Lee Krasner at the Barbican

 

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Lee Krasner spent a lot of time and energy interpreting and promoting the work of her husband. In a real sense Jackson Pollock was worth it, but it was thrilling to see in the recent exhibition at the Barbican that Krasner was producing at the same time a rich variety of work not in the least cowed by or under the spell of the Dionysian Pollock.

It is work of great intellectual depth and force, of ceaseless searching and renewal, so demanding and various that one visit wasn’t enough to take it all in.

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The exhibition began with the so-called tiny paintings, small in themselves and full of further levels of tinyness, little knots of activity scattered over the canvas. Labels spelled out the theory of this organisation, that small things can become monumental depending on context and your own focus. So you grasped from the start that Krasner was a visionary who saw metamorphically, which set you up to expect transformations in which all is not what it seems.

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Soon after, we came to her student work, charcoal nudes called life studies, that started looking like Michelangelo and moved on to Picasso-like fractures, a radically disruptive idea of taking dictation from nature. At this point did any of us dream that the end of it all would be the beginning?

After the impinging nearness of the nudes came unlikely wartime collages meant for window displays and populated by bombs, bombers, scientific instruments and scientists’ laboratories, full of fractious life. This was the period in which she met Pollock, as she oversaw a group of mainly male artists in a bold, practical project.

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Soon after the war she is doing something even more imaginative with collage, slicing up compositions she is dissatisfied with and forming them into powerful explosions which still carry narrative force, bursts of light, tangles of undergrowth, tumult in the heavens. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she went on giving descriptive or allusive titles to her pictures, which told viewers to look for rich imagery in seeming abstraction. Not just ‘seeming’ perhaps, for Krasner shows that these canvases can be both pure construction and individualised narrative at once.

One of the best surprises was to move from one side to the other of the square donut of the upper storey at the Barbican, from the small, dense collages of 1954 to large, free Pollock-sized ones of the very next year.

Both sets, the small and the large, are among her best works, and those viewers who thought they saw suspiciously Pollock-like scribbles in one of the larger set called Bald Eagle were absolutely right. Here Krasner cannibalised her own rejected canvases and one of Pollock’s too, which plays the part of the bird.

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In these pictures it’s more evident that new work is made from the ruins of the old, that new energy springs from the destruction of what went before, through ripping, shredding or cutting without much respect for earlier effort.

So certain colours have special meanings, and red is a kind of bloodshed in Bird Talk for instance (opening image). In this room Milkweed provided a measure of this—its cool colours seemed out of place.

Krasner’s best years in paint were difficult years with Pollock. One of the most exciting and disturbing rooms contained four violent paintings on bodily themes from just before and just after Pollock’s death, which occurred when Krasner had escaped briefly to Paris. You could fill a much larger room with the anguished work of that year and the next, among the most wonderful things Krasner ever did.

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This is where my attention finally wore out, after these pictures in flesh tones and grey, which might be evenly divided between anger and grief, but there’s nothing balanced about them. They are barely controlled, which makes them so uncomfortably exciting. They keep calling themselves back to order, and the canvas gets more and more crowded with colliding forms. They are sometimes said to derive from Picasso’s Demoiselles, to which they seem worthy rivals.

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Perhaps Krasner had already been shifting to soberer palettes in works like Cauldron (not in exhibition), but when we moved to the lower floor at the Barbican we were in a surprising new monochrome-world which might at first seem a diminishment, but resulted in a pair of masterpieces on a grand scale, a calm cloudscape or vast Northern expanse called Polar Stampede, and the wildest depiction of movement, The Eye is the First Circle, which incorporates whirlwind vortexes and heroic striding figures, a range of diffuse and focused motion which accompanies you as you walk past it. Did Krasner have in mind Pollock’s largest canvas, the regular/irregular Mural, meant for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York flat, Krasner’s seething crowd played against Pollock’s orderly procession?

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The almost-grisaille effect of Krasner’s umber paintings lets the formal power of the composition come out more clearly, but there’s also a more prosaic explanation of the source of this unexpected swerve in her work. The larger canvases are possible because she has moved into Pollock’s much bigger studio at their Long Island house. And the absence of colour has its source in her insomnia—she takes to painting at night by artificial light, doesn’t like what happens to colour in these conditions and hits on brown as a tone unspoiled by them.

