Artist Lee Krasner: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever had to fight to be recognized for your achievements? In this lesson, learn about abstract painter Lee Krasner, who was already known as an artist when she married Jackson Pollock. Despite working in his shadow, she persevered, creating a strong body of work that stands on its own.

Beginnings

Lee Krasner (1908 - 1984) grew up in Brooklyn, New York, one of seven children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. She wanted to be an artist when she was a little girl and luckily got accepted into Washington Irving High School, the only public school in the city for girls that included art in its curriculum.

Krasner then attended The Cooper Union and the Art Students League, and between 1926 and 1932, she studied at the National Academy of Design. She was independent, outspoken and stubborn, and determined to succeed despite pushback from teachers who thought her work inappropriate for a female.

Krasner used odd jobs to fund her education, including working in a factory, waitressing and being an artist's model. Then, in the early 1930s, she got a job through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of President Franklin Roosevelt's programs to provide employment in public works projects during the Great Depression. Krasner rose to a management position and assisted with several large public mural projects.

Exploring Abstraction

Krasner, always inquisitive and rarely satisfied with her work, began studying with abstract painter Hans Hoffman in 1936. It transformed her painting. Her early work was illustrative (figural, with recognizable images) but now her career evolved toward abstraction (work that contains little or no reference to recognizable shapes and figures). She began working in a method where she covered canvases in abstract designs and repeating patterns. She also spent considerable time with the artists championing modernism in New York art circles. Immersed in this creative climate, Krasner helped found American Abstract Artists in 1936, a group working to promote abstract art. Among the small vanguard of abstract artists, she was known and respected -- to a degree. As a woman she always faced challenges within a macho art culture dominated by men. Hoffman once described her work as being so good you couldn't tell it was made by a woman.

Around this time, she met Jackson Pollock, then a young unknown painter. They fell in love and married in 1945. She introduced him to important people in the New York art scene and supported his work. As his career took off, she became increasingly involved with managing it. He was a larger than life figure in a male-dominated art scene and a troubled man. During their marriage, she continued to paint but was overshadowed by Pollock's meteoric rise. Collectors like Peggy Guggenheim dismissed her as an artist, and magazine articles highlighting Pollock's work described her as the wife who also painted.

In late 1940s, Krasner began working on her Little Image series, small thickly painted canvases with repetitive linear designs in white suggesting elements of typography. A later newspaper review called them 'little gems' and they are some of her most important works. An example is Composition from 1949.

Composition, 1949
Lee Krasner, Composition

The canvas isn't large, but look closely: it's dense and mesmerizing. The longer you look at it, the more texture and detail you see. Krasner created it by laying it flat on a table and working the paint with sticks and a palette knife (a thin, tapered blade with a handle used to mix and apply paint), then dripping the white paint that forms the repeated figures. The entire work is covered with geometric shapes.

Process of Constant Change

Krasner never wanted to remain static. Periodically, she made conscious "breaks" with a style and shifted in radical ways. In the early 1950s, Krasner, who had long admired the work of Matisse, began experimenting with collage. Always exacting, she sometimes destroyed her work when dissatisfied only to recycle parts of the abandoned canvases into new works. This process resulted in an exhibit that opened to positive critical reviews in 1955. It featured works like Milkweed, completed that same year.

Milkweed, 1955
Lee Krasner, Milkweed

This work is very different from Composition. It's larger and much bolder. Made of oil paint, paper and canvas collage on canvas, Milkweed includes large collage slashes of black, contrasting areas of white, and small bright areas of orange.

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