In the aftermath of her husband Jackson Pollock’s death, Lee Krasner stepped out of his shadow to produce some of her most ambitious paintings to date. Between 1959 and 1962, Krasner painted her Night Journeys, a series of canvases executed on a grand scale. Characterized by wild, looping skeins of paint that were dripped, flung and brushed in large, arcing movements of her arm and body, these paintings spoke to an artistic language all of her own. Battling chronic insomnia, Krasner moved into Pollock’s barn and painted much of the series at night. Fueled in equal parts by her sudden grief and unwavering determination, these paintings are the silent, cathartic witnesses to Krasner’s transformation into a hugely talented painter in her own right. Untitled, painted in 1962, epitomizes the powerful gesture and emotional gravitas of the series, whilst demonstrating a return to life, in the warmer, brighter colors that begin to appear at this time.
Equal parts turbulent maelstrom and elegiac homage, Untitled epitomizes the emotional impact of the Night Journeys and the special place they hold in Krasner’s oeuvre. She described the paintings as being produced by “’a descent,’ of going ‘down deep into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant’” (L. Krasner, quoted in R. Hobbs, Lee Krasner, New York, 1993, p. 151). In Untitled, she works in two colors—alizarin crimson and pure white—to create a densely layered thicket of paint. Flung onto the canvas with a dynamic flip of the wrist in endless, repetitive attacks, she challenges the supremacy of Pollock’s legacy, ultimately making it part of her own.
In Untitled, short, slashing diagonal coils of bright, white paint range across the canvas like zipping beams of light. There is less slashing and more tender gesture in the darker crimson tones, which are applied in graceful, arcing loops, peppered by soft daubs of pink that are placed at the interstices of the vertical marks. A frothy airiness infuses the painting despite its insistent slashings, suggesting the return to life after a period spent in tortured isolation. Writing in Artforum in 1968, the art critic Emily Wasserman described this effect, relating it back to Krasner’s love of Matisse. “Lee Krasner’s most recent works (dating from 1962) might be situated somewhere between a toughness which she had in common with Pollock (even before she knew him this feature was evident…), and the ‘airborne,’ infinitely extensive quality to which she has always been attracted in Matisse” (E. Wasserman, “Lee Krasner in Mid-Career,” Artforum, March 1968, p. 43).
After Pollock’s death, Krasner reckoned with her grief by throwing herself into her work, creating some of the greatest paintings of her career. In 1957, she moved into Pollock’s old studio inside a barn at their Springs home, and began the psychologically intense process of confronting his legacy by exorcising his ghost. At this time, Krasner worked on a larger, unprecedented scale by tacking up vast pieces of unstretched canvas to the studio wall. She restricted her palette to just one or two colors. Krasner had chronic insomnia in those years, and often worked at night, limiting her palette to dark shades and bright white. Her friend, the poet Richard Howard, dubbed these paintings the “Night Journeys.”“I didn’t know how to deal with Pollock,” Krasner later said. “It was a tough life” (L Krasner, quoted in “A Conversation with Lee Krasner,” Arts Magazine, April 1973, p. 44).
The Night Journeys are also known as her Umber paintings because a significant number of them painted between 1959 and 1962 paired dark shades of umber with bright white. Often, their dark and brooding palette relates to the psychologically dark process of their creation, which Krasner later explained: “Let me say that when I painted a good part of these things, I was going down deep into something which wasn’t easy or pleasant. In fact, I painted a great many of them because I couldn’t sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead. And I realized that if I was going to work at night, I would have to knock color out altogether, because I wouldn’t deal with color except in daylight” (L. Krasner, quoted in R. Hobbs, op. cit, 1993, p. 151).
By the time she had painted Untitled, in 1962, Krasner had begun to dig herself out of the dark era of the Night Journeys. Soon, brighter, more joyful colors were allowed into her work, albeit gradually, and often still paired with umber and white. In paintings such as her 1961 What Beast Must I Adore (based on an Arthur Rimbaud poem that she had written on her studio wall) and Celebration, 1961 (Cleveland Museum of Art), Krasner begins to infuse the umber tones with touches of bright pink. By 1965, the joy had finally overcome the grief, ushering forth an entirely new mood. This is epitomized in the bright pinks of Combat (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), a celebration of pinks, white and tangerine orange. Krasner’s biographer, Gail Levin, hints that Krasner’s palette change relates to her abiding love for Henri Matisse, whose paintings such as La Gerbe, 1953,influenced her deeply: “The impact of the first Matisses I saw is still with me,” Krasner reflected. “It was always part of the background of my work.” Asked what she liked about Matisse, Krasner replied, “It’s the air-borne quality of it...It doesn’t grind you down to the earth, it allows you to move into space, infinite space” (L. Krasner, quoted in G. Levin, Lee Krasner, New York, 2011, p. 350).
Painting is not separate from life. It is one. Do I want to live? My answer is yes - and I paint.”
Untitled bears witness to this powerful dichotomy as Krasner swung between the agony of grief and the glory of being freed from Pollock’s shadow. "Painting is not separate from life,” she later explained “It is one. Do I want to live? My answer is yes - and I paint" (L. Krasner, quoted in L. Rago, “We Interview Lee Krasner,” School Arts, Vol. 60, September 1960, p. 32).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).