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]

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]

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,

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.

Jackson’s January 1947 exhibition at Peggy’s Art of This Century sold well, but it would be his last with her before she left for Venice in May.[24] In her wake, it was difficult to find a gallery willing to show him. In addition to his art, into which Jackson began to insert cigarette butts, coins, tacks, string, and sand, there was the problem of his drinking.[25] As a result, the very, very few gallery owners who handled avant-garde work were unprepared to take a chance on him. In 1946, however, a finishing school graduate whose aristocratic family owned homes in New York, Newport, and Palm Beach, had opened a gallery on 57th Street, and she was brave enough to give Jackson a try.[26]

On paper, there would not have been a less likely candidate to enter a relationship with Pollock than Betty Parsons. Betty, however, was neither a bluestocking nor a businesswoman. Betty was a sculptor who was “born with a gift for falling in love with the unfamiliar,” she said. “Actually, being an artist gave me a jump on other dealers—I saw things before they did. Most dealers love the money. I love the paintings.”[27] Betty and painter Barney Newman, who advised her, went to Springs to meet with Jackson and Lee. “At one point he sat on the floor and made a beautiful drawing for me which I call the Ballet of the Insects—it’s so alive!” Betty recalled of Jackson. “I was fascinated and told him I would like to have him.”[28] Jackson agreed.

Betty’s was not the only new gallery in town. The scene on 57th Street was changing. After the war, Americans were flush with cash but had no place to spend it because the industries that produced the consumer goods people craved had not yet been fully reconverted to civilian purposes. So, while waiting to buy that new car or refrigerator, some had decided to spend a few dollars on art. When asked why he and others collected, one Wall Street broker said, “It’s just a fad . . . like those miniature golf courses.”[29] Of course, there was more to it than that. During the war, the patriotic programs at museums had attracted new audiences. Museums began to be viewed as American institutions, not mausoleums for dead Europeans or warehouses of artifacts. The Museum of Modern Art was even rated the fourth most popular tourist attraction in a survey of soldiers on leave from the military.[30]

Amid that increased attention, 1945 would be a banner year for gallery sales, and while the majority of art sold was European, or American versions of European art, a few adventurers purchased paintings by artists working in New York. They were new collectors, generally under the age of 45, who sensed something was happening and wanted to “get in on the ground floor.”[31] The galleries in the city that showed the art they sought, however, numbered only about four. It was just too risky financially to build a business on bold American work. And if galleries were reluctant to show the avant-garde New York men, they were loath to show avant-garde New York women. (Gallery owner Sam Kootz said he would never show women because “they were too much trouble.”) To collectors, and therefore to the dealers who depended upon them, “genius” was a word that could only be applied to a man.[32]

Women who had worked in New York in equality and obscurity beside their male colleagues since the Project had had a preview of the changing perception of women as artists with the arrival of the Surrealists, who revered and objectified them to better contain and control them. Some American men had adopted that attitude, but it hadn’t pervaded the scene or had any tangible impact other than as an annoyance. Personal sexism could not keep an artist from expressing herself. Institutional bias on the part of galleries and museums, however, could. It would impede a woman’s ability to show her work, and that would create a caste system: professionals who exhibited, and amateurs who did not, with women consigned to the disenfranchised latter category. The critic who reviewed sculptor Louise Nevelson’s first major show unabashedly illustrated the official art world’s reaction to women: “We learned that the artist was a woman in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among the moderns.”[33] In that environment, it would take a woman made of tough stuff to continue. It seemed that the wider the art world grew, the fewer the opportunities for women in it. That meant that just as Lee began producing her best paintings, her hopes of exhibiting diminished. And still she persisted.

I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspects of the art world, continue my painting, and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work . . . You have to brush a lot of stuff out of the way or you get lost in the jungle.[34]

Lee was not alone. Life for an artist, any artist, was difficult. There were few rewards other than the most important, which was satisfying one’s need to create. But in the art world of galleries, collections, and museums that the New York artists would inherit in the late 1940s, the difficulties experienced by the men who painted and sculpted would be nothing compared to those of the women. They had to fight with every fiber of their being not to be completely ignored.[35] In a treatise published at the start of the war, author Pearl S. Buck wrote,

The talented woman . . . must have, besides their talent, an unusual energy which drives them . . . . Like talented men, they are single-minded creatures, and they cannot sink into idleness, nor fritter away life and time, nor endure discontent. They possess that rarest gift, integrity of purpose. . . . Such women sacrifice, without knowing they do, what many other women hold dear—amusement, society, play of one kind or another—to choose solitude and profound thinking and feeling, and at last final expression.

“To what end?” another woman might ask. To the end, perhaps . . . of art—art which has lifted us out of mental and spiritual savagery.[36]

Lee was that single-minded woman whose focus was art. But the art that preoccupied her was her own and her husband’s. She lived and worked for two people, which was a natural course for a woman of her temperament and generation to take. Beginning with Elaine de Kooning, however, some of the younger women coming after Lee—daughters of another time—would refuse to accept a similar place in the relative shadows. As much as they may have respected her, Lee would become an example of what they would not do. The New York art world was teeming and vibrant, the conversation scintillating, the work being produced wonderfully unexpected. They wanted to be part of it and, no matter the cost, would demand to be heard.

