Lee Krasner's Mural Studies on View at Kasmin Gallery

Inspiration in gouache on paper
Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, N.Y.

Inhabiting a time and place rich in artistic crosscurrents and cross-pollination, Lee Krasner apparently always sought a unique vision, but one distilled from the radical advances in abstraction of her avant-garde peers and predecessors.

Since picking up representation of the Springs artist’s estate from the Robert Miller Gallery, which ended its four-decade run with a show of her work, the Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea has continued the tradition of presenting Krasner’s works in a revelatory and scholarly way.

Through Oct. 27, the gallery is showing eight “Mural Studies,” a series of gouache-on-paper preparatory drawings that she worked on for an unfinished Works Progress Administration mural project she took over from Willem de Kooning that was never completed. 

The relatively small works, each about 17 by 22 inches, have a big heart and soul. They alternate between the hard lines of geometric and the undulating forms of biomorphic abstraction, often in the same composition. There is a bit of everything and everyone here from early modernism: Arp, Miro, Kandinsky, Picasso, Hofmann, and so on. But what is also clear is that there is a whole lot of Krasner in there as well, taking what she wants from these mentors and influences, adding a bit, and leaving the rest. 

The fact that these works come from a time period that might be termed “pre-history,” or B.P. (Before Pollock), makes them special in their relative lack of context. How refreshing not to have to look at them and question where they fit in with the work he was doing or whatever she might be working through in the years after his death.

Instead, the gallery points to de Kooning’s interest in Leger, with whom he had worked on a mural, and in Ben Nicholson, a British abstract painter, at the time that he started doing his own preparatory work. (De Kooning was removed from the project when it was discovered he was not a United States citizen. He became one in 1962.)

It was also a period when Krasner fully embraced nonobjective art and started to bring a rhythmic gestural fluidity to some of it. The viewer can witness the tension between the tidy structure of some compositions and its breakdown into a looser, more expressive style.

Although small and hung individually, with plenty of wall space or “eye wash” between them, the works manage to fill the room with life and a pleasant positive energy. There is a pre-World War II, post-Great Depression optimism in these compositions, a feeling of lightness and possibility. Not to read too much into them, but they seem to hint that artists may have found some validation and self-worth in the government’s support of them during an otherwise desperate time.

At times, you can feel Krasner letting herself go, and those works’ pretty exuberance is infectious. Each one bears markings of a cutout space in its design to make room for what could be a door and a window on the wall that was intended for the mural. That accounting for the negative space in the overall design offers a way into her process as an artist and a sense of the challenges in general that those W.P.A. artists faced in bending their inspiration to the architecture available to them.

Speaking of architecture, yesterday Kasmin opened a new flagship space near its other galleries, which are grouped on the corner of 10th Avenue and 27th Street. The new building, its fourth space, will feature a roof sculpture garden that can be seen from the High Line, with work by Joel Shapiro and an interior space that will show paintings by Walton Ford.

Eight of Lee Krasner’s untitled mural studies are on view at the Kasmin Gallery in Manhattan. Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, N.Y.