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United States of America 1908 – 1984

Cool white 1959 New York, United States of America
paintings, oil on canvas
Technique: oil on canvas
Primary Insc: signed and dated l.r., brown oil, "Lee Krasner '59"
182.5 h x 290.0 w cm
Purchased 1978
Accession No: NGA 78.161
© Lee Krasner/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • with Howard Wise Gallery, New York, in 1960;
  • with David Gibbs and Co., London, in 1965;
  • with Robert Miller Gallery, New York, in 1977;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, March 1978
  • A canvas of human height gave Lee Krasner a big space for very physical and expressive brushstrokes, and a complex and dynamic composition. Creamy, off-white brushstrokes generally describe shapes, and rough brown ones mostly define edges and suggest gaps, with occasional flashes of grey and a brighter brown for relief. Repeated long thin shapes, and circles and triangles create unifying echoes across the canvas and suggest figures, limbs, breasts, faces and eyes—perhaps even a mother and child—within a Cubist–derived space. Any coolness in the white is more than offset by the heated intensity of the gashes, dribbles and flurries of paint.

    Even for the three years after Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956 Krasner continued to paint in lyrical colours (though often in tears while doing so). From 1959 to 1962 she embarked on what are called her umber series (umber is a natural brown earth pigment), night journeys or psychoanalytical paintings. Disturbed by her mother’s death in 1959, by problems with the Pollock estate and by the cancellation of a planned exhibition, she was unable to sleep and painted at night—hence her use of umber rather than brighter colours for which she needed daylight.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • In contrast to earlier works which had established Krasner's reputation as a colourist, Cool white, together with the other paintings shown at the Howard Wise Gallery in 1960, is painted with a sombre palette restricted to umber and white. It was a difficult time for the artist-still coping with the grief of Jackson Pollock's death and having difficulties with the Pollock Estate. In addition to this, her mother died in 1959 and an exhibition scheduled by Clement Greenberg for French and Company had been cancelled.1 Of the sombre paintings of 1959 Krasner recalled: 'I painted a great many of them because I couldn't sleep nights. I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead. And I realized that if I was going to work at night I would have to knock out color altogether, because I couldn't deal with color except in daylight'.2

    If the colour of these paintings was sombre, their execution was anything but subdued. As Barbara Rose has written: 'No grid of compartments confines the raging energies that animate the brush loaded with thick paint, now slapped or dragged across the canvas, leaving a trail of flaring drips and sputtering comet-like flashes of paint. The allover images and glazed transparencies of these works suggest wind-whipped storms or glacial events.'3

    The group of umber and white paintings were begun in 1959 in East Hampton, where Cool white was painted, and concluded in 1962 in New York. Sandy Friedman and Richard Howard assisted Krasner in choosing many of the titles for this group of works.4

    Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.298.

    1. Cindy Nemser, 'A Conversation with Lee Krasner', Arts Magazine, vol 47, no 6, April 1973, pp43-8
    2. Richard Howard, 'A Conversation with Lee Krasner', in Lee Krasner Paintings 1959-1962 New York: Pace Gallery, 1979 (exhibition catalogue), n p.
    3. Barbara Rose, Lee Krasner A Retrospective, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1983 (exhibition catalogue), p.122.
    4. Howard, op cit.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010