Tuesday, October 18, 2011

And of particular interest this moment...

Martha Holmes for Life Magazine
"Painter Jackson Pollock with his
wife Lee Krasner"
While recuperating from what feels like a mild case of the flu today, I've been thinking. Dangerous? Indeed. I'm listening to the lawn mowers outside, and thinking about the harvesting we've still been doing. Our pepper plants, both the sweets and the hots, are so weighted with colorful specimens, they're lying sideways. I got two Budweiser cardboard boxes full of brightly colored wonder this weekend. I also started thinging about making jam again. Every year, since Michael and I have had a garden, we've grown hot peppers and made hot pepper jelly. One year, just before our September wedding, we made a huge batch (probably our third that summer), and we called it 'pre-marital hot stuff'. We slapped a post-it note label on it and gave it away to relatives. Freaky with the name, no? Okay, maybe a little.

Okay, get ready for it--a non-sequitur! I'm good at these. Back in graduate school, I remember reading an article by feminist art historian Griselda Pollock about the painter Lee Krasner for my Methodology & Issues Class. This particular article was long, involved, and discussed the concept of persona, and how we merely knew Krasner's persona rather than who she really was. It was my first semester of graduate school, and I'll admit, I was freaking out, reading until my eyes crossed. I had to discuss this particular article, determine if the argument presented had any weaknesses, and provide a rationale for why I felt the point used was ineffective. (Or at least, that's how I remember the assignment). Most things that have freaked me out academically usually end up having a long influence on the way I view things. For example, in college, I took an archeology and human pre-history course, where we talked about the Australopithecines. I remember being absolutely terrified by the tests in the class, although I remember none of them. I must have done fine because the class did not bring down my GPA, and I recall graudally gaining a kind of confidence in the course. However, the first test I studied so hard for--I had a complicated relationship at the time with an older slacker student (long story), and this created additional stress because when he wanted to party, I wanted to study--I actually made myself sick. I literally dreamt of monkeys swinging from tree to tree the whole night before the exam. I woke up ill, but I went and took the test anyway because I had little other choice. I have not forgotten what I learned in that class, and it appears again and again in my stories. Some freaking long impact that night of swinging monkeys had on me, right?

Anyway, back to Krasner...I gave the presentation, written in essay format, and I suggested that there was one specific passage of language that blunted Griselda Pollock's message. This was met with stunned silence--not because I was right, but because I had focused on just a few words in an essay that went on for some thirty pages. People looked at each other around the seminar table. I felt like an ass, and for the next two hours, questioned whether I belonged in graduate school, or whether my time might be better spent slinging hash at the 'O' up the street. I don't remember what my particular argument was or the passage I focused on, but I will never forget Griselda's concept of projected persona and the projections accepted by the subject, in this case, Krasner.

Lee Krasner, late 1940s/early 1950s

Later, when I lived in D.C., the movie Pollock came out, and I went to see it with someone who had a stylistic affinity for Abstract Expressionism in his own paintings. I had known him since that painful moment around the seminar table, although he was not present to see what I felt was the debacle. Now, of course, things seemed more glamorous in the movie than they probably were--most likely. In the movie, Pollock never tinkled in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace, as he had done in real life. And the walk-up that Krasner and Pollock originally shacked up in--the one with the bathtub in the kitchen--was probably much rougher than the symbolic representation of penury depicted in the movie. What I did feel acutely was Peggy Guggenheim's nasty dismissal of Krasner's paintings when she made a 'studio visit' to Pollock and Kraser's walk-up: "What's L.K.? I didn't come to see an L.K.!" Guggenheim passes out of the room Krasner uses for her studio, "I came to see Pollock. Where are the Pollocks?"

Ouch. Yet here is part and parcel of Griselda Pollock's thesis. Krasner accepted this dismissal, and subjugated her own work to elevate Pollock's career. We know not the real artist that Krasner was--at least until later. Instead, we know the Krasner who was Pollock's wife and artistic sounding board. We know a persona, not the genuine Lee Krasner. See that photo above? Notice the title? There's no mention of Krasner being a painter herself, only that she is Jackson Pollock's wife--Pollock, the painter. Interesting, too, is that for the picture, she is what appears to be a half-step behind him. Interesting, no? Is this posing by the photographer or her accepted position?

 Another thing I remember from reading about the couple was that, when they moved to upstate New York, they made jam. They gardened. They bartered for goods and services with their paintings. There is a marvelous picture of Lee in the kitchen, as part of the Life Magazine spread. She is wearing a dark dress, a light plaid apron tied at the waist. And she is doing something at the sink, although it doesn't appear to be washing, while Pollock smokes and appears to wipe a plate with a towel. Behind her is the beautiful kitchen--not beautiful in the contemporary sense. There is no granite, obviously. There are few applicances. Perhaps some would say it's inadequate, certainly by today's standards. And yet, to my eye, it is entirely beautiful and complete, which is likely the aura the photographer intended. There are glass cannisters filled with unidentifiable cooking ingredients on a shelf near Krasner's head. In the background, an ostensibly enamel stove holds a huge tea kettle. There is domesticity here, the image says, not the depravity and poverty so popularly associated with artists' lives. (Say what? Like actors from Shakespeare's era, artists not engaged in craftsmen style labor were considered slackers, devoid of approprate moral compass. Peggy Guggenheim, on associating with and supporting artists--even marrying Max Ernst so he would not be deported--was purposefully slumming it. Sure, it ended up being cool, but at the time, it was a strategically daring act.)

Gail Levin has written an excellent biography of Krasner, getting to the heart of who she was. And in the process, Krasner's formidable strength as both promoter of Pollock and later, of her own artistic production (although she destroyed a conserable amount of her work, leaving only about 599 pieces, according to one estimate) is finally brought forward.
Lee Krasner barefoot in her studio.

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