On June 19, 1984, Lee Krasner, a Jewish-American painter whose career covered significant trends of 20th-century abstraction, but who will always be best remembered for being the wife of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, died at the age of 75.
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Lena Krassner – she changed her first name to Lenore as a teenager, and later to Lee, and also simplified her surname – was born in Brooklyn, New York on October 27, 1908.
Her father, Joseph Krassner, had fled his native Ukraine for the United States after the start of the Russo-Japanese War. Her mother, the former Chane Weiss (in America she became Anna), and their four children joined Joseph in 1907. Nine months and two weeks later, Lena was born.
Religion didn’t fit her
The family lived in the immigrant neighborhood of Brownsville, New York, where Joseph and Anna ran a produce stand at the Blake Avenue Market. Lee grew up in an Orthodox environment, and she was aware of and appreciative of Jewish tradition, but eventually concluded it was misogynistic.
Late in life, she told an interviewer how she was “shattered” when she read a translation of the “dawn prayers” of the morning service, and learned that, “if you are a male you say, ‘Thank You, O Lord, for creating me in Your image’; and if you are a woman you say, ‘Thank You, O Lord, for creating me as You saw fit.’”
Krasner decided that she wanted to be a painter at age 13, and traveled daily into Manhattan to study art at Washington Irving High School for girls, graduating in 1925. She received a scholarship to study at the Women’s Art School at the Cooper Union, where she received a teacher’s certificate too. Her formal art education continued at the National Academy for Design, where she honed her technique.
Nonetheless, Krasner’s career almost ended before it began when, in 1928, the same year she entered the National Academy, her older sister Rose died. Lee was told she was expected to marry her sister’s spouse and raise their two children. She refused, and a younger sister, Ruth, ended up assuming that responsibility.
Although she was adept at figurative painting, Krasner was drawn to the abstraction of post-Impressionism. She also was strongly influenced by her studies with the German expressionist émigré painter Hans Hoffmann
A drunken Pollock makes a pass
To be able to afford to paint, Krasner worked as a waitress, model, hat decorator and factory worker until, in 1934, she accepted a position with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project, where she headed a team that painted public murals. She kept this position until 1945, even after it was co-opted into the war propaganda effort.
Although they had met at a party in 1936, where a drunken Pollock made a pass at her, it was only in 1942 that Krasner and Pollock got to know each other, when both were exhibited in a show of American and French painters at the McMillan Gallery in New York. They were married in October 1945 at a New York church.
In an attempt to contend with Pollock’s serious drinking problem, Krasner had the couple buy a house in the country, in East Hampton, Long Island. He got the barn as a studio and she had to work in an upstairs bedroom.
They greatly influenced each other as painters, but it was Pollock who got nearly all the attention (Life magazine raised the possibility in 1949 that he was “the greatest living painter in the United States”), while Krasner was treated by journalists and other artists as little more than the nursemaid she was forced to become.
Krasner also was constantly changing her style, going through different phases (including her “Little Image” series, in which she depicted Hebrew letters and hieroglyphics), so that her work was never as immediately identifiable as Pollock’s. Only at the very end of her life was she finally rewarded with a major touring retrospective show, which only arrived at the renowned Museum of Modern Art six months after her death.
Jackson Pollock died in a car crash in 1956, age 44, while Lee Krasner lived to be 75, dying on this day in 1984, of complications of diverticulitis.