The default assumption about Abstract Expressionism is that it was overwhelmingly white, straight and male. The Jewish Museum sets out to complicate that picture by revisiting the careers of Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, artists who were female and African-American, respectively. The show is worth a visit even if its premise is bogged down by identity politics’ propensity to reduce individuals to categories—here, gender and race.
Society does much the same thing, though an exhibition title like “From the Margins” buys into these cultural prejudices more than it explodes them. AbEx was a broader and more diverse phenomenon than we allow but not because of what the people involved happened to be but rather because of who they were—in this instance, artists rooted in European modernism, trying to find their way within a postwar order that had fallen into America’s lap.
Their styles are well matched, with compositions both dense and finely rendered. There’s no attacking the canvas, à la Pollock and De Kooning, no swallowing the viewer in overweening gestalt à la Rothko and Newman. Yet Krasner’s and Lewis’s efforts were just as vital, and the opportunity to see their work provides a necessary correction to the standard historical narrative.
Pollock’s wife, Krasner, was interested in the power of language. While a few of her works resemble Pollock’s drips in miniature, her paintings are mostly patterned with glyphs that, however indecipherable, boil written meaning down to an abstract presence.
Lewis, meanwhile, shared Pollock’s initial interest in Picasso. His paintings essentially transform Cubist still life into all-over compositions. Cerebral and self-contained, these works seem less concerned with making grand statements than in articulating a personal vision.
In the end, shows like this one are welcome. But Krasner and Lewis can stand on their own without the ideological framework.—Howard Halle