“Shattered Light is another example of Krasner’s efforts to integrate her present and past. Here the collaged elements (again, remnants of her destroyed drawings) are woven into a work in which the paint itself resembles shards. Shattered Light may thus be interpreted as dealing with destruction. Interspersed throughout the work are egg forms, both broken and whole, which may relate to the iconography of Gorky’s Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, in which he combined allusions to eggs, feathers, and viscera as evocations of the modern soul.”
Executed in 1954, Lee Krasner’s Shattered Light marks a milestone in the development of both painting and collage. Vibrant energy pulses throughout as colorful shreds of paper and quick strokes of oil paint push and pull the composition, creating a spatial tension so skillful that it could have only come from Krasner’s hand. Swaths of white, blue, and varying earthy brown hues swirl around each other, punctuated by spots of red and yellow, all of which continually overlap to create the kind of all-over composition that came to be synonymous with the Abstract Expressionist movement to which Krasner belongs.
Nature was a primary subject matter for Krasner throughout the course of her career, beginning as early as her student days at both Cooper Union and the National Academy, and Shattered Light maintains that proclivity. Here, paint and collage coalesce to produce poetic naturalistic forms that recall the feeling of sweeping wind barreling through the air. Yet these indications of nature are not only relegated to the forms themselves, but are corroborated by her choice of title. The idea of “shattered light” not only conjures up the idea of natural forms merely from its usage of the term light, a natural phenomenon, but the phrase itself recalls beams of light breaking through trees in a forest.
Both the titles and the depictions which occur in the final work are not immediately known to Krasner at the outset. Instead, she begins with a gesture, and uses that as a jumping off point to create a more fully complete canvas. As she says, “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” (L. Krasner, quoted in M. Tucker, Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1973, n.p). The beauty of Krasner’s work lies in part in her utter expertise in handling her spontaneous impulses; there is a physicality to the gestures she creates that illustrate an internal lyrical rhythm that is both striking and entirely her own.
The naming of Krasner’s paintings, in a similar fashion to that of her husband, Jackson Pollock, was a process that came after the work was completed and was often quite collaborative. Krasner often turned to art dealer John Bernard Myers to aid her in this process. Recalling this activity, Myers said, “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).
In the mid-twentieth century, the cultural tides shifted as the uniquely American school of Abstract Expressionism eclipsed the popular, but stagnant, Parisian aesthetic. Krasner found herself on the crest of a great wave that would demolish and rebuild the common understanding of what art was supposed to do, and how it could do it. However, unlike many of her peers, who fashioned themselves as romantic iconoclasts or misanthropic outcasts, Krasner adopted an approach to art-making devoid of ego, in that it was essentially opposed to objectified individuality. While so many Abstract Expressionists would eventually develop a signature style, inevitably becoming static and predictable, Krasner remained committed throughout her artistic career to exploration, permutation and pure freedom.
Emblematic of this commitment is the artist’s recollection of how she began making collage: “It started in 1953—I had the studio hung solidly with drawings... floor to ceiling all around. Walked in one day, hated it all, took it down, tore everything and threw it on the floor, and when I went back—it was a couple of weeks before I opened that door again—it was seemingly a very destructive act. I don’t know why I did it, except I certainly did it. When I opened that door and walked in, the floor was solidly covered with these torn drawings that I had left and they began to interest me and I started collaging. Well, it started with drawings. Then I took my canvases and cut and began doing the same thing, and that ended in my collage show in 1955” (L. Krasner quoted in B. Diamonstein, Inside New York’s Art World, New York, 1979, p. 205).
Moreover, the use of collage is the culmination of numerous influences throughout her artistic career. On the one hand, her time studying with famed artist Hans Hofmann plays a crucial role, who taught his students much about Cubism, and Picasso in particular, who championed the use of collage and was one of the biggest influences on Krasner’s art. On the other, the choice can be traced back to her time working for the WPA, where she had first used the technique. Regardless of why exactly Krasner turned to this practice, it allowed her to combine the two poles of Abstract Expressionism: the energetic physicality of action painting with the optical vibrancy of color-field painting.
Although Lee Krasner’s career has historically been overshadowed by that of her more famous husband, the decades since Pollock’s death have revealed Krasner as a tour de force behind the New York School of painting that dominated Post-War American art. Speaking of her art, curator Robert Hobbs has said, “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” (R. Hobbs, “Lee Krasner,” Lee Krasner, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1999, p. 28).