Lee Krasner: Listening To Your Inner Rhythm

Lee Krasner,  The Eye is the First Circle is

Lee Krasner, The Eye is the First Circleis

‘I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.’
Lee Krasner

I recently attended an exhibition of the American abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner (‘Living Colour’ at the Barbican, London, until 1 September).

Krasner was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to Jewish parents from the Ukraine. There were no artists in her family, but at 14 she determined that she wanted to become a painter, applying to the only school in New York that offered an art major for girls. She went on to learn classical drawing techniques at the National Academy of Design and cubism at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.

Early in her career Krasner created murals for public buildings and during the war she designed collages for the windows of New York department stores. She became part of the vibrant New York art scene, hanging out with fellow abstract painters like de Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Still.

On meeting one of her heroes, Piet Mondrian, Krasner discovered he was a fellow jazz fan and took him dancing at a Greenwich Village nightclub. Mondrian was impressed by her work, saying it had ‘a very strong inner rhythm.’ This thought must have resonated with Krasner, as she subsequently spoke of her art in similar terms.

‘I never violate an inner rhythm. I loathe to force anything… I know it is essential for me. I listen to it and I stay with it. I have always been this way. I have regards for the inner voice.’

Krasner’s inner rhythm took her on an extraordinary creative journey.

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

Lee Krasner, ‘Desert Moon’

In 1945 she married another talented artist on the New York scene, Jackson Pollack, and together they moved to a farmhouse in Springs, Long Island. She responded to the vibrant blossoms of her new surroundings by producing bright colourful abstractions, canvases and mosaics that teemed with life. She painted these ‘Little Images' in her small studio space in an upstairs bedroom. The constraint gave her work a compelling intensity.

When in the early ‘50s Krasner ran out of inspiration, she found herself ripping up the black-and-white drawings that were pinned to her studio walls. Returning a few weeks later, she decided that the torn debris looked interesting, and so embarked on a series of ‘collage paintings’ that incorporated the shredded drawings along with torn canvases and newspapers.

'I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.'

After Pollack died in a car accident in 1956, Krasner took over his larger studio in the barn at Springs. Scale produced a new freedom. Suffering from insomnia, she worked through the night, and as she was reluctant to use colour in unnatural light, she turned to raw and burnt umber. She created her ‘Night Journeys’ series, huge canvases, with fluid, swirling, mournful organic patterns, pulsing with emotion. 

In the early ‘60s Krasner welcomed colour back to her work, employing bright crimson, exuberant yellows, vivid blues and greens. Her ‘Primary Series’ was full of boundless energy, suggestive of exotic flowers and oriental calligraphy.

Krasner did indeed have a strong inner rhythm. She had a remarkable ability to respond to that rhythm with total commitment, following it wherever it took her. She endeavoured to merge the organic with the abstract, the material with the spiritual. She gave us pure emotion, unedited and unfiltered, dynamic and ever changing.

Lee Krasner shot by Irving Penn, Springs, New York, 1972. ©THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

Lee Krasner shot by Irving Penn, Springs, New York, 1972. ©THE IRVING PENN FOUNDATION

Krasner teaches us a number of lessons.

1. Follow Your Instincts

‘I insist on letting it go the way it’s going to go rather than forcing it.’

Looking at Krasner’s paintings and listening to her talk on film, we realise that so often in life we over-ride our natural, instinctive feelings. She made a conscious effort to follow her impulses, to go with the flow.

2. Get Stuck In 

‘You just take a deep breath and hope for the best and get into it. And sometimes it comes through miraculously.’

Krasner comes across as a practical person. We often hesitate because we have not entirely thought through an idea. She believed that if you get stuck in, your instincts will take over. 

3. Embrace Change

‘I have never been able to understand the artist whose image never changes.’

Many artists seem to be in search of a consistent approach or signature style. Krasner actively embraced change, as a fundamental part of her identity. If she felt she was stuck in a rut, she would change the medium she was working in, change the context, change the materials.

‘I think every once in a while I feel the need to break my medium... If I have been doing a very large painting, I like to drop into something in small scale. It is a challenge to go into this size. It is just to hold my own interest, and then each media has its own conditions.’

4. Revisit Your Past

‘I am never free of the past. I believe in continuity.’

Having cannibalised her past in order to revitalise her present once in the mid-‘50s, Krasner did it again in the mid-‘70s. Coming across an old portfolio of her drawings from the Hofmann School, this time she set about cutting not tearing, arranging the angular shapes into dynamic patterns on the canvas, creating images that explode with shards of electricity.

Most artists would claim never to look back. Others preserve their past with reverence. Krasner demonstrated that your creative history can be a source of fresh inspiration.

‘This seems to be a work process of mine. I’m constantly going back to something I did earlier, remaking it, doing something else with it, and coming forth with another more clarified image possibly.’

