Revisiting ‘Pollock’ and ‘Big Eyes’ reminds us of groundbreaking artists

Lee Krasner’s 1961 painting “What Beast Must I Adore?” was part of her Umber Series, painted in brown and neutral tones and with aggressive strokes during a period of insomnia following the death of her mother. The title comes from an Arthur Rimbaud poem that she had quoted in crayon on the wall of her studio: “To whom shall I hire myself out? / What beast must I adore?” it begins. The quote implies the necessity for an artist to belong to others (either people or forces), but it also implies that the artist maintains a certain level of control: she can at least choose what she will give herself to.

Krasner was a formidable figure in the New York City art scene, and she was an active partner in Jackson Pollock’s life. And although she put her own career largely on hold while married to him, Krasner went on to continue painting and winning accolades for decades after their marriage. She maintained a certain level of control of her own career, even as she devoted herself to others.

Pollock, the 2001 biopic—directed by (and starring) Ed Harris and written by Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller and based on a book by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith—is as much about Krasner as it is about its title character.

In 2004, FF2’s Jan Huttner interviewed Pollock screenwriter Barbara Turner (who also co-wrote the screenplay for The Company). Originally an actress, Turner became a writer when her screenplays Deathwatch and Petulia sold very successfully. When asked about the role transition from actress to writer, Turner was pleased: “The best part of writing is that you get to play all the parts, and nobody can tell you that you’re doing it wrong!”

Turner describes the experience of researching Pollock and Krasner when she was interviewing to write the movie. “I fell in love with him. And I fell in love with Lee,” she said.

Played by Marcia Gay Harden, the movie’s interpretation of Krasner is highly competent, professionally and socially. She’s an accomplished painter on her own in the studio, but she can also thrive in the grueling social scene of the art world. Her ability to connect with people and advocate for herself and her loved ones contrasts Pollock, who often deliberately sabotages himself at important social events, or procrastinates commissions or meetings.

Krasner’s character in this film suggests a different way we can imagine an artist: alongside Pollock’s erratic genius, Krasner is steadier and more thoughtful. Her character suggests that an artist doesn’t have to be self-centered and demanding to have groundbreaking genius.

Lee Kasner’s “Icarus” (© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Kasmin Gallery/Diego Flores)

Krasner grew up in Brooklyn, a child of Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrants. She studied art in several institutions over the years, including the Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, and painter Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Arts. In the 1930s, she worked in the Mural Division under the Works Progress Administration. She worked as an advocate for artists, part of the Artists’ Union and American Abstract Artists.

In an oral history interview with American Abstract Artists in 1961, Krasner described an artistic relationship with her husband that was more mutually supportive than the biopic would suggest. “Certainly a great deal happened to me when I saw the Pollock [paintings],” she said. “Now Pollock saw my work too – I couldn’t measure what effect it had on him. […] When he did talk it was extremely pointed and meaningful and I understood what he meant. Naturally he was seeing my work as I certainly saw his.” (The whole series is wonderful, and you can listen to it here.)

All this is not to say it doesn’t hurt to watch Krasner in Pollock devoting her own creative energy to get Pollock out of bed every day. It also hurts to watch Peggy Guggenheim dismiss her work when she accidentally steps into Krasner’s studio, complaining, “Who the hell is LK, I didn’t come here to look at LK.” Or to hear Pollock remark, on seeing Krasner’s work for the first time: “You’re a damn good woman painter.” But Krasner carved out her career within and against that world, and she was very successful.

Margaret Keane’s “Home Alone” (Keane Eyes Gallery).

Starting in the 1950s, Krasner entered a new era with her work, where she began ripping up earlier work and re-assembling it. “Why does my image keep changing as against so many of my contemporaries who seem fixed on an image?” she asks herself in her oral history interview. “I don’t know. I’m in no position to answer that question. I can merely observe it.”

In 1978, her work was part of the exhibition Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years along with Pollock and others such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Her work is on display today at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

Margaret Keane is known for her “waif paintings,” characterized by their large, dark, moist eyes. The massive round voids make the work very recognizable and tend to elicit strong responses in viewers. Some people find them moving. Some find them disturbing, including Tim Burton, who was inspired by them to make the movie Big Eyes, which tells Keane’s incredible story.

Big Eyes portrays how Margaret Keane’s work was attributed for many years to her husband, Walter Keane. When Margaret started to paint her big-eyed waifs, Walter recognized their potential, and start to sell them as his own. 

Unlike Lee Krasner, Margaret Keane was not at all comfortable with the social dynamics involved in building an art career. She said in an interview with Life Magazine that when Walter would go to sell the paintings at a night club in San Francisco, she was happy to stay home and paint for as many as sixteen hours a day. “It suited me fine,” she said. “I was extremely timid and shy.”

This setup made it possible for Walter to pass off the paintings of his own without Margaret’s knowledge until it was too late. His career depended on this lie, and he pressured and, later, threatened Margaret into silence.

Jan Huttner commented on Margaret Keane’s story in her review of Big Eyes when it was first released:

I am sure that Margaret Keane never thought of herself as a “Feminist,” and even today, at the age of 87, she still might reject that label. But the more you know about the early 1960s—about Betty Friedan and “The Problem That Has No Name,” Audrey Hepburn as the gamine Holly Golightly, etc, etc, etc—the more you will see in Big Eyes, and the more you will understand about how the choices some women made in the 1960s provided the foundation for who we are today.

Amy Adams plays Margaret in the biopic, and her sensitive, earnest demeanor is a perfect accompaniment to the imploring sadness of Keane’s work. The painter and the actress who played her appeared together for an interview with the New York Times in 2014. “Looking back, how could I have been so stupid?” Margaret asked. “You weren’t stupid,” Amy Adams replied. “It was just something that happened, you became complicit in it, and there was that living within that dynamic.”

After divorcing Walter in 1965, Margaret Keane started to speak out and demand the rights to her own paintings. In a court-ordered “paint off” decades later, which Walter refused to attend, Margaret painted one of her signature children live and won the legal rights to her work once and for all.

Margaret Keane’s relationship with the mid-century American art world was very different from Krasner’s. Critics often dismissed the waif paintings as “kitsch,” most sharply in the New York Times critic’s response to her famous mural of many children for UNICEF.

Yet Keane’s work has made her one of the most successful living artists in the world starting in the early 1960s. Margaret Keane is still painting today, and the largest collection of her work is on view in her gallery in San Francisco.

© Amelie Lasker (5/20/20) FF2 Media

Lee Kasner in her studio (Financial Times)

Featured Photo: Amy Adams and Margaret Keane (by Sam Comen for the New York Times)

FF2 Bonus Content:

Reviews of Pollock and Big Eyes.

Interview with Barbara Turner.

Jan Huttner’s commentary on Big Eyes and the Male Gaze.

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Amelie Lasker
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Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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