Who L.K. Was
Shellflower, Lee Krasner, 1947
In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim came to visit Jackson Pollock’s studio on East 8th Street in Greenwich Village. In the small, poor, ferociously competitive world of downtown artists, a visit from Guggenheim was like a visit from Santa Claus: If this rich and trendsetting collector decided to feature an artist at her famous midtown gallery, Art of This Century, his reputation was made. And Pollock needed all the help he could get. At the time, he was enjoying a very different kind of patronage from Peggy’s uncle, Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the museum then known as the Museum of Non-Objective Art, and now called simply the Guggenheim. For months, he had been working as the museum’s janitor.
When Peggy Guggenheim descended on Pollock’s studio, however, the artist wasn’t at home. He arrived late, to find Guggenheim storming out the door. “I came into the place, the doors were open, and I see a lot of paintings, L.K., L.K. I didn’t come to look at L.K.’s paintings. Who is L.K.?” she demanded.
This little episode tells you all you need to know about the pathos of Lee Krasner’s life, and of the new biography Lee Krasner by Gail Levin (William Morrow, $30). Krasner was, of course, the L.K. whose paintings shared space with Pollock’s. The two painters had met in late 1941, and would be married in 1945. Guggenheim, Krasner insisted, “damn well knew … who L.K. was.” She just had no interest in Krasner’s paintings, certainly not when Pollock’s were on view. And while few people were as defiantly nasty to Krasner as Guggenheim, almost everyone in the mid-century art world agreed that Krasner’s main value was as the guardian, gatekeeper, and promoter of Pollock’s work. To this day, far more people can identify Krasner as Pollock’s widow—or as the character Marcia Gay Harden played in the movie Pollock—than can name one of her canvases.
Levin, an art historian who teaches at CUNY, has written this biography partly in order to rectify this injustice. Levin was one of a group of young feminist curators and art historians who helped bring new attention to Krasner’s work in the 1970s. Krasner was grateful for their interest, and for feminism as a political movement: “I’m glad I’m alive, now that women’s lib has brought a new consciousness,” she said in 1973. “Thank you, women’s lib.”