From the Margins: Lee Krasner | Norman Lewis, 1945–1952
The Jewish Museum, New York
September 12, 2014 - February 1, 2015
Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Norman Lewis (1909-1979) were major contributors to Abstract Expressionism but as a woman and as an African American, respectively, they were often overlooked by the leading critics of their time. From September 12, 2014 through February 1, 2015, the Jewish Museum will present From the Margins: Lee Krasner l Norman Lewis, 1945-1952, a survey of key 1940s and 1950s works by these two powerful painters. This was a transformative period in American painting when both artists were experimenting with approaches that joined abstraction and cultural specificity.
Their works have intriguing formal similarities while reflecting each artist’s personal sources. Krasner’s Little Image pictures relate to her childhood upbringing and study of Hebrew. Lewis’s Little People paintings reference African American cultural heritage, urban life, jazz, and textiles.
Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis were important to the development of the Abstract Expressionist artistic and social scene in New York but remained tangential to mainstream criticism during the formative period of the 1940s and early 1950s. Both artists' work of this formative period embodied the allover approach characteristic of the style. Yet, rather than the bold, gestural strokes of their peers they focused on smaller, repeated images with self-reflective cultural references. Their paintings—brimming with gesture, image, and incident—remained modest in scale compared with the canvases of many of their contemporaries.
Lee Krasner, better known at the time as the wife of Jackson Pollock, created innovative systems and iconographies within the overall painting style of Abstract Expressionism. In her Little Image paintings, Krasner worked with small repeated pictographs that she systematically painted onto the canvas from right to left, as she was taught to write Hebrew. The shapes are not recognizable images, yet evoke letters, signs, or symbols. Meticulously crafted and intimately scaled, the Little Image works reflect her deft control of unorthodox painting methods such as applying pigments with sticks and palette knives or straight from the tube. Her art celebrates painting as a primal means of communication through an analogy with picture-based writing systems.
Norman Lewis produced unique linear abstractions that shared much conceptually and aesthetically with the work of celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Ad Reinhardt and Mark Tobey, while expressing his own identity and sources from African American culture. His Little People paintings, with their highly abstracted formal structures, make reference to the urban experience, musical structures, jazz, and African textiles.
The paintings of Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis selected for this exhibition suggest several parallels. Developed within a key period in American art and culture, their works offer scope for reflection on interrelated themes: art and modernity; issues of artistic expression and identity, whether of class, gender, ethnicity or race; and the relations of the mainstream and the excluded.
From the Margins: Lee Krasner l Norman Lewis, 1945-1952 is organized by Norman L. Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator at the Jewish Museum, and Stephen Brown, Assistant Curator.
LEE KRASNER was one of the most radical of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters. Through six decades, she continually explored innovative approaches to painting and collage. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to an Orthodox Jewish family from Russia, Krasner pursued formal art training at several New York City institutions and also studied with the influential German abstract painter Hans Hofmann. She was a muralist in the Federal Arts Project and a member of the Artists Union and American Abstract Artists. Krasner married painter Jackson Pollock in 1945. Though overshadowed by Pollock, Krasner was an experienced artist well before she met him. Active in the New York art scene of the 1930s and 1940s, she introduced Pollock to the artist Willem de Kooning and critic Clement Greenberg, among others. During her time with Pollock at their home in Springs, Long Island, Krasner developed her Little Image paintings. These works are today considered among her most significant contributions to Abstract Expressionism.
NORMAN LEWIS was the second of three sons of immigrant parents from Bermuda. His family lived on Lenox Avenue, near 132nd Street, in Harlem. Lewis studied drawing and commercial design in high school before joining the merchant marine and sailing through the Caribbean and off the coast of South America. Back in New York in the early 1930s, Lewis met Augusta Savage, the founder and director of an important art school, the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts. From 1933 to 1935, he participated in Savage’s studio and attended Columbia University. Lewis was active in the Federal Arts Project, and was a member of the artists’ group 306, which met in the studios of Charles Alston, Henry Bannarn, and Ad Bates at 306 West 141st Street. The group formed a nucleus for creative life in Harlem and included Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage, and Richard Wright. The relationship between the artist and society was a frequent theme of discussion, yet from a style grounded in social realism, Lewis moved, during the early 1940s, toward abstraction. Around 1946 he began exploring an overall gestural approach to abstraction, establishing himself as the only African American among the first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. Inspired by sources in music, nature, Asian and African art, and modern painters from Wassily Kandinsky to Mark Tobey, Lewis experimented with a wide variety of approaches to abstraction. His paintings from this time are devoid of realistic imagery while often referring to African American settings and culture. Beneath the formal elegance of Lewis’s paintings runs a characteristically subtle inflection of his lifelong social conscience and humanitarian concerns.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Jewish Museum is publishing a 96-page catalogue by Norman L. Kleeblatt and Stephen Brown, distributed by Yale University Press; with essays by Lisa Saltzman and Mia L. Bagneris. An introductory essay surveys the trajectories of Krasner and Lewis within an artistic community dominated by white men. This book offers a fresh view of the contributions of two highly significant abstract artists. Featuring 64 color illustrations, the book will be available worldwide and at the Jewish Museum’s Cooper Shop for $30.00.
From the Margins: Lee Krasner | Norman Lewis, 1945-1952 is made possible in part by The Peter Jay Sharp Exhibition Fund and The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Endowment support is provided by The Skirball Fund for American Jewish Life Exhibitions.
The Jewish Museum, New York