There are more new departures in the 1960s and 70s, ‘flower’ paintings like Through Blue of 1963, made with a broken right arm which left her manipulating paint with her fingers, leading to great density of surface, and a spate of cartoon-like canvases including Courtship and Mister Blue of 1966.

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The exhibition ended with a startling return. Rooting around in the studio, a British friend found a large cache of charcoal nudes from student days. Krasner meant to destroy them, but looking more closely, felt she was being directed to turn them into something new. Instead of tearing, this time she cut them up with scissors. Out of this destruction came remarkable and unnerving works, in part her revenge on a teacher she had both revered and resented. He had once torn up one of her drawings.

The results of the butchering are tantalysing and confusing, like a Baroque ceiling with figures tumbling out of the corners, like Michelangelo’s lounging or sprawling figures anchoring an indistinct turmoil of other figures, like a series of movements only beginning to clarify themselves, and suggesting as so often in Krasner’s canvases that much bodily business remains to unfold.

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Antoni Tàpies: writings on the wall

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How to explain never noticing Antoni Tàpies until now? Is it because of insoluble problems with the reproducibility of the work, whose material presence is essential and doesn’t come through in photographs? Tàpies goes on calling his works paintings long after this word ceases to fit. Instead of pictures of suffering, Tàpies presents the martyred body itself, a canvas defaced by gouging, tearing and brutal insertions, obscured by coverings that largely obliterate it or disguise its existence. He calls the surface he works on a battleground, and all the marks or adjustments he makes, wounds, but his paradoxical goal is tranquility. He quotes Heraclitus, ‘all arises from discord,’ and ‘harmony comes from its contrary.’

Besides the Pre-Socratics one of his main inspirations appears to be Zen Buddhism with its appetite for sweeping away complexity of content in order to contemplate the void, in the shape of a blank wall or an expanse of raked sand.

It isn’t immediately evident from the work that Tàpies is a learned artist, whose grandfather owned a well-known bookshop in Barcelona, destroyed by bombing in the Civil War, and whose father had a large library. Wandering in the war-ravaged city Tàpies had the sense of a heritage taken away, a feeling exacerbated by two years recovering from tuberculosis (from age 17 to 19), confined first in his bedroom at home and then in a sanatorium.

Later he attributes key features of his work to all that time passed within the same narrow walls, in a space furnished only with a bed and a wardrobe with large mirrors on its doors; features—wall, door, mirror—which dominate much of his work. He calls this period his forty days in the wilderness, a painful experience of deprivation ‘that may not have ended even now’. When you first meet the phrase, it is a shock to find him pointing to a Scriptural model in trying to describe his own progress as an artist. Is there really a religious painter hidden in the work of Antoni Tàpies and trying to get out?

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I first encountered this work in a little display called Writings on the Wall at Waddington Custot in Cork Street, which included six artists, half of them completely or nearly unknown to me (Tàpies one of these), only Brassai. Dubuffet and Twombly previously familiar. Brassai was represented by photographs of defaced walls in Parisian streets, defaced by punctures that someone chanced upon later and turned into the eyes of faces made with a few gouged lines, which were under- and over-written by other rough attempts at writing or drawing.

Brassai called these eyes ‘the eyes of the street’ and felt a demonic force in the rudimentary scratchings.  Dubuffet had photographed graffiti in similar places and drew graffiti-like pictures of his own, which became austere and illegible lithographs and etchings in black and white.

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Tàpies was present here in the largest work by far, called DUAT, consisting of a long horizontal expanse of sand like a beach, a surface of sufficient depth to write and draw in it with no finer instrument than a stick.  The main word duat (if it is a complete word) which I still don’t know the meaning or even the language of, is written in two different mediums—as dug out of sand, and as scrawled with an oversized pencil (the right half of A, and the whole of T). I can’t tell you how pleasing it was that someone had given up gouging and reverted to writing this word halfway through. It’s not the only sign of randomness in the work, just the most unapologetic.

I didn’t notice one of the main consistencies in Duat in the course of lots of looking (on more than one occasion). I’ve noticed only now that there are three ‘doors’ drawn in sand, evenly spaced across the top two-thirds of the canvas. All three are drawn in sand; only one is ‘open,’ having had the sand excavated from the rectangle and the missing door drawn in perspective (‘hanging open’) to the left of the empty opening.