*

[1] Clement Greenberg, “The Situation at the Moment,” Partisan Review 15, no. 1 (January 1948), 82.

[2] Florence Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg: A Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 44, 50; Lee Krasner, interview by Barbara Novak, videotape courtesy Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.

[3] Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg, 31, 33–34, 41, 43, 44, 97, 144; Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005) 31; Deborah Solomon, notes on Clement Greenberg based on interview, December 19, 1983, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 2, the Clement Greenberg Papers, 1937–1983, Archives of American Art-Smithsonian Institution, 1; oral history interview with Harold Rosenberg, Archives of American Art-Smithsonian Institution.

[4] Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg, 32, 37, 41, 43, 50; Jones, Eyesight Alone, 5, 23, 31, 267, 277.

[5] Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg, 42–44, 50; Norman L. Kleeblatt, ed., Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976. The Jewish Museum, New York, May 4–September 21, 2008. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 143; Dore Ashton, The Life and Times of the New York School (Bath, Somerset, UK: Adams & Dart, 1972), 79– 80; Jones, Eyesight Alone, 267, 277.

[6] Clement Greenberg, “Avant- Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (Fall 1939): 37– 41, 44; Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg, 51– 52, 78; Jones, Eyesight Alone, 22.

[7] Greenberg, “Avant- Garde and Kitsch,” 37–40.

[8] Ibid., 46–48.

[9] Clement Greenberg, “Art,” The Nation, April 7, 1945: 397–98; Kirk Varnadoe with Pepe Karmel, Jackson Pollock (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 42; Elaine de Kooning, interview by Jeffrey Potter, courtesy Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. Elaine said Clem acted as “an unpaid PR man. It came from his heart’s blood. He meant every word of it, but he performed services for Jackson. Period.”

[10] Rubenfeld, Clement Greenberg, 78, 91.

[11] Deborah Solomon, Jackson Pollock: A Biography (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001), 153; Jones, Eyesight Alone, 261.

[12] Clement Greenberg, interview by James Valliere, Archives of American Art-Smithsonian Institution.

[13] Deborah Solomon, notes on Clement Greenberg, based on interview, December 19, 1983, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 2, the Clement Greenberg Papers, 1937– 1983, Archives of American Art-Smithsonian Institution, 3.

[14] Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1989), 528; Natalie Edgar, ed. Club Without Walls: Selections from the Journals of Philip Pavia (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2007),45.

[15] Geoffrey Dorfman, ed. Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2003), 58.

[16] Lee Krasner: An Interview with Kate Horsfield, videotape courtesy Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.

[17] Lee Krasner, interview by Barbaralee Diamonstein, provided by Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, interviewer and author, from Inside New York’s Art World (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1979), 210; Barbara Rose, “Jackson Pollock at Work,” Partisan Review 47, no. 1 (Winter 1980): 86.

[18] Ellen G. Landau, “Lee Krasner’s Early Career, Part Two: The 1940s,” Arts Magazine 56, no. 3 (November 1981): 82–83; Ellen G. Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), 106; Robert Hobbs, Lee Krasner (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993), 42.

[19] Lee Krasner, interview by Barbara Novak, videotape courtesy Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.

[20] Cindy Nemser, “A Conversation with Lee Krasner,” Arts Magazine 47, no. 6 (April 1973): 44.

[21] Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné, 115.

[22] Nemser, “A Conversation with Lee Krasner,” 44.

[23] Gail Levin, Lee Krasner, A Biography (New York: William Morrow, 2012), 20, 245–46; Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné, 230; Robert Hobbs, Lee Krasner (New York: Independent Curators International, with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999), 72; Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1982), 105.

[24] Naifeh and Smith, Jackson Pollock, 544.

[25] Donald Hall and Pat Corrington Wykes, eds. Anecdotes of Modern Art: From Rousseau to Warhol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 329.

[26] Aline B. Louchheim, “Betty Parsons: Her Gallery, Her Influence,” Vogue (October 1, 1951): 194; Lee Hall, Betty Parsons: Artist, Dealer, Collector (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991), 18, 20, 25, 77.

[27] Oral history interview with Betty Parsons, June 4 and June 9, 1969, Archives of American Art-Smithsonian Institution; Hall, Betty Parsons, 36, 171.

[28] Jeffrey Potter, To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock (Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1987), 91.

[29] Russell Lynes, The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste (New York: Dover Publications, 1980), 256–57; John Patrick Diggins, The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace, 1941–1960 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), 98–99; Read, The Politics of the Unpolitical (London: Routledge, 1945), 47–48.

[30] Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Missionary for the Modern (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989), 228.

[31] ArtNews, 43, no. 9 (July 1944): 14, 23.

[32] Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: Pandora, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1981), 114; Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker, Art and Sexual Politics: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (New York: ArtNews Series, Collier Books, 1973), 57; Ann Eden Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 22.

[33] Kleeblatt, Action/Abstraction, 17; Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949), 465.

[34] Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), 91.

[35] Gibson, Abstract Expressionism, 142.

[36] Pearl S. Buck, Of Men and Women (New York: The John Day Company, 1941), 76–77.

__________________________________

From Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern ArtUsed with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Mary Gabriel.

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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