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Why Lee Krasner was not a feminist

Although she refused the title of “woman artist,” Krasner paved the way for greater representation of women in the post-war art world

By Claire Phillips

In April 1972, more than 350 women gathered at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. for the first ever national Conference of Women in the Visual Arts (a national forum designed to foster new connections and the exchange of ideas between women). Over the three days of the conference, debate raged, tempers flared, and portraitist Alice Neel was even booed when she suggested “women should retreat during pregnancy,” while Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro argued for the existence of 'feminine' art.

However, amongst the attendees, there was one notable absence – the Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner. Although Krasner may not have attended the conference or defined herself by the term “feminist,” she did create a lasting legacy for women artists that still impacts the art world today.

Lee Krasner, Self-Portrait, c. 1928 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, courtesy the Jewish Museum, New York

Krasner was used to being underestimated

The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants living in New York City, Krasner (born Leonore Krassner) was used to being underestimated. As a student at the National Academy of Design she’d been chastised for sneaking into the basement to paint a still life of fish reserved for men; she’d been overlooked by Peggy Guggenheim when she had patronized Krasner’s then boyfriend Jackson Pollock; and she was ignored by Barnett Newman when he recruited Pollock for the legendary 1951 group photograph in Life magazine.

Scandalously, her teacher Hans Hoffman even once offered her the backhand compliment: “‘This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” This prejudice was also exemplified by fellow painter Robert Motherwell, whose homage to Pollock in Art News in 1967 referred to Krasner three times: once as “Lee,” twice as “wife,” but never as “artist.”

Lee Krasner, Palingenesis, 1971 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, courtesy the Jewish Museum, New York

She refused to be known as a “woman artist”

By 1972, the second wave of feminism had swept America and brought with it a new perspective on the “feminine mystique.” For Krasner, now in her 60s, and already hardened by a long career spent in the shadow of men, she was unsure what this brand of feminism could really do for her. “I wouldn’t become a part of that,” Krasner explained, “I’m an artist not a woman artist.”

“The only thing I haven’t had against me was being black,” Krasner once exclaimed, “I was a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent.” However, of all these labels, Krasner was perhaps least comfortable with that of “woman artist.”

Fellow artist Elaine de Kooning resisted the “woman artist” label too. “To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified,” she argued. Painter Grace Hartigan similarly complained: "I find that the subject of discrimination is only ever brought up by inferior talents to excuse their own inadequacy as artists."

“I’m an artist not a woman artist.” – Lee Krasner

Krasner’s perspective was a product of the times she lived in

Born in 1908, Krasner came from a generation before the impactful feminists of the 1970s, and her understanding of society when it came to gender was entirely different to what we might understand today. Whilst fiercely independent, Krasner embraced the role of nurturing and domestic wife, playing the part in both the defining relationships of her life – most particularly with Pollock, of whom she was deeply protective. Though, in the years following her marriage, Krasner grappled with her identity as an artist – lost perhaps under the weight of the title “Mrs Pollock.”

Having found a way to work within a system defined by quotas of “women artists” and the liquor-swilling machismo of Abstract Expressionism, Krasner was frustrated by those that profited from her hard-won freedoms. “We didn’t have that. We had to create all this,” she explained, “The next generation had an open door.” Krasner bristled, for example, when the young and beautiful Helen Frankenthaler came to stay in 1951, and was later heralded as the bridge that connected Pollock to the horizons of Colour Field painting.

Lee Krasner, c. 1938, photographer unknown

Krasner was sympathetic to the feminist movement

Despite her unease, Krasner was sympathetic to the feminist movement, not least because it was through their efforts that her reputation experienced a renaissance in the 1970s. The second wave brought fresh eyes to Krasner’s work, now edging away from soaring arabesques and lyrical cadences of line, and towards harder-edged forms, reminiscent of Matisse’s cut-outs.

Krasner also contributed her voice to the feminist conversation at times, joining the crowds outside the Museum of Modern Art in 1972 to demand a greater representation of women. Where once she had shied away from exhibitions devoted specifically to women, Krasner now took advantage of the art world’s reassessment of its institutional policies and agreed to be included.

The influence of extraordinary female curators and scholars, such as Marcia Tucker and Barbara Rose, aided this fundamental shift, paving the way for Krasner’s seminal shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1973) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1984) – the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.

Lee Krasner, Icarus, 1964, Thomson Family Collection, New York © The Pollock - Krasner Foundation, courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York, photograph by Diego Flores

Krasner benefited tremendously from the second wave of feminism, but admitted, “It’s too bad that women’s liberation didn’t occur thirty years earlier in my life. It would have been of enormous assistance at that time.” With fear that it came too little, too late, and with a lifelong aversion to labels, it was perhaps easier for Krasner to remain a sceptical bystander, waiting at a safe distance from the feminist voices that gathered at the Corcoran Gallery in 1972.

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