Lee KRASNER | Cool white

United States of America 1908 – 1984

Cool white 1959 oil on canvas
signed and dated l.r., brown oil, "Lee Krasner '59"
182.5 (h) x 290.0 (w) cm Purchased 1978 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1978.161 © Lee Krasner/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • with Howard Wise Gallery, New York, in 1960;
  • with David Gibbs and Co., London, in 1965;
  • with Robert Miller Gallery, New York, in 1977;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, March 1978
  • Recent Paintings by Lee Krasner
    • Howard Wise Gallery 15 Nov 1960 – 10 Dec 1960
  • New New York scene
    • Marlborough Fine Art, London 1961-10- – 1961-11-
  • Lee Krasner: Paintings, drawings and collages
    • Whitechapel Art Gallery 1965-09- – 1965-10-
    • York City Art Gallery 30 Apr 1966 – 21 May 1966
    • Ferens Art Gallery 28 May 1966 – 18 Jun 1966
    • Victoria Street Gallery 28 Jun 1966 – 16 Jul 1966
    • City Art Gallery 20 Aug 1966 – 10 Sep 1966
    • Arts Council Gallery 17 Sep 1966 – 09 Oct 1966
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Recent paintings by Lee Krasner, New York: Howard Wise Gallery 1960, cat. 10, illus;
  • Louise Rago, ‘We interview Lee Krasner’, School Arts, September 1960, illus. p. 32;
  • Lee Krasner: Paintings 1959–1962, New York: Pace Gallery 1979, illus, b&w p. [9] as ‘Collection: Australia National Gallery, Canberra’;
  • James Mollison and Laura Murray (eds), Australian National Gallery: An introduction, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1982, pp. 66–67, illus.;
  • Barbara Rose, Lee Krasner: A retrospective, New York: Museum of Modern Art 1983, p. 108, illus. b&w fig. 105 (within photograph of artist's studio);
  • Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, pp. 298–299, illus. col.;
  • Donald Williams and Barbara Vance Wilson, From caves to canvas: An introduction to Western art, Sydney: McGraw Hill 1992, p. 255, illus. b&w, 2nd ed. 1998, p. 301, illus. col.;
  • Richard Howard, A Conversation with Lee Krasner, December 1978’ in Lee Krasner: Umber paintings 1959–1962, New York: Robert Miller Gallery 1993, fig. 3, illus. col.;
  • Ellen G. Landau, Lee Krasner: A catalogue raisonné, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1995, cat. 341, p. 180, illus. b&w fig. 30, p. 315 (installation, as ‘Lee Krasner’s exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery, March 6–30, 1962’ [sic]);
  • Anthony White, ‘Art metropolis: A new display of international art’, artonview no. 32, Summer 2002–2003, p. 19, illus. col.;
  • Collectionhighlights, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, p. 237, illus. col.

Krasner’s reputation as a colourist was established early in her career. Cool white, by contrast, is painted with a sombre palette restricted to umber and white. It was painted during a difficult time for the artist, who was still coping with the grief of Jackson Pollock’s death and having difficulties with the Pollock Estate. In addition, her mother died in 1959 and an exhibition scheduled by Clement Greenberg for French and Company was cancelled.[1] Of the paintings of 1959, Krasner recalled:

I painted a great many of them because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead. And I realized that if I was going to work at night I would have to knock out color altogether, because I couldn’t deal with color except in daylight.[2]

Krasner began Cool white,and others from the group, in East Hampton in 1959, and continued the series until 1962. The development of The gate1959, one of the first paintings, is recorded in photographs by Halley Erskine; these show how the artist began with a biomorphic sketch, and document her progression on the work, until she decided its final form.[3] The extreme monochrome palette of The gateand its explosive brushwork project a rawness and intensity which, as Ellen Laudau points out, was unprecedented in her oeuvre to date.[4] Indeed when Cool white and The gate, along with others from the series, were shown at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York, in 1960 and 1962, the energy and sheer physicality of the works was much remarked.[5]