5. Be Resilient

‘This student is always a bother… insists upon having own way, despite school rules.’
National Academy of Design Report Card

From an early age Krasner was strong willed and independent spirited. She had to be to navigate the sexism of the art world in her era. On one occasion her tutor Hans Hofmann, renowned for his harsh criticism, finally offered her a compliment:

'This is so good that you would not know it was done by a woman’. 

Krasner subsequently spent a lifetime fielding questions about her husband. In one interview she was asked: ‘What was Pollack working on during that period?’

‘I don’t know. I had my own problems.’

I left the Barbican admiring the artist as much as her art. Lee Krasner was certainly tough and serious minded. But she communicated a tremendous intimacy, opening a window to her soul. She didn’t receive the credit she was due in her day. It’s good to see the art establishment making amends.

‘Don’t tamper with that, don’t will it, don’t force it. Let it come through in its own terms.’

'Breathe to the rhythm,
Dance to the rhythm,
Work to the rhythm,
Live to the rhythm,
Love to the rhythm,
Slave to the rhythm.’

Grace Jones, ’Slave to the Rhythm’ (B Woolley/ S Darlow/ S Lipson /T Horn)


No. 237

To See Ourselves As Others See Us

Cartier Bresson/Waiting in Trafalgar Square

Cartier Bresson/Waiting in Trafalgar Square

‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, 
An' foolish notion: 
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, 
An' ev'n devotion!’

Robert Burns/ To a Louse

We are all engaged in observing the world around us. But how good are we at reflecting on ourselves? Do we ever truly see ourselves as others see us?

Strange and Familiar

Strange and Familiar, an exhibition currently running at the Barbican in London (until 19 June), showcases the ways that foreign photographers have regarded Britain from the 1930s to the present day.

Initially these non-British perspectives on Britain seem almost stereotypical. There are Bobbies, bowler hats and boozers; cafes, corner shops and carnivals. We come across queues in the rain, deckchairs on the beach, commuters in the fog. We find milk bottles, uniforms and lollipop ladies. The decades process past us to the familiar tune of fashion trends, political upheavals and State occasions. We canter through the Coronation celebrations, the Swinging Sixties, the Jubilee Street Parties, the Troubles. It’s a reminder that cliché is often founded on some truth.

But, on closer inspection, these outsiders make Britain look quite curious. The pageantry seems alien and exotic; the dirt and decay seem primitive. One is struck by the post-war weariness, the arcane folk rituals, the enduring class divide.

Seeing ourselves as others see us is, as the exhibition title suggests, a ‘strange and familiar’ experience. We recognize the reflection looking back at us from the mirror. But, with scrutiny, we also notice wrinkles, scars and blemishes that would generally elude us.

‘People think that they present themselves one way, but they cannot help but show something else as well. It’s impossible to have everything under control.’
Rineke Dijkstra, Photographer

This kind of introspection is bracing, refreshing, thought provoking. We get to see what the American photographer Diane Arbus called ‘the gap between intention and effect.’ So it’s perhaps something we should all do more of. However, I’m not sure it’s natural to welcome the outsider’s perspective.

When I was in advertising, we would always decline the opportunity to be filmed at work. It wasn’t that we were afraid of ‘letting daylight in upon magic.’ It was that we knew we would look like fools. We were well aware that the language and process, the acronyms and enthusiasms, all seem rather daft when you’re not in the midst of them. And sometimes the truth hurts.

Of course, in the broader marketing and comms world we do regularly canvas the opinion of consumers and colleagues, in focus groups and 360 degree appraisals. But how often do we embrace the perspectives of true outsiders on our brands, on our businesses, on ourselves? How often do we properly examine the distinctions between our own intentions and effects

Would we be shocked or reassured by what they saw and said? Or would we listen without hearing, look without seeing?

Candida Hofer 'Boy with a Badge'


The Same, But Different

‘I wanted to make the series almost as a mirror in which to see myself.’
Hans Eijkelboom

In the last room of the Barbican exhibition we encounter a film composed of photographs by the Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom (The Street and Modern Life). In 2014 Eijkelboom shot people out and about in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. He then reassembled the images in accordance with certain aspects of their appearance.

Eijkelboom  'The Street and Modern Life'

We see life played out in repetition and replication, a symphony of theme and variation.

There are sequences of floral designs, ripped jeans and crop tops; checks, stripes and polka dots; tattoos, beards and body piercing. There are Superdry sweats and Hollister hoodies. Headscarves. Women carrying Costa cups, handbags at their elbows, faces down to their phones; men in denim jackets, quilted jackets, sleeveless jackets. We see skull prints and Union Jacks; butterflies and Micky Mice. Adidas, Adidas, Adidas. Everlast.

It’s the rhythm of street style, the pattern of popular culture. There’s a compelling sense that, for all our individuality, we conform; for all our independence, we are interdependent; for all our difference, we are the same.

It’s a healthy reminder for the marketer. Ours has been an age of individuality and empowerment; of personalisation and customisation; of laser targeting and one-to-one. But we should never forget that fundamentally brands are shared behaviours and beliefs; that people like to copy, to swap, to emulate; to come and go and stay together; to think, and act, and be, together.

No. 77