“I think my initial contact with the canvas… to use the term calligraphic is not clear enough; because some gesture occurs—some sweep across the canvas before I take off, so to speak. And in that initial contact may be a suggestion, which dictates color” (Oral history interview by Dorothy Seckler with Lee Krasner, 1964 Nov. 2-1968 Apr. 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
Sweeping curved lines of raw umber trace the shapes of white open spaces—crescents, circles, and ovoids interspersed, overlapping, and interlocked—while tonalities of umber grow out of, fill in, or counter-balance these primary forms. Arching, circular muscularity executed in repeated campaigns creates an allover image of gestural dynamism. In Lee Krasner’s glorious In the Tea Leaves from 1966, one senses that for an artist of such searing intelligence and commitment, the physical exuberance of being in the act of painting is as much a goal as laying out a painterly image.
The rhythm of open circling movements underlies Krasner’s stylistic shift in the 1960s toward open, expansive canvases, where the curvilinear swinging motion becomes imagistic. By 1966, the date of In the Tea Leaves, Krasner has forcefully unleashed the backward flowing curvilinear calligraphy, her écriture, throwing her arm across the canvas in outward virtuosic spherical motions. The result of this release can similarly be seen in other works from 1966, a small but cohesive series in which this dialectic cycle of whirls and eddies is elaborated into a mature refinement. Calligraphic gestures and poised coloration–umbers, greens, blues, yellows, and reds tracing the curvilinear forms–interweave black markings arriving at a breathtakingly calibrated balance of visual and tactile elements.
Like her husband Jackson Pollock’s late thinned black enamel works, such as Number 15, 1951, Krasner was clear that her work begins with gesture, that the idea of depiction is not foremost in her mind, but rather comes into view once a canvas is complete. Much has been made of the eye-like form in several of her works from the mid-to-later 1950s, including Prophecy (1956), a series of works called Earth Green from the late 1950s, and The Eye is the First Circle (1960), taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s First Series from 1841. Responding to critics who identify the presence of this “eye” or “floral pattern” in her work, Krasner had this to say about the notion of such imaging: “But [The Eye is the First Circle] was titled after the painting was finished, and then I saw those eyes, too. Consequently the line comes to me from the essay on circles from the opening line, ‘The eye is the first circle,’ which impressed me many, many years ago. And I’d read it and zingo! Because I saw the eyes after it was painted too; I didn't see it while I was painting it” (L. Krasner, Interview with D. Seckler, Ibid.).
Titling works was a dynamic process for Krasner. The creation was often an afterthought, notoriously random and unreliable, and she often turned to fellow artists, critics and dealers, including John Bernard Myers, to lend their input. “She took a keen interest in how she titled her pictures, but like many artists she sometimes ran out of ideas as to what to call what. ‘Come for dinner,’ she would say, ‘I’ve some new things I want you to see.’ And I knew we would be having a delicious and hilarious conversation about naming the latest work’ (J.B. Myers, “Naming Pictures: Conversations between Lee Krasner and John Bernard Myers,” ArtForum, November 1984, p. 69). From the evidence of two handwritten notes unearthed in the artist’s archives, we know of at least three paintings from 1966 that were originally classified by their dominant color, a supposed temporary solution until one such collaborative brainstorm session or “zingo!” moment could occur. In the Tea Leaves was initially identified as Untitled (Brown); Green Rhythm (Katydid), as Untitled (Green); and Memory of Love, likely as Untitled (Blue). These chromatic nomenclatures remained for at least the first few months of the paintings’ existences, with all three having been exhibited at Guild Hall in late summer 1966 as their generic titles. The permanence of these color-coded titles would have been unsatisfactory for Krasner, if not for their lack of creativity then almost certainly for their inclination to confuse: “If, as some scientists have argued,” Krasner later said, “there exist three million colors within the spectrum, most of them undetectable by the human eye, I suspect the results [of naming a canvas by naming the major color] would be more vexing than ever,” (Ibid, p. 69).
With its sense of place—being “in”—as well as its associative meaning of reading patterns in tea leaves to divine one’s fortune, the title of In the Tea Leaves goes beyond color to emphasize the artist’s intellect and interpretative capacity. Krasner’s bodily, rather than psychic, projection is sensed in the superfluity of disciplined, yet at the same time spontaneous, marks. So much can be felt of the artist at work in the way the splatters describe the manner of her interaction with the canvas. Krasner despised the term “drips,” preferring to describe this technique that she shared with her husband as descriptive of a technical approach to the canvas. Rather, the word Krasner used was “aerial” (L. Krasner, Interview with D. Seckler, Ibid.). Krasner’s abstract forms, then, are created “from above” in this sense. Floating in a shallow space, ovals radiate a frontal energy, engaging the viewer in such a way that a specific point of view is never anchored. In the Tea Leaves seduces the eyes, bidding the viewer to wander amidst the whorl-like expanse.
After Krasner fractured her arm in a fall in East Hampton in 1963, she came out of her recovery with renewed energy and a heightened sense of dramatic oppositions of light and dark. She also continued painting some monochromatic pictures, as she had in the Umber Series, which she had assayed a few years earlier when insomnia had her painting in artificial light. Just as circles seem to be an underlying thematic for Krasner, so too, the artist brings forward in time attitudes and approaches toward works from earlier periods. The beautifully scaled tonal quality that characterizes In the Tea Leaves is reminiscent of major works from an earlier period, with the proviso that this work appears as a renewal of pleasures and combines with its monochrome a looseness of brush work and openness of form absent from the earlier more tightly gridded hermetic pictorial designs.
Of design, per se, the critic and art historian Barbara Rose likens Krasner’s surface images during this time to Celtic design, “a less aggressive style of allover patterning. The imagery is related once more to calligraphy and ornament rather than to a physical struggle or emotional upheaval … [in Krasner’s] foliate design” (B. Rose, Lee Krasner, New York, 1983, p. 132). Yet Krasner’s motifs of the full curvilinear – or what Krasner considered “Baroque” as opposed to “geometrical” – allover surface is wonderfully lyrical and still as fully emotional as it is physical. Krasner herself talked about her fine calligraphic, compressed designs during the period In the Tea Leaves was executed: “The painting I have in mind, painting in which inner and outer are inseparable, transcends technique, transcends subject and moves into the real of the inevitable” (Ibid., p. 134).