Commentators then, as now, also remarked on the close connections—in size, gesture and composition—to Pollock’s work, and the ways in which Krasner, in the Umber and white paintings, seemingly took it upon herself to ‘continue’ his achievements.[6]Cool white is dotted with staring eyes (as are several other paintings from the series)[7], an image which is consistent within her whole oeuvre. Although previously suspicious of Jungian ideas of self-knowledge, Krasner allowed herself, in the process of making these works, to delve further into her identity. As she later told Cindy Nemser, ‘My painting is so biographical, if anyone can take the trouble to read it.’[8] Laudau summarises the impact of Cool white and other works from the Umber and white series:

By using these pictures as vehicles to express the ongoing, and to all appearances death-defying, continuity of her tempestuous relationship with Pollock, Krasner exposed in a particularly poignant way the deeply personal roots of her artistic impulse. In the process, she produced a dramatic set of canvases whose mythic, explosive quality vividly projects her turmoil and inner rage.[9]

If the colour of these paintings was sombre, their execution was anything but subdued. As Barbara Rose observes: ‘No grid of compartments confines the raging energies that animate the brush loaded with thick paint, now slapped or dragged across the canvas, leaving a trail of flaring drips and sputtering comet‑like flashes of paint. The all-over images and glazed transparencies of these works suggest wind‑whipped storms or glacial events.’[10] Towards the end of the Umber and white series, Krasner began to introduce a small amount of reddish-maroon and, when she started to work again in natural light, her boisterous re-adoption of colour signalled new beginnings and new concerns.

Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond,
European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery,
Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, pp. 298–99,
revised Lucina Ward 2012

[1]Cindy Nemser, ‘A conversation with Lee Krasner’, Arts Magazine vol. 47 no. 6, April 1973, pp. 43–48.

[2]Richard Howard, ‘A conversation with Lee Krasner’, Lee Krasner Paintings 1959–1962,New York: Pace Gallery 1979, p. [3].

[3] The gate 1959, oil on canvas, 233.4 x 369.6 cm, private collection, CR342; for one of Hallery’s photographs, dated to July–August 1959, see Ellen G. Landau, Lee Krasner: A catalogue raisonné, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1995, fig. 29,. p. 314.

[4] Landau, Lee Krasner: A catalogue raisonné, New York: Harry N. Abrams  1995, p. 181.

[5] The series was also called ‘Ahab-coloured’ after Krasner and Pollock’s brown poodle, who was Krasner’s constant companion at the time; Richard Howard, Krasner’s dealer, and his friend Sanford Friedman assisted the artist in choosing many of the titles of the paintings.

Vivien Raynor, reviewing the exhibition for the Arts Magazine, wrote: ‘One felt physically thumped by [Krasner’s] very severe, monochromatic work … . There was no beginning and no end to the disintegrated, yet closely integrated small forms … . It is perhaps some measure of their power that they did not permit scrutiny and analysis; indeed it would be easier to analyze a breaking wave than The Gate.’ quoted in Ellen G. Landau, 1995, p. 315.

[6]Landau, Lee Krasner: A catalogue raisonné, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1995, p. 182.

[7] Most dramatically in Night watch 1960, oil on canvas, 177.8 x 251.5 cm, private collection, where ‘the eyes’ are scattered across the entire canvas.

[8]Cindy Nemser, ‘The indomitable Lee Krasner’, Feminist Art Journal, Spring 1975, p. 5 and quoted in Laudau (1995, p. 12) amongst others.

[9] Laudau (1995, p. 182) goes on to comment that these canvases, alternatively ferocious and lyrical, are ‘animated by Krasner’s distinctive, newly powerful backhand motional, advancing rhythmically from right to left in huge, predominantly curvilinear sweeps and arcs of pigment with drips and modular markings produced by vigorous thrusting and stabbing with a brush. From time to time, Krasner incorporated multiple staring eyes, an image reverberating with references to her own earlier work. Other repeated marks suggest foliage, wind, sparks, feathers and wings.’

[10]Barbara Rose, Lee Krasner: A retrospective, New York: Museum of Modern Art 1983, p. 122.

The National Gallery of Australia holds seven other works by Krasner: two charcoal drawings and an oil on paper from the late 1930s, an oil and gouache collage from 1953, and three lithographs.