This is the first of a two part series on the lives of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.
by ALEX CARNEVALE
She refused to sing Christmas carols in class. She would not say, even when pressed, "Jesus Christ is my Lord." Years earlier, in the same school, six children had refused to recite hymns. They took home books on science and evolution instead. She was familiar with the story and admired the individuals involved.
Judaism too held no interest for her. She did not accept or understand the way the faith minimalized and marginalized women in equal parts. She announced to her parents that she was done with religion, enrolled herself in a secular public high school, and Lena Krasner decided to call herself by a more gentile name - Lenore.
Cooper Union was her next academic destination. She wanted nothing more than to be taken as an artist on her own terms. At Cooper Union men and women were completely segregated, and even entered the buildings through separate entrances. Outside of a few female instructors in interior and fashion design, the faculty was entirely male.
She grew tired of the name Lenore, having heard it too often from undesirable lips. She wanted an androgynous appellation, so that those who looked at her artwork could not wholly know if she was man or woman.
Lee Krasner was the youngest student in the college's life drawing class. Still she found she could not take the school seriously; it paled in comparison to what New York could offer her, on more satisfactory terms. She rented a studio at 15th and Fifth Avenue with friends. They made a habit of wandering to Washington Square Park to sketch what they found there.
In order to gain admittance to the National Academy of Art, she focused on completing an elaborate self portrait. She nailed a mirror to a tree outside her parents' extremely modest Long Island home. The school, located at 109th and Amsterdam, admitted her for a free seven month period.
The faculty at the National Academy was not much better. Later Krasner would describe them as "worried by the French." They hewed completely to the old ways. Her report card read, "This student is always a bother...insists upon having her own way despite school rules."
Lee began dating one of the most promising students at the Academy, a Russian immigrant named Igor Pantuhoff. Her face was unmistakably ethnic, but her body could hardly be critiqued. He treated her well despite coming from a family of dedicated anti-Semites. Occasionally, in the hearing of others, the handsome portraitist would assert that he enjoyed being with an ugly woman.
It was a changing time in the art world. The students at the National Academy obtained their first glimpses of the French impressionists. It is difficult to imagine how excited they were to see these first paintings of the movement make it to American galleries and museums. The students' work shifted direction in dramatic fashion. One instructor became so disgusted by the direction of Lee and her classmates that he hurled brushes against a wall and shouted, "I can't teach you people anything."
Other things in Lee's life had not changed. At the Academy, fish were kept in a basement purely for still life paintings, but women were not allowed downstairs. It reminded her of being back in synagogue. Later, Lee would describe her reaction to what she called modernism by saying, "Seeing those French paintings stirred my anger against any form of provincialism."
Igor's parents absolutely forbid him to marry Lee because she was a Jew, but the two managed to guide each other through the first complications of the Depression. Both took jobs with the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal initiative that put works of art in federal buildings and schools.
She met Jackson Pollock for the first time at an Artists Union dance in 1936. He cut in on her dance partner. Deeply inebriated, the man's first words to her were, "Do you like to fuck?"
She was fired and rehired, and then permanently canned when all employees who had been there more than eighteen months were let go. Shortly thereafter, she was dumped by her boyfriend through postal mail. (He finished his letter by writing, "I hope you are well.") She moved to a cheaper place at 51 East 9th Street, and cajoled a friend to graffiti the following words of Rimbaud on her wall:
To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I maintain? In what blood must I walk?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He last wrote in these pages about Camille Claudel. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
"Surrender" - The Invisible (mp3)
"Utopia" - The Invisible (mp3)
The new album from The Invisible, Rispah, was released on June 8th.