“I make the first gesture, then other gestures occur, then observation. Something in the abstract movement suggests a form. I'm often astonished at what I'm confronted with when the major part comes through. Then I just go along with it; it's either organic in content, or quite abstract, but there's no forced decision. I want to get myself something via the act of painting. ... I sustain my interest in it through spontaneity.”
--Lee Krasner, quoted in M. Tucker, Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973, n.p.
Painted in 1956, Cauldron is a monumental painting completed as Lee Krasner began to emerge from the shadow of her husband, Jackson Pollock’s, heroic career. With its epic scale Cauldron is an orchestra of color and form. 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. Vertical brushstrokes of lavender, pale yellow and peach are outlined in a black that darkens the mood of the otherwise spring tones. Like her collages and paintings from the early 1950s, Cauldron recalls but does not resemble plants, flowers, and other organic matter. Curator Barbara Rose identifies the energy of Krasner’s paintings as part of a very considered gesture on the part of the artist. “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).
Curator Marcia Tucker saw a lyricism where Rose saw frenzy. As Tucker noted in the catalogue accompanying the retrospective presentation of Krasner’s “Large Paintings” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1973, “The physicality of such spontaneous gesture forces a highly personal and unconscious rhythm onto the canvas; in Krasner's case it is an arabesque of verticals and horizontals looping across the picture's surface. Krasner recalls that Mondrian, visiting the United States in the early 1940's, told her, ‘You have a very strong inner rhythm; you must never lose it.’ Her method of working, which she maintains to the present, is primarily responsible for the sweeping, lyrical cadences that are emblematic of her work” (M. Tucker, Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973, n.p.).
Tucker also notes how the grand scale—Cauldron is 60 x 50 inches—has governed Krasner’s engagement with painting: “She has, in every important period of her career, pursued formal and expressive issues in an expanded format, sometimes as large as eighteen feet. There is a range of feeling in these canvases that goes beyond the heroism or drama inherent in paintings of enormous size; other kinds of burgeoning energy, more fragile and lyrical, are presented also. Moreover, Krasner's formal incisiveness can be seen to advantage in the large works, because the manipulation of size and scale is deliberate. The big paintings are not simply enlargements of smaller ones, but are among the most coherent confrontations of the problems of size and scale to be found in her work. The big canvas, that is, ‘a canvas whose footage in both directions is larger than the comprehensive image the eye is capable of taking in from the customary distance,’ made its first appearance in contemporary American art around 1949, marking the end of the easel picture as a convention. In the 1950's, use of the large canvas helped to eradicate traditional illusionism and replaced specific images and Renaissance perspective with an area of activity, giving the artist's entire body a field of expression and the viewer's entire body a field of vision analogous to that of the real world. While its genesis can be traced to the large works of Monet and Matisse, use of the large canvas is a major innovation of abstract expressionism” (Ibid.).