Night Birds is a powerful painting that was produced during a seminal period in Lee Krasner’s career. It was painted in 1962 when she had finally emerged from the influence of Jackson Pollock—her partner in life and art for fourteen years—and had begun to truly find her own artistic voice. Part of her celebrated Umber series, other works from this period are housed in major museum collections, such as Night Birds’ sister painting, Cobalt Night, which is in the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Filled with a concentration of what Hilton Kramer called “energy…struggle and outsize gesture” Night Birds becomes the physical manifestation of Krasner’s new found sense of freedom as her fluid forms seemingly soar across the surface of this monumental canvas.
This painting engages the viewer with every inch of its frenetically worked surface. Composed of feverish applications of paint, the picture plane is rich in chromatic and painterly detail. Pools of inky black pigment are counterbalanced by passages of subtle color—gradations of warm pinks and yellows infuse the surface with sensation that recalls the night sky finessed by the sinking rays of the setting sun. Night Birds was completed towards the end of a period in which Krasner moved away from her earlier organic forms and began to explore a new compositional field. Although resolutely non-figurative, the avian forms of the work’s title do seem to appear to ascend through the flourishes of expressive brushwork—appearing as golden shadows against the duskiness of Krasner’s night sky. In contrast to the more aggressive, expressive gestures of her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, curator Barbara Rose identifies a different, more considered gesture at work here. “Although these paintings appear to have been executed in a moment of frenzy,” she writes, “one sees that every gesture is counter balanced by a gesture curving inward toward the other side. Despite this antiphonal movement, the eye cannot focus on a dominant form or shape that permits it to rest its attention. We are condemned, like the artist, to be buffeted by the storm from which, as long as we remain with the painting, there is no shelter” (B. Rose, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1983, p. 122).
This new phase of painting offered Krasner a sense of liberation and allowed her to finally shake off the shackles of her husband and finally find her own artistic voice. “No linear tracery of automatic drawing describes these organic forms,” Barbara Rose writes. “No grid of compartments confines the raging energies that animate the brush load with thick paint, now slapped or dragged across the canvas, leaving a trail of flaring drips and spluttering-like comet-flashes of paint” (Ibid.). The early 1960s mark the height of Lee Krasner’s creative powers. Free of her duties as caretaker to Jackson Pollock and focusing once again on her own painting, she created powerful works out of energized skeins of paint. Emotionally wrenching in their impact, it is not surprising that Krasner was exploring and exercising her own wounded psyche during this seminal period.
At over eleven feet wide, Night Birds is indicative of the monumental scale in which Krasner was working during this time. Most of her paintings from the late 1950s were executed on a more modest scale and often in square or smaller landscape formats. Here, the large-scale canvas and Krasner’s all-over composition results in work which becomes a sensory experience in which one almost becomes enveloped by the painting, a quality noted by the curator Barbara Rose. “Because of their size, these paintings, like the largest of Pollock, Newman, and Still’s horizontal paintings, cannot be seen entirely from one point of view, even with peripheral vision. They encompass the viewer. One is “in” them as one is “in” Claude Monet’s huge pools of Water Lilies, paintings both Krasner and Pollock admired” (Ibid.).
Night Birds was the expression of powerful creative forces that rose from Krasner during a momentous juncture in her life. Painted in 1962 at her house on Long Island where she and Jackson Pollock had lived together for 11 years, she took over the barn studio that had been his and made it her arena for action and a return to painting on a large-scale and in complete fullness of her personal expression. However whereas Pollock famously laid his canvases on the floor and worked on them from above, Krasner sought to distance herself from him by placing her canvas on the wall and worked on them on in a more traditional manner. Unlike Pollock she also sized her canvas so that the raw pigment rested on top of the canvas rather than soaking in—a departure from a key tenet of much Abstract Expressionist painting.
Shortly after her mother’s death in 1959, Krasner began working on a new series of paintings that would become known as her White and Umber paintings, of which Night Birds forms a part. Markedly different from her earlier work, she exhibited these new paintings in two exhibitions at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. Her 1960 show of these new paintings was critically praised. A review in the New York Times praised the show as “a brilliant exhibition by an abstractionist who is able to vitalize huge canvases with rhythmic pulses of energy. The outstanding characteristic of [Krasner’s] work is her ability to impose and maintain control” (quoted by E. G. Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1995, p. 315).
Although Lee Krasner’s career has historically been overshadowed by that of her more famous husband, between them the pair came to be the tour de force behind the New York School of painting that emerged as the dominant movement of post-war American art. A talented artist in her own right (something that only became truly recognized after Pollock’s death in 1956), Krasner’s style played an important part in her husband’s artistic development, a fact recognized by the critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, “even before their marriage [Krasner’s] eye and judgment became important in [Pollock’s] art, and continued to remain so” (C. Greenberg, quoted by R. Hobbs, ‘Lee Krasner,’ Lee Krasner, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999, 28). Hobbs continues, “In her art, Krasner dramatizes a change of enormous import as she moves from the monolithic definition of individual identity evident in the single-image compositions prevalent in the mature works of many Abstract Expressionists toward a more open-ended perception of the self as a dynamic constellation of forces” (Ibid.).