By Becca Zucker, DePauw University ’14
Being in New York makes it so easy to see lots of amazing work: Saeyeoun and I visited the Dana Schutz show at Petzel in Chelsea, the Picasso sculpture show at MoMA, and America is Hard to See at the Whitney all within one day. New York can be a tasting menu or checklist–I’ve already found myself picking and choosing the shows that I want to make time to see, and have found reward in doing so. I’ve always been responsive to seeing the work in person; at the Whitney I was particularly struck by curatorial decisions.
America is Hard to See is a confident and radical inaugural show, breaking down preconceptions I have had about the artists we see as American heroes of the modernist era and drawing attention to those (and a collection) who are well-deserved. The most poignant example I came across was finding that the loudest painting in the room showcasing paintings defining “New York, N.Y., 1955” was Lee Krasner’s 1957 The Seasons, created while she was in mourning over her husband Jackson Pollock’s tragic and iconic death in a car accident the year prior. There is, of course, a Pollock in the room–in fact, it’s making eyes at the Krasner piece from the opposite wall. Pollock’s No. 27 shares a palette of floral hues with Krasner’s pinks, greens, browns, and canvas, but are left pasty and blanched: his muted Pepto pink to her vivid, electric fuchsia-magenta, a soft ice cream paint job satiny blue-green to Krasner’s straight-from-the-tube hyper pigmented and uncompromising chrome, Pollock’s end-of-your-latte puce to Krasner’s warm burnt umber for her graphic shoulder-driven lines.
Compositionally, Krasner poses an ecosystem where densely packed biologically-driven fleshy forms alluding to peaches and lush tropical leaves are entwined by the extension of branches and bittersweet vines. She lays paint quickly and aggressively; I envision many destroyed brushes with bristles jutting at wiry angles from their handles, dripping with thinner and turpentine, splaying as they are pressed into canvas with all the strength of the upper body emerging from the shoulder. Her gestures are heroic 5-foot wingspans that consume the human viewer (we are lost in the thick of this landscape, we are transported and blanketed in it). But she is also dancing with death, the beauty and richness of life, and the ephemeral moment where we may align with something beautiful–that moment is captured in the uninterrupted moment of her painting. The structure flows and breathes into organic form, and she has seen it and presents us to her viewer, raw.
Pollock’s piece on display comes from the tail end of his three-year high of action paintings. The piece is rotated to form an unresolved vertical composition (the placement of the signature notes this piece was made in a horizontal orientation), making the uppermost puce forms read as some calligraphic forms rather than a divided arrangement of marks. The paint is substantial and opaque, falling heavily on the plane without the jazzy, rhythmic flicks that he is known for on his larger and more heroic canvasses. Krasner’s canvas is the hero in the room: it demands an entire movable wall, her mark-making is crude and fast; the paint is thinned to her advantage here, never questioning the vibrancy and saturation of pigment as her brush strides over canvas.
In the gallery, I flashed back to discussions of feminist methodology in an art history class I took on abstract and figurative Modernist painting, how the history we are taught prizes the male artist–especially the deified 1950s American male Abstract Expressionist. Krasner’s work has been slated as smaller, more decorative, more domestic, and more effeminate, as she resided in the smallest studio on their property, while Pollock spread his canvases over the floor of his famed home studio. The exhibition of these works proves otherwise and questions the established narrative. Contrary to myth, she maintained a studio practice, exploring her own expressionistic hand and voice and striding alongside Pollock during their relationship; the story we are taught insinuates otherwise.
Of course, the Pollock-Krasner relationship isn’t the only one broken down in this show. There is a Thomas Downing canvas that overshadows a Frank Stella, a Michelle Stuart graphite drawing that echoes the meditative moment of my personal heroine Agnes Martin’s pencil lines. Walking away from this show left me wondering about the artists I make into idols, how I view their work in terms of concise and neatly-packed monographs, and how amazing work is overshadowed in the linear model of western art history. I’m excited and grateful to be living in New York, where I’m able to engage with these shows, and especially can’t wait to see what the Whitney puts out next. I’ll be pushing myself to make more museum and gallery visits a part of my weekly routine while I have the luxury of living here.