Federal Art Project

Lee Krasner by Chris Hall

Lee Krasner (1908 - 1984) was an influential American painter among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists known as the New York School.  Not only is she an iconoclast by being a part of this vanguard movement in American art, she is doubly so, as the movement was at first a kind of men's club.  For this reason I have mad respect for both her and her artwork.  She is one of the few women artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, held posthumously in 2008.  

Krasner was born in Brooklyn, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia in Odessa.  Growing up, she had little interest in Judaism, as she could not accept or understand the way the faith minimalized and marginalized women.  Soon she announced to her parents that she was done with religion, and enrolled herself in a secular public high school.  Born Lena Krasner, she decided to call herself by the more gentile sounding name, Lenore.

After high school, Krasner moved on to study art at Cooper Union.  At Cooper Union, men and women were strictly segregated, even entering the building through separate entrances.  Outside of a few female instructors in interior and fashion design, the faculty was entirely male.  While at Cooper Union, Krasner grew tired of the name Lenore and once again changed it, to the more androgynous sounding Lee, so that those looking at her artwork would not know if she was a man or woman.  Cooper Union was not a pleasant experience for Krasner, and she decided to enroll at the National Academy of Art.  To gain admittance, she began working on an large self-portrait, facilitated by a mirror which she nailed to a tree outside her parent's modest home on Long Island.  The National Academy of Art accepted her for a free seven month period.

Soon after arriving, Krasner found life at the National Academy not much better than at Cooper Union.  At the Academy, fish were kept in the basement for still life paintings, but women were not allowed downstairs.  Krasner described the faculty as being “worried by the French,” and as being stuck in the old, traditionalist ways.  Her report card read, “This student is always a bother . . . insists upon having her own way despite school rules.”  Despite the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show, where European avant-garde art was first introduced, American art remained in long isolation.  Later, with the influx of European artists immigrating to America to escape the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, things would change very quickly.  Meanwhile, in 1928, the students at the National Academy of Art were getting their first glimpse of French Impressionist work, some 60 years after the movement had began!  Krasner and her classmate's work shifted direction in dramatic fashion.  Disgusted by the “new” art, one instructor even hurled his brushes against the wall, shouting, “I can't teach you people anything!”  Later, Krasner would describe the effect Impressionist paintings had on her, saying, “Seeing those French paintings stirred my anger against any form of provincialism.”

From 1935 to 1943, Krasner worked on the WPA Federal Art Project, in the Mural Arts Division.  She met Jackson Pollock for the first time at an Artists Union dance in 1936.  Her first impression of him was not great.  Deeply inebriated, he cut in on her dance partner, only to ask, “Do you like to fuck?”  Krasner was fired and rehired from the Federal Art Project, and then permanently let go, when a policy of terminating everyone who had worked more than 18 months was enacted.  Shortly thereafter, she was dumped by her boyfriend though the mail.  Finding herself in a low point in her life, she moved to a cheaper apartment, where she would write on the wall Rimbaud's words:  

To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I maintain? In what blood must I walk?


Starting in 1937, Krasner took courses from the German emigre Hans Hofmann, who taught the principles of Cubism.  Hofmann was impressed with Krasner's work, saying, “This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman."  Nevertheless, Hofmann would be a big influence on Krasner's work.  In 1940, she started showing her new abstract work with the American Abstract Artists group, and in 1942, she met Pollock again, under better circumstances, as they were both preparing to exhibit their work in the same show.  Krasner and Pollock would later marry in 1945.

While Krasner would continue her own work in her own studio, she dedicated a lot her time promoting Pollock's work.  It could be argued that Pollock would not have been as much of a success in the art world without Krasner's support.  Artistically, Krasner and Pollock treated each other as equals, and she would lend her critical eye by helping Pollock develop his work.  They would also give each other reassurance and support in the early days, when neither of their work was well-appreciated.  Krasner's marriage to Pollock, while it did have its peaceful times, would become strained due to Pollock's troubles and alcoholism.  Their marriage would come to an abrupt end in 1956, when Pollock died in an alcohol related single car crash.

After Pollock's death, Krasner had a difficult time getting her work shown.  “People treated me as Pollock's wife, not as a painter,” she said in an 1981 interview.  “Someone like (Clement) Greenberg, because I didn't hand over to him the Pollock estate, did his job well to make sure I didn't come through as a painter.  He had power.”  Although Greenberg had been closely acquainted with Krasner for decades – he even met Pollock through her – he never once wrote a word in support of her art.  Krasner would often cut apart her own drawings and paintings to create collages, and, at times revised and discarded entire series of work.  As a result, her surviving body of work is quite small.

After Krasner's death in 1981, her East Hampton property became the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio.  It is now open to the public.  In 1985, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established, functioning as the official Estate for both Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  As stated in her will, the foundation serves “to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need.”

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”