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A frame is drawn in the sand around the middle door. There’s a mysterious build-up of sand like braided hair down one edge of the third door, evidence of raking or clearing the sand with some kind of scraper. These are not the most interesting details in the whole work, but sand is the most arresting of the various materials, and the one with the most life in it. The effect of the sand standing up on the wall, and not falling off, is like a magic trick that goes on delighting the spectator for a long time, like the drips and spirals of paint in a Pollock that you know came down onto the canvas from a height, but are now standing up and cancelling gravity.

Maybe the doors are windows, and the indoor shutters lying or falling at the bottom of the picture belong to them and have been exploded off, like a rock blocking a tomb, and the white (beach) towel is what’s left of the grave-clothes.

One of the first things someone coming to Tàpies notices is all the crosses. There are two of them here, in insignificant locations, one camouflaged as an X, and further obscured by forming only a part of the Roman numeral for eleven. Surely they aren’t that important in what this picture (without thinking I use this unsuitable word) means.

At this point maybe we should read what Tàpies has to say about the meaning of the cross in general and in his thinking—an emblem of suffering, a graph of the meeting and crossing of contrary forces, the world tree anchored in the centre of the earth, the linking of routes from the four quarters of the compass, the universal person formed of symmetrical binaries, and more. Turned a quarter-turn, the cross becomes an X, a sign used to delete something or multiply it.

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Even the letter T which appears often as an attenuated, parochial form of cross and one of the initials with which Tàpies signs his work can be etherialised in varnish like a spectre rising from a chest of drawers.

Tàpies feels a powerful urge to reduce symbols to the simplest graphs, but then to reload them with all the cultural baggage he seemed keen to escape or at least to strip of its parochial character.

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He was a passionate Catalan and reworked the Catalan flag (in Catalan Spirit, 1971), four red stripes on a gold ground, which at first seemed to me trivial and local, until I focused on how the red had become separate from the yellow and each stripe separate—different, individualised—from the others and written over and under with legible and illegible inscriptions that changed colour as the letters crossed the stripes. Tiny and indistinct replicas of the stripes skitter across the surface like the footprints of small animals or the sharp scratches of their fingers.

And the flag has been turned sideways from horizontal to vertical, or is it an earlier, archaic form taken from a coat of arms, itself a reminiscence of a moment after a battle when Louis the Pious dips four fingers in a Catalan count’s wound and writes them onto the dying man’s gold shield? So Tàpies’ rudimentary form materialises as a Wagnerian myth, and we’re back at art as magic, and now one of Tàpies’ favourite lines of Whitman flits through our heads ‘the priest leaves and the poet appears’.

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There are gruesomely literal Tàpies like Form of a Crucified Figure of 1959 or Material in the shape of an Armpit of 1968, and there are others just as poignant and in their own way as grisly, like Holes and Nails in White, also 1968, a dissected crucifixion which keeps the wounds and the nails apart, not the only time that Tàpies forces parts of the construction through from the back, a painful piercing of the flesh the whole way through. Here there’s another deformation of the surface, boiling up to become liquid after being solid, then congealing again and seeming bodily or visceral because of the imagery of pain.

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This is one of the most recessive instances of a recurrent Tàpies motif, elements of the composition fleeing the centre and ending up at the edge, even over the edge and out of our sight.

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Again the childishness of a magic trick which can make things disappear and persuade you they are gone for good, but these works are also fables of the transitory, in which the image is swept aside like marks in the sand by the tide, which doesn’t always bother to erase them completely.

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The most profound link in Writing on the Walls occurs between the walls of Brassai, pictures of hallucinatory vividness, of found objects located in particular Parisian streets at specific times of day, and Tàpies’ walls, which are not pictures of walls but objects which will hang on walls like paintings, yet are not paintings though he calls them that, but walls themselves, something more primary and immediate than canvas, a different order of reality, which incorporate earth in their substance and embody the Heraclitan magic of getting a spark of fire to erupt from a pile of rubbish composed of the humblest materials—sand, straw, string, rags, burnt and ruined things.  

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‘Writings on the Wall’ at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 August