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T H E U M B E R PA I N T I N G S 1 9 5 9 — 1 9 6 2

Lee Krasner, ca. 1960 - 1961. Photo: Paul De Vries. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, ca. 1914 - 1984, bulk 1942 - 1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Artwork Š 2018 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


With the twenty-four works collectively described as The Umber Paintings (1959 - 62) Lee Krasner’s art decisively came into its own. Krasner already had a notable output under her belt: from the distinctive Little Image series of the late 1940s, through the multifarious collages during the next decade, to monumental works such as The Seasons (1957) and two murals realized in Venetian glass for the Uris Brothers Foundation, Inc. building in New York (1959). Yet in the Umbers various forces coalesced. They exemplified Krasner’s most outstanding achievement to date, a crucial nexus and overall high point in her career.




5. Double Helix, 1961, oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 62 ½ inches, 179 x 157.5 cm. 6. The Eye is the First Circle, 1960, oil on canvas, 92 ¾ x 191⅞ inches, 235.6 x 487.4 cm. Private Collection, New York. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. 7. Uncaged, 1960, oil on canvas, 96 ⅞ x 93 ½ inches, 246 x 237.5 cm. 8. Fecundity, 1960, oil on canvas, 87 x 70 inches, 220.9 x 177.8 cm. 9. Gothic Landscape, 1961, oil on canvas, 69 ⅝ x 93 ⅝ inches, 176.8 x 236 cm. 10. Night Watch, 1960, oil on canvas, 70 x 90 inches, 177.8 x 228.6 cm.


Like families, the Umbers are diverse. Formats vary from

Mural (1943). Like Mural ’s semi-figurative convolutions,

vertical to extended horizontals and moderately large

the Umbers tend to coil and careen back upon themselves

dimensions (Double Helix [1961], 70½ x 62½ ins.) to epic

while also giving the impression that they are too restless

spans (The Eye is the First Circle [1960], 92¾ x 191 ins.). The

to stay within the dimensions that hold them—in Krasner’s

facture is also changeful. Some are dense as thickets with

phrasing, ‘one wants to extend the outer limits rather than

pictorial struggle (Uncaged), while others evince the lightest

close off; to expand rather than work in a constricted area.’

touch—witness the thin, effortless filigrees comprising

Thus the general dynamic proves neither centrifugal nor

The Eye is the First Circle. Fecundity (1960) stands some-

centripetal but a kaleidoscopic mix of each—just as a vortex

where between the two. Different again, Night Watch

can appear to swirl both in and out. Yet unlike a vortex few

(1960) and Gothic Landscape have a firm clarity more akin

Umbers have a focal center. Rather, energy and motion

to Upstream #1 (1957).

unleashed is everything. Here, The Eye is the First Circle

As for the brushstrokes, they encompass fine

makes two references. The first swoops back in time to

spray effects evoking pigmented spume alongside the

Krasner’s early Self-Portrait (c. 1931 - 33) in which her left

almost fuliginous swathes in Seeded (1960), where Wassily

eye sits within a circular shadow. The second is the titular

Kandinsky’s apocalyptic Compositions exert an influence.

allusion to the first line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s

Multi-directional vectors throughout, the brush marks

celebrated essay, ‘Circles’. Less often remarked is that

tend to diverge from the steadier right to left progression

subsequently Emerson declares: ‘There are no fixtures in

that in the Little Images Krasner had identified with the

nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.’ 14 With both

Hebrew writing from her childhood.13 Instead they veer

Emerson and the ‘Umbers’ we are in the realms of

every which way, sometimes even suggesting defiant

becoming rather than being—a condition confirmed by

backhand slashes amid the tumult: impelled leftwards,

Cosmic Fragments (1962), which alludes outright to the

Moontide (1961) manages to chop back and forth with a

Greek philosopher Heraclitus for whom nobody could

bold staccato beat. Was Krasner now breaking free from

step twice into the same river.15

old ties, whether cultural or imagistic?

Emerson’s essay, harking back to the Biblical

Whatever, the recurrent arcs that twist into

Ecclesiastes, also alerts the reader to cycles in nature and

loops and almond-shaped eyes, as with Messenger and

human life: ‘every end is a beginning; that there is always

Fledgling (both 1959), or elsewhere spread into fan-like

another dawn risen on mid-noon’.16 Krasner’s titles—

slashing diagonals, evident in the teeming Polar Stampede

most coined by, or in collaboration with, the poet Howard

(1960), still retain a particular provenance: the Pollock of

and his partner Sandy Friedman 17—follow suit. Glacial

the tellingly titled Eyes in the Heat (1946) and his epochal

or desolate states epitomized in Cool White (1959) and





Charred Landscape (1960), the second betraying a curious

is, something broader and older than Carl Jung’s

give alternate vehemence and grace, immediacy and

and perhaps coincidental titular overlap with Arshile

archetypal codifications, apposite as they may be. Put

deliberation, to the psychological layers that must have

Gorky’s two versions of Charred Beloved (1946) [and

another way, Krasner’s process throughout the ‘Umbers’

