefully plotted onto what Greenberg might have called “the cubist grid,” and nicely colored in pale blue, mauve, red, white and other colors.

Also handsome is her “Black and White Squares No. 1” (1948)—even if it reminded me of a very smart fabric design.

I can see how Krasner stayed close to this regimented approach, though – if only to differentiate her style from her husband’s free and easy ways. For him, it was the big, loose gesture that counted, so she almost had to remain tight and small.

In this gallery, Lewis also has some standout paintings. “Twilight Sounds” (1947) has a gracious blue field, and small black, white, red and yellow forms caught in a linear mesh with just the hints of heads across the top, and bodies suggested by the wiry vertical lines below.

Another winner is “Magenta Haze” (1947), with its gentle reddish field, and its similar row of verticals.

LETDOWN AT THE LAST

The fourth and last gallery in “From the Margins” is entitled "Evolution" and is a letdown. It is intended to display work from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but there is little here that approaches the quality of the work in the third gallery (or even the second).

If one believes the evidence offered by this show as a whole, the 1940s marked the acme of these two artists’ careers. While this may be true, I find it difficult to believe that the decline of their two styles was as rapid and pronounced as it is presented here.

In 2000, the Brooklyn Museum staged a Krasner retrospective. Although my memory may be enhanced by age, I think I recall seeing more and better work by her in that show from the 50s than I saw at “From the Margins.”

I especially wish that “From the Margins” could have included some of the collage-paintings she exhibited at the Stable Gallery in Manhattan in 1955, since the literature accompanying the Brooklyn show quoted Greenberg as having called it one of the most important shows of the decade.

If Lewis’s work from the 50s is equally poorly represented in the Jewish Museum show, then I might revise my opinion that both artists peaked in the 40s.

But it may only be that in the 50s, there is less work by either artist that resembles that of the other. Since the point of this exhibition is to establish similarities between the two, it might have been deemed beside the point to display later work that instead highlighted differences.

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST?

The question remains: should these artists be rightfully considered abstract expressionists, and were they unfairly eliminated from such consideration because one was a woman, and the other of African descent?

I say this not because I don't think they shouldn't have been written about -- and exhibited and purchased, too. I would thoroughly agree that on all three counts they were shortchanged. My argument is solely whether they should or shouldn't be classified as abstract expressionists, especially in the 1940s.

I will bypass the issue of whether they could have been part of any critical dialogue during the 1940s, given the fact that a critic normally discusses an artist when there is or has been a show of that artist’s work to review.

Krasner didn't have her first solo exhibition until 1951, while Lewis had only one in the 1940s -- in 1949.

Prejudice, I might add, is not confined to art critics—it is a more widely spread phenomenon of any given era. As such, it is just as likely, if not more so, to afflict curators, gallery-goers and collectors—meaning that there is little incentive for dealers (even if unprejudiced themselves) to stage shows of artists perceived to be unsalable by reason of their race or gender. Why is it so necessary to pick on the critics for their role in such situations?

My main argument, however, lies in my study of the Manhattan art scene in the 1940s that I did for my dissertation, as well as the conviction – based upon this exhibition – that the 1940s marked the period when both Lewis and Krasner were at their artistic peaks.

I will concede that the "Evolution" gallery at the Jewish Museum, showing their work from the 1950s and 1960s, didn’t include nearly as good a selection of Krasner’s work from the 1950s as I recall seeing at her retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2000. If this is also the case with Lewis during the 50s, my conclusions might have to be altered.

Still, on the basis of the frequently stellar display at the Jewish Museum, I would slot Lewis in particular and Krasner incidentally into one or another of the 13 other categories into which I divided the approximately 120 artists whom I found to have been exhibiting regularly in New York in the 1940s.

All of the artists I included had been getting reviewed or discussed regularly in a wide range of publications, ranging from four of the daily papers (Times, Herald Tribune, Sun and World Telegram) through the two major art magazines (Art News and Art Digest) and on into journals of opinion (The Nation & The New Republic) and the mass media (Time, Life, The New Yorker, & Newsweek).

