‘What Beast Must Adore?’: The Paintings of Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner’s 1961 painting “What Beast Must I Adore?” was part of her Umber Series, painted in brown and neutral tones and with aggressive strokes during a period of insomnia following the death of her mother. The title comes from an Arthur Rimbaud poem that she had quoted in crayon on the wall of her studio: “To whom shall I hire myself out? / What beast must I adore?” it begins. The quote implies the necessity for an artist to belong to others (either people or forces), but it also implies that the artist maintains a certain level of control: she can at least choose what she will give herself to.

Krasner was a formidable figure in the New York City art scene, and she was an active partner in Jackson Pollock’s life. And although she put her own career largely on hold while married to him, Krasner went on to continue painting and winning accolades for decades after their marriage. She maintained a certain level of control of her own career, even as she devoted herself to others.

Pollock, the 2001 biopic—directed by (and starring) Ed Harris and written by Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller and based on a book by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith—is as much about Krasner as it is about its title character.

In 2004, FF2’s Jan Huttner interviewed Pollock screenwriter Barbara Turner (who also co-wrote the screenplay for The Company). Originally an actress, Turner became a writer when her screenplays Deathwatch and Petulia sold very successfully. When asked about the role transition from actress to writer, Turner was pleased: “The best part of writing is that you get to play all the parts, and nobody can tell you that you’re doing it wrong!”

Turner describes the experience of researching Pollock and Krasner when she was interviewing to write the movie. “I fell in love with him. And I fell in love with Lee,” she said.

Played by Marcia Gay Harden, the movie’s interpretation of Krasner is highly competent, professionally and socially. She’s an accomplished painter on her own in the studio, but she can also thrive in the grueling social scene of the art world. Her ability to connect with people and advocate for herself and her loved ones contrasts Pollock, who often deliberately sabotages himself at important social events, or procrastinates commissions or meetings.

Krasner’s character in this film suggests a different way we can imagine an artist: alongside Pollock’s erratic genius, Krasner is steadier and more thoughtful. Her character suggests that an artist doesn’t have to be self-centered and demanding to have groundbreaking genius.

Krasner grew up in Brooklyn, a child of Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrants. She studied art in several institutions over the years, including the Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and painter Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts. In the 1930s, she worked in the Mural Division under the Works Progress Administration. She worked as an advocate for artists, part of the Artists’ Union and American Abstract Artists.

In an oral history interview with American Abstract Artists in 1961, Krasner described an artistic relationship with her husband that was more mutually supportive than the biopic would suggest. “Certainly a great deal happened to me when I saw the Pollock [paintings],” she said. “Now Pollock saw my work too – I couldn’t measure what effect it had on him. […] When he did talk it was extremely pointed and meaningful and I understood what he meant. Naturally he was seeing my work as I certainly saw his.” (The whole series is wonderful, and you can listen to it here.)

All this is not to say it doesn’t hurt to watch Krasner in Pollock devoting her own creative energy to get Pollock out of bed every day. It also hurts to watch Peggy Guggenheim dismiss her work when she accidentally steps into Krasner’s studio, complaining, “Who the hell is LK, I didn’t come here to look at LK.” Or to hear Pollock remark, on seeing Krasner’s work for the first time: “You’re a damn good woman painter.” But Krasner carved out her career within and against that world, and she was very successful.

Starting in the 1950s, Krasner entered a new era with her work, where she began ripping up earlier work and re-assembling it. “Why does my image keep changing as against so many of my contemporaries who seem fixed on an image?” she asks herself in her oral history interview. “I don’t know. I’m in no position to answer that question. I can merely observe it.”

In 1978, her work was part of the exhibition Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years along with Pollock and others such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Her work is on display today at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

© Amelie Lasker (5/20/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Lee Kasner’s “Icarus.”

Bottom Photo: Lee Kasner in her studio.

Photo Credits: © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Kasmin Gallery/Diego Flores; Financial Times


FF2 Bonus Content:

Review of Pollock.

Interview with Barbara Turner.

Tags: FF2 Media, Lee Krasner, Pollock, Support Women Artists Now, SWAN Features 2020

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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 while studying English and history at Columbia University. She received her Master's in English Literature at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and became a Contributing Editor at FF2. Her work with FF2 has earned her Rotten Tomatoes accreditation. Now, she is FF2's Brand Coordinator, developing iSWANs campaigns. Amelie is an artist herself; she is a produced playwright and fiction writer.
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