attended Krasner’s very real-life coming to grips with

Morris Louis’s funereal ‘Charred Journals’ (1951),18 contend

seems tantamount to a nekyia—the ancient Greek term for

Pollock’s shadow.25

with rejuvenation, expressed by botanical or organic

necromancy (the supposed practice of communicating

How appropriate, therefore, is the very word

allusions, such as Siblings (1959), Fecundity (1960), Seeded

with the dead). In a nutshell, the I/eye witnesses a katabis,

‘umber’. Let the Oxford English Dictionary’s first and

(1960), Primeval Resurgence (1961) and Feathering (1959).

a descent into a dark place to summon and confront

second definitions suffice: ‘shade, shadow.’ Umber, which

These universal, myth-related themes are not special in

ghosts that is at least as venerable as Homer’s account

can be raw and burnt, ranks among humankind’s oldest


of Odysseus’s journey into Hades.22

known pigments (it occurs in the Stone Age Altamira and







Expressionism’s heyday. More occult is What Beast Shall

Nothing else explains those titles that construct

Lascaux caves 26 ). Umber or bistre shades as Krasner

I Adore? (1961) , which derives from the French visionary

a necromancer’s domain: Vigil (the wakefulness before

employed them—from the palest penumbral traces to rich

poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘A Season in Hell’ (1873).

spirits arise); Night Watch (albeit with a nod to Rembrandt’s

creamy impasto and emphatic near-black lines and masses

Rimbaud’s extended prose-poem—Krasner had scrawled

storied scene 23 ); Messenger (a specter is but an emissary

that act as fierce armatures—also hint at ageing, the darkness,

the line on her studio wall in the 1930s19—introduces a

from the beyond); Triple Goddess (which must invoke

fading and dimming that overcomes many material things

narrative angle since at core it portrays a rite de passage,

Hecate); traditionally represented as three-formed and long

in the course of time, ourselves included,27 as well as the

gravitating at the close to a change of seasons from

linked to necromancy and the moon); Entrance and Gate

ink in, say, ancient manuscripts such as Leonardo’s notes

Autumn to Spring. From a wider vantage point, this turn

(to and from the underworld); and What Beast Must I Adore?

and drawings. As such, browns connote matters spatially

to universalism meant that Krasner was moving against

(the toll exacted for an oracular summoning of the dead).

or temporally distant or psychologically inward. Think, for

the mood of the times, bringing ideological baggage from

Against this darkness nature performs its reparative,

instance, of the sepia tints in old photographs (no wonder

the 1940s into the American ‘culture of cool’ that had

life-giving task. Bloom, Fledgling, Siblings, Feathering

contemporary photo graphics software and digital cameras

burgeoned from around the mid-1950s onwards and

(note how these three gerunds signify an ongoing pulse)

often give an option to emulate this ‘antique’ look). Or

which would soon reach one of its apogees with the rise

and Double Helix countermand the morbid ‘charred’ and

remember the reddish-brown opening and closing scenes

of Pop. Such deliberate archaism injects a broody

‘gothic’ landscapes, not to mention the maelstrom at

in the film The Wizard of Oz (1939) meant to convey the

feistiness into her enterprise. 20

Ultima Thule, the frigid world’s end (Polar Stampede). 24

timebound old-fashioned Kansas world as opposed to the

In similar vein, Howard and Friedman collec-

Hellish seasons meet vernal renewals (Seeded, Fecundity,

fantastical fancy-free land of Oz, an effect recapitulated in

tively named the ‘Umbers’ ‘The Night Journeys’, which

Primeval Resurgence) so that all eventually circles back on

the otherwise remote sequences depicting the grainy spaces

Krasner approved. Again Pollock’s Jungianism looms: he

itself—as Emerson avowed—along the way, the title given

outside the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

characterized an early ceramic tondo where a fetus-like

to a vibrant 1961 Umber with interlocked rhythms. The

All these overtones chime with the primordial, somber

child is set forth onto a dark sea as ‘the story of my life.’ 21

beauty lies not in the extravagant literary overtones that a

cast to the ‘Umbers’—subjective reflections, as it were, in

Taken together, the various clues establish a topos. That

close reading of the Umbers may prompt but in how they

a nocturnal eye.


