• How Lee Krasner Made Jackson Pollock a Star

    Along with the Emerging Art Critic Clement Greenberg

    One has the impression—but only the impression—that the
    immediate future of Western art, if it is to have any immediate
    future, depends on what is done in this country.
    –Clement Greenberg[1]

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    For a period of about six years, beginning roughly in 1946, Lee Krasner, Clement Greenberg, and Jackson Pollock formed an enterprise, which, had it occurred in the early 21st century, might have been called Jackson Pollock, Inc. Lee and Greenberg both thought Pollock the best painter of his generation, even the best painter the country had ever produced, and they willingly, eagerly invested their time and energy to support him by essentially marketing Jackson. It was an extremely novel concept in those days. Other wives helped their artist husbands, but mainly by working at a job so they could paint or sculpt. And other critics had favorite artists, but few were willing to stake their reputations as boldly as Greenberg would on Pollock. Together, Lee and Clem would unwittingly create roles for future art world functionaries: manager and publicist.

    Lee had met Greenberg at a literary party at May Tabak and Harold Rosenberg’s flat in 1937.[2] Greenberg was born in the Bronx, but his father had moved the family to Virginia, where he established a clothing store franchise. That meant that when Clem returned to New York he arrived with a southern accent that fit his attitude and appearance like a mismatched suit. Prematurely bald, a cigarette always at hand, Clem was an intellectual of the type that could only be satisfied in Manhattan: intense, agitated, competitive.[3] As a teen, he had had an interest in art, but personal crises cut short his art training. He next tried his hand at poetry. His career in that field, however, ended when he plagiarized his first published poem. A life in business beckoned, but Clem wanted no part of a practical man’s existence. Brilliant and belligerent, he pictured himself among creative people and believed the only life that would satisfy him was one of the mind. Through a cousin, he was introduced to Harold’s circle of intellectuals, and through them, to Lee.[4]

    The divorced father of one son, Clem worked at the U.S. Customs Service at the Port of New York and lived as a bachelor in the Village. He was, therefore, in proximity to artists but not part of their world. Lee changed that by introducing him to her artist friends and Hans Hofmann’s Friday night lectures.[5] Combining that intense immersion in New York’s burgeoning modern art world with his own voracious reading, within two years Clem formulated the beginning of an aesthetic theory. He introduced it in a 1939 article he wrote for the journal that was home to the brightest stars in the city’s intellectual universe, the Partisan Review.

    Called “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” it made Greenberg an instant celebrity among both writers and painters.[6] In the piece, Clem described the avant-garde of mid-19th-century Europe as having cut the “umbilical cord of gold” that connected it to art’s greatest patron, the ruling class, in order to pursue an aesthetic ideal without regard to a paying public. He attributed to that radical sundering the subsequent generations of artistic innovators—Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, among them—who derived their “chief inspiration from the medium they work in” rather than what they portrayed. Clem warned, however, of the existence of a “rear guard” in culture, which he called “kitsch,” that was the opposite of the avant-garde. Produced by popular demand and based on tested formulas, a kitsch painting was one that did not challenge its viewer—its job was to please.[7]

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    Writing as Hitler’s troops began their push through Europe, Greenberg described the manipulation of citizenry by governments through the culture of kitsch. He said that once conquering forces—whom he called the “statue-smashers”—had destroyed what had been previously regarded as great and good, they would seek to reinvent culture to better control the vanquished people. Greenberg maintained that avant-garde art was offensive to the then-contemporary statue-smashers—fascist governments—not only because it was challenging but because it was “innocent.”[8] There was a purity in such art that was beyond the control of anyone but the artist who created it.

    In 1942, Clem became the full-time art critic for The Nation and, in a style that would inspire generations of future critics, began to write about the work being done in derelict lofts by obscure artists right there in Manhattan. In November 1943, Greenberg reviewed Pollock’s first show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, and thus began a series of critiques penned by Clem about Jackson that would catapult them both into the public eye. In many ways, their careers developed in tandem: Jackson came into his own as a painter as Clem did as a writer. By 1945 a more confident Greenberg would describe a more confident Pollock as “the strongest painter of his generation. . . .”[9]

    Greenberg was a demon for work,[10] but while Lee and Pollock lived on Eighth Street, he still found time to drop by to see what they were doing. The calls were professional; Clem had something to learn from Lee, and he was fascinated by what he saw in Jackson’s studio. It wasn’t until 1946 in Springs that the relationship became personal and the friendship among Lee, Clem, and Jackson intensified.[11] In fact, intense would not have been a strong enough adjective to describe their encounters. Theirs would be a historic collaboration, which belied its quiet beginnings. Greenberg recalled,

