Subtextual Suggestion

As regular readers of this blog may recall, six months or so ago the Barbican Art Gallery served up a bit of a turkey of a show by way of an exhibition entitled Happy Families or Mr & Mrs or some such jolly configurative appellation.  In fact, the premise behind the show wasn’t such a bad one but what disappointed the critics (and, for once, I don’t think it was just me who had a grumble and thought the show turned out to be a bit of a duffer) was its poor execution and the wasted opportunity for the presentation of something that could have really been a whole lot more interesting.  So, the idea behind the show was to find pairs of big name artists – creative couples who had been spouses, lovers or long-term partners of one sort or another – and show examples of their works together.  The point being that this might then reveal how the artists had influenced one another and perhaps also hinted at how their personal relationship had in some ways mirrored the evolution of their artistic development and practices.  And I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer who also sensed a subtle subtextual suggestion that the curators additionally maybe thought that a suitably crafted exhibition of this nature might very well further the feminist cause by revealing how earlier contemporaneous societal trends had typically promoted the careers of male artists to the detriment of their female partners and colleagues.  And that, consequently, the exhibition might provide an opportunity to help redress some of the gender imbalances and inequalities that typically permeate the art historical record.

Anyway, whatever the nobility of the intentions, the whole project suffered from the problem that instead of focusing on four or five pairings and examining their stories in depth – an approach that might well have helped lead to the reasoned re-evaluation of some relative reputations – the organisers cast their nets far too wide.  And, as a result, the Gallery was crammed with a labyrinth of dozens and dozens of small booths allowing for only the most cursory of biographical information about the couples’ relationships and then illustrated by the most meagre sampling of their artistic outputs.


So, all in all, a bit of a washout which is a shame because it might well be that a re-examination of the work of some women artists would indeed confirm that they had suffered in the past by being unfairly overshadowed by the successes of their generally more favoured male counterparts.  But if the Barbican’s hamfisted overview show was a bit of a flop, there does seem to be something of a growing curatorial consensus that the time has now come to take a fresh look at the work of some of those women artists who helped contribute to the development of the Modernistic movements that defined the last century.  So it is that Tate Modern has recently staged large retrospective shows dedicated to the works of Anni Albers and Dorothea Tanning – artists who in earlier, unenlightened times might well have been more commonly footnoted as Mrs Josef Albers and Mrs Max Ernst.  Now, continuing that same thread, and perhaps hoping to make amends for their earlier clunky failing, the Barbican Art Gallery is showing a full two-floor retrospective of works by Mrs Jackson Pollock…I’m sorry I’ll write that again… a full two-floor retrospective of works by Lee Krasner.

At which point I have to admit that I didn’t really have very high hopes when entering this exhibition.  Not, I hasten to add, because I’m some dreadful old male chauvinist – although it’s true that I didn’t particularly rate the Anni Albers show (and here I know my opinion was definitely a minority one) and was maybe just a little bit underwhelmed by the work of Dorothea Tanning.  No, my problem is that I’ve never really been all that much of a fan of American Abstract Expressionism, the style with which Krasner is most closely associated.  A couple of years ago the Royal Academy put on a very thorough display of works from all the major American artists who led the movement – Pollock, Still, Rothko, Motherwell and various other irascibles personalities – and while there were undeniably a few works that really stood out and demanded attention, I’m not sure that there were really that many or that they could generally be said to be ageing very well.  And I’ve a feeling that while there may well have been one or two small Krasners on display, they were only memorable for their lack of memorability – at least, I can’t remember what they looked like.


So, after all that downbeat preamble, it comes as a very happy surprise to be able to report that the show here at the Barbican is actually really quite impressive; that the curators have managed to assemble a very strong body of work; and that an entirely reasonable case has been made for elevating Krasner up into the pantheon of first division Abstract Expressionists alongside her boorish, adulterous husband and all those other much more famous male members of the tribe.  Ok, so the curation has one unfortunate example of idiosyncratic foolishness where it deliberately disjuncts the chronological line and decides to start the show half-way through the artist’s life before then returning to start again at the beginning.  But, leaving that aside, the overall exhibition shows a lot of really good paintings that haven’t been seen in this country before and does, in fact, confirm that these kinds of Abstracts can still look pretty good when displayed with sufficient care and consideration.  And, perhaps as a sort of a useful art historical bonus, the show also presents a kind of interesting narrative thread that helpfully illustrates the more general development of Abstraction in post-War America.


So, we get to see Krasner shifting from early figuration through a sort of Cubistic deconstruction of form, a brief interlude of quasi-Surreal photo-collage experimentation and on to the evolving Abstract formulations that would define the major part of her career.  And at each of these stages the artist shows that she had a real natural talent for composition and design, whether it’s seen in the Impressionistic self-portraiture of the young woman starting out on her artistic journey or in the more experimental charcoal sketches that follow when she first discovers how Picasso and the European Modernists had been exploring new ways of representing the world.  Then comes the War and its aftermath during which a shattered exhausted Continent is forced to give way to an increasingly confident America, not just in terms of economic leadership but also in the soft-power aesthetical paradigms that inevitably follow in its path.  But how to express all the optimistic potential possibilities of this exciting new world while acknowledging the recent horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and the growing background threat of a possible Cold War Armageddon?


If that was the question then I think it’s fair to say that it was answered by the multiplicity of different forms of American Abstract Expressionist painting that first gained the world’s attention via the splats and splashes of Jackson Pollock and the novelty of his mysterious mystical landscapes of ethereal unreality.  At around the same time as Pollock was experimenting with his expansive theatrical action painting techniques, Krasner (who was, by this, time his wife) was also developing her own kind of Abstraction, albeit that it was notably smaller, neater and perhaps based on a kind of dense, more deliberate, calligraphic patterning.  I have to say that I think these early works of hers look great, a view presumably shared by the curators who have selected them to start the show here (taking them out of chronological sequence, as I may have mentioned before).  But they do look perhaps just a little reminiscent of similar sized works by Mark Tobey (that I can recall featuring in the RA show mentioned earlier).  At which point there’s a strong temptation to try to check out the precise chronology of all this and figure out if maybe Krasner knew Tobey and borrowed some of his techniques or whether it was the other way round – and then again how much did Krasner help Pollock and when exactly did he start dripping paint and who did what first and who copied who and where do artists like Still, Rothko, Motherwell and all the rest fit into the innovatory time-line.


And, in the end, does it really matter?  Well, there’s certainly an argument for saying that one should just look at the art, forget all the background stuff and simply decide for oneself whether it looks any good.  And this is what the curators seems to have decided here for, interestingly enough, the gallery guide and wall panels in the exhibition studiously avoid all these kinds of questions of who did what first and when and who influenced whom.  All of which means that there’s an enormous Pollock-sized elephant left padding around all the rooms.

Presumably the deliberate curatorial decision was made that Krasner’s works deserved to be examined in their own light without the distraction of her more famous hubby.  Which I suppose is fair enough, although if the historical role of the women artists is to be reviewed and revised then maybe these things do need to be taken into consideration.  Anyway, as Krasner’s work evolves, it gets bigger and goes through various stylistic changes which, in brief, might be summarised as moving from the introduction of vague figurative elements; through the construction of a much looser patterning of loops and whorls; an interlude exploring torn paper collages; before everything coagulates into denser structures; which then crystallise into more rigidly organised geometrical formulations.  Currently the simplest shorthand way to delineate these difference would be to say that the works echo similar works by better known male artists – specifically de Kooning, Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, Pollock and finally Frank Stella.  But then the implication would be to suggest that Krasner somehow followed in their paths which I definitely think would be to unfairly understate her own considerable talents.


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