Cobalt Night, 1962 oil on canvas 93 1/2 x 161 3/8 inches 237.5 x 409.9 cm Provenance Robert Miller Gallery, New York Lila Acheson Wallace, Mount Kisco, New York Washington, D.C.,National Gallery of Art, gift of the above, 1984 Exhibitions New York, Howard Wise Gallery, New Work by Lee Krasner, March 6 – 30 1962, no. 12. London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; York, City Art Gallery; Hull, Ferens Art Gallery; Nottingham, Victoria Street Gallery; Manchester, City Art Gallery and Cardiff, Arts Council Gallery, Lee Krasner, Paintings, Drawings, and Collages, September 1965 – October 1966. Tuscaloosa, University Art Gallery, University of Alabama, Paintings by Lee Krasner, February – March 1967, no. 7. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, November 13 1973 – January 6 1974. Houston, Museum of Fine Arts; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Norfolk, Chrysler Museum; Phoenix Art Museum and New York, Museum of Modern Art, Lee Krasner: A Retrospective, November 28 1983 – February 2 1985. Literature B.H. Friedman, Lee Krasner, Paintings, Drawings, and Collages, exh. cat., London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1965, pp. 15 and 24, no. 56 (illustrated and erroneously identified as Another Storm). L. Campbell, “Of Lilith and Lettuce,” ARTnews, March 1968, p. 61. M. Tucker, Lee Krasner: Large Paintings, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1973, pp. 15, 27 and 36, no. 8 (illustrated and erroneously identified as Another Storm). C. Nemser, “A Conversation with Lee Krasner,” Arts Magazine, April 1973, p. 47. C. Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists, New York, 1975, p. 101. E. Munro, “Krasner in the Sixties: Free for the Big Gesture,” Art/World, 16 February / 16 March 1979, p. 6. E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 1979, pp. 117 and 520. R. Hughes, “Bursting Out of the Shadows,” Time, 14 November 1983, pp. 92 and 93 (illustrated in color). T. Albright, “Krasner: Energy Rather Than Power,” Review, 26 February 1984, p. 13. M. Vetrocq, “An Independent Track: Lee Krasner,” Art in America, May 1984, p. 142 (illustrated in color). M. Brenson, “Lee Krasner Pollock Is Dead; Painter of New York School,” The New York Times, 21 June 1984, p. D23. J. Strick, Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture: Selections for the Tenth Anniversary of the East Building, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1989, pp. 96 and 97 (illustrated in color). National Gallery of Art, ed., American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1992, p. 222 (illustrated). E.G. Landau, Lee Krasner: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1995, pp. 104, 182, 195 - 196, 198 and 321, cat. no. 366 (illustrated in color). Dialogue: Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, 2005, n.p.


20. Portrait of Lee Krasner by Halley Erskine,1959. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, ca.1914 - 1984, bulk 1942 - 1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


WITH BARBARA NOVAK The following text is reproduced from the transcript of an unaired interview videotaped in October, 1979, for WGBH New Television Workshop, Boston, Massachusetts. It has been lightly edited for length. The original unedited transcript can be obtained from the Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, ca. 1914 -1984, bulk 1942 -1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The videotaped interview resides in the archives of WGBH, Boston. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Barbara Novak.

BARBARA NOVAK Lee, what kind of a child were you? LEE KRASNER Oh, what a question to start with. I don’t

think I ever was a child. Now what do you mean; zero in a little bit.

time into a language I didn’t know […] if they didn’t want me to understand it, they just spoke in another language. BN You spoke English only?

BN —tell us how your parents came from Odessa—

LK And a little bit of Yiddish […] I went to Hebrew

LK Or someplace nearby.

school at about five, so I start to write, but I don’t understand what it is; I can’t transpose.

BN And [in Odessa your father had] worked for a rabbi— LK Right. BN And your mother followed your father [to the

United States]—

BN Now that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about, because my understanding is that you paint from right to left. LK So Marcia Tucker during the Whitney Show pointed

LK Correct.

out to me, that I started canvases that way.

BN And you were born thereafter, right? And you were

BN You weren’t conscious?

one of six or seven children— LK Right, and I’m the first born here, and then a sister,

Ruth, follows me, and that’s it for the family. BN And you spoke a lot of languages— LK Well, the household had Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, and English. So anybody could cut off at any given

LK Totally unaware—she brings this out, which is a

fabulous insight for me. I wasn’t aware at all. BN Well, that’s why I was interested because does that very naturally go back to that early Hebrew training? LK Undoubtedly, it must. I can find no other source

or basis for this. Also, I think my preoccupation with


calligraphy, not necessarily in traditional form [...] So that a painting that I did in the seventies called Kufic, which is ancient Arabic—I titled Kufic because it is a form of calligraphy. BN Then you were interested in writing at a very early age, probably even before you knew you were interested in writing. LK I would have to add it up that way. BN Now your family had worked for a rabbi, right? And it was an Orthodox home that you were growing up in? LK Oh I certainly did, it was like I had to say my

morning prayer on getting up, in Hebrew, so I never understood; and late in life, quite late in life, I read a translation of this prayer that I had been saying all of my life, or from the beginning of my life. It’s fascinating, for it is a beautiful prayer: “Thank you, O Lord, for light and for beauty”, etc. And the closing line, it said, if you are a male you say: “Thank you, O Lord, for creating me in your image.” If you are a female you say: “ Thank you,


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