    Lee and I and Jackson would sit at the kitchen table and talk for hours—all day sometimes. Jackson usually wouldn’t say much—we’d drink a lot of coffee. I know that this sounds like part of a myth. We would sit for hours and go to bed at three or four in the morning. . . . Pollock was a pure guy. He was. I’m not idealizing him. It was inconceivable for him to do something because it would get him somewhere. When he was drunk he was intolerable. When he was sober he was a pure guy and that was the real Pollock. . . .[12] The most important person to his painting was Lee. She had this eye. She had a merciless eye. He talked about art with Lee, and with me when Lee was around. She was essential.[13]

    Among the other visitors to Springs that summer were Bill de Kooning and Milton Resnick, who had come out to see what the Pollocks were doing. It was easy to see what Jackson was up to in his barn: He was busily preparing for what would be his last show at Peggy’s gallery. Like the French artists with whom she had arrived in the States, she had decided to return to Europe. But before she did so, Peggy had agreed to give Jackson a show in January 1947.[14] As Milton looked around the house on Fireplace Road, however, there were no obvious signs of Lee’s work. “I asked Bill, ‘Why isn’t she painting?’” Milton recalled. “He said, ‘Pollock doesn’t want her to.’”[15] While Jackson’s reputation grew, the rumor spread in New York that Lee had stopped painting entirely. It seemed that no one bothered to ask her if this was true. Lee explained,

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    I resented [the rumor] but there was nothing I could do about it. Some of the paintings were hanging in view and if they didn’t see them, there was nothing I can do. . . . I’m glad I had an inner strength that could carry me through. . . . I will say this, that if Jackson had let me down for one second along the line I don’t know that I could have done it. It was because he never let me down in terms of his attitude toward me as a painter that I could . . . go right through.[16]

    In fact, at the time that Bill had said authoritatively that Lee had put down her brush, she was on the verge of making her most important mark as an artist.

    As the warm fall turned into a cool early winter, Jackson would bundle up in layers of clothes and head out each afternoon to the barn to paint. Lee had continued working upstairs in the house, but it finally become too cold for her to do so comfortably and she was forced back downstairs. “I couldn’t paint in the living room, it was open . . . you know, no privacy, you can’t close the door, and so . . . I think it was Jackson who said, ‘Why don’t you try a mosaic?’”[17] During the WPA years, Pollock had done a mosaic and he had some fragments of glass and tile that he had collected for that piece but had never used. He gave them to Lee, as well as an old wagon wheel—46 inches around—which she used as a frame for a wooden board that would be her work surface.

    Lee began pasting broken glass and tile, keys and coins, pebbles, and finally, costume jewelry onto the board to create a vibrant, swirling mass of color that looked like one of her paintings.[18] On canvas, she liked to break up the space with lines and shapes. She did the same on her mosaic. On canvas, she set sections in motion with swirls. She did the same in her table. And on canvas, she often brought the marks of her brush to the very edge of the picture so the viewer saw not a painting of something but a painting pure and simple. Her mosaic table was completed in that very style: There was no beginning or end, no focal point. One had no choice but to get lost in its dynamism. Within a year, Lee would make a second mosaic table, but more importantly she would return to painting awakened by a new creative experience. The mosaic had given her a route into her paintings and, finally, beyond Pollock. “They consisted of a kind of crazy writing of my own,” Lee said of the paintings she began in 1947, “sent by me to I don’t know who, which I can’t read, and I’m not so anxious to read.”[19]

    Thickly applying daubs of paint with a palette knife, Lee built up the surface to almost replicate a mosaic effect. She didn’t work at an easel but placed her stretched canvas on a table (again, as if still working on a mosaic) so she could look down and paint across the entire surface.[20] Vigorous, tight, with small marks that produced a kaleidoscope of color, the paintings Lee would call “Little Image” were without reference to any recognizable object or landscape unless one imagined the microscopic writhing of life itself. “There was a fresh invention going through the whole thing — a kind of unconscious freedom,” said painter James Brooks. “Stravinsky said, ‘You can’t really invent without limitations.’ Lee had the limitations that come with a strong knowledge of the way paintings have to be put together, but she had the psyche to move through that with her imagination.”[21] Lee liked to think of those works she did during her first years in Springs as “controlled chaos.”[22] She also thought of them as her own personal hieroglyphs.[23] Indeed, Lee’s work formed a bridge between ancient traditions in writing and art and a future in which the marks of an abstract painting would be as revelatory for a secular society as Renaissance works had been in the service of religion.

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    Mary Gabriel
    Mary Gabriel
    Mary Gabriel worked in Washington and London as a Reuters editor for nearly two decades. She is the author of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as of Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored, and The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone. Ninth Street Women is her latest book. She lives in Italy.

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