Today, we tend to think of the 1940s “scene” in New York as solely occupied by the nascent abstract expressionists, but actually, the abstract expressionists were only a very small number of the total mix that exhibited regularly throughout the decade in one or another of Manhattan’s 90 galleries.

Besides the abstract expressionists (who were mostly looked down upon as interesting young painters who might someday amount to something), there were also solo shows by 1) European modernists, 2) early American moderns, 3) studio painters, 4) American Scene painters and regionalists, 5) social realists, 6) earlier abstractionists, 7) American surrealists, 8) primitives, 9) figurative romantics, 10) magic realists and abstract realists, 11) figurative expressionists, 12) poetic semi-abstractionists, and 13) what I called “proto-abstract expressionists.”

How can we differentiate the abstract expressionists, say, from earlier abstractionists in the 1940s? Well, the way that the decade did it was by distinguishing between what today we would call “hard-edged” and what today we might call “painterly.”

This would be the difference say, between the tight, cleanly-delineated compositions of 30s Mondrian, Miró, Kandinsky and their admirers in the American Abstract Artists, on the one hand, and those later artists who favored loose, expressionistic brushwork in the 1940s.

This “expressionist” brushwork was found both in the work of figurative expressionists like Abraham Rattner and Hyman Bloom, and in the work of abstract artists like Hofmann, de Kooning & Pollock.

That is why Robert Coates of the New Yorker came to combine “abstract” with “expressionist” and use this portmanteau term to refer to the new movement, in a review of a show by Hofmann of 1946.

Much as I admire Krasner’s “Little Image” paintings, the brushwork in them is tight, not loose or expressionist, not at any rate during the 40s. That is why I am inclined to group her paintings of this decade more with earlier and more hard-edged abstractionists like Pereira and the American Abstract Artists, a group with whom she exhibited (as did Ad Reinhardt during this same decade).

Of course, I am perfectly willing to concede that much of the work of Gottlieb, Rothko & Motherwell in the 40s is also relatively tight and hard-edged, and that they only developed their mature expression in the later 40s or early 50s. But that is just what is so maddening about “From the Margins.”

We really don’t get much of a chance to see how Krasner developed in the 50s, though -- upon the basis of having seen more of her work from that period --here is what I wrote about her Brooklyn Museum retrospective in 2000:

“By no wild stretch of the imagination is Krasner in a league with her husband, Jackson Pollock, nor would I even class her with the best-known male abstract expressionists, but her finest paintings nonetheless reveal a considerable talent that somehow didn’t get the attention it deserved during the late 40s and early 50s, when her accomplishments were at their peak.”.

The situation with Lewis is even more problematic. I am sorry, because his are very attractive paintings, and I know there is an ineluctable cachet attached to the label of “abstract expressionist.” However, these paintings are not purely abstract, not ambiguously multireferential (the way a true abstract expressionist canvas is).

The ghost of representation hovers over even the works of the 50s in this show, and to me this suggests that they really belong in my dissertation’s category of “poetic semi-abstractionists.”

This category also includes Mark Tobey, Morris Graves & Loren MacIver – similarly distinguished artists, and some (Tobey in particular) also sometimes (though mistakenly) identified with abstract expressionism.

All three had been discovered by Marian Willard, who gave Lewis his first solo exhibition in 1949 and would stay with him for the next 15 years.

So -- there we are. Call me a racist. Call me a sexist. As a student of the 40s, I find much to esteem in many works that don’t quite belong in the abstract expressionist category, even though--had they been exhibited-- they would have been central -- and not peripheral--to the wider scene of the decade.

This includes, in the present context, that profoundly inspiring gallery in ‘From the Margins” of Lewis & Krasner during the 40s. (By the same token, I see many abstract expressionist paintings from the 50s especially that I don’t find admirable at all. Joni Mitchell, anybody?)
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