More Than Mrs. Pollock

Those of us who subjected our poor little bottoms to the Ed Harris flick Pollock—about the brutish genius of Jack the Dripper—know a lot about Pollock's injured wife, Lee Krasner. We know she was an alternately coddling and nagging mama hen to the drunken lout. We know she ditched her own promising art career in order to better live through his reflected, inarticulate glory. We know she was a feminist, kinda, at least at first (but then there was that whole part about giving up her career to cook his eggs, which pretty much negates the “feminist” thang). And we know Marcia Gay Harden got a big shiny Oscar for playing the shrill, conflicted Krasner.

Of course, there were no shiny awards for Krasner: no one paid the slightest attention to her works as long as Jackson Pollock was lurching around. His was dumb “genius”; hers, overintellectualized striving. She had the conceptual underpinnings for their work down cold, but he was so tragic and Byronic. Big dumb mook.

Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum shows “The Hampton Krasners” (the paintings come from the museum's Gordon F. Hampton collection) without even a mention of Jackson Pollock. That is classier by far than bringing him into every mention of Krasner's career, as I do. It's also good feminism: they're particular and conscientious about showing her in her own light rather than in his dubious reflected radiance. Krasner, especially following the release of the film—which I can only describe as “poisonous”; these were not the kind of folk to invite over to play pinochle—is enjoying a belated renaissance of interest in her work, similar to (but on an infinitely smaller scale than) those enjoyed by other art chicks with famous menfolk, like Frida Kahlo or Tina Modotti. The question remains just how much acclaim Krasner deserved for her own bad self. The answer is: eh, just as much as anyone else, I suppose.

The dark, gray walls of the University Art Museum make Krasner's paintings pop; it's actually exciting to see them there, where one's echoing footsteps are the only sound. There are several ugly pieces, as there should be; “not ugly” was not a concern of Abstract Expressionists. Most of these are brown and thickly scumbled so the paint rises half a gooey inch from the canvas. They look precisely as though they were smeared with shit.

But other pieces are pretty, which is even more problematic for the Abstract Expressionist enthusiast than ugly is for the rest of us. Memory of Love, for instance, is a large cream canvas with two shades of blue—cerulean and teal—swirling through each other. Heart-shaped thoraxes could be the bodies of violins. Krasner painted sparingly, with an almost dry brush, leaving chalky wisps of lovely color. And that's probably what has kept her a footnote. The 1940s, '50s and '60s were not about feminine color swirling about. They were canvases of black, red and lint-duct gray. They were industrial, mannish and bruisingly intellectual. There was no room for sentimental titles or pretty shades of blue. And though Abstract Expressionism sought to convey emotion through just the use of color, it was unfailingly an unpleasant emotion that was sought.

Untitled (Still Life) from 1942 owes a lot to Kandinsky and Braque; it's as similar as a student at the Met trying to copy a painting—and as lacking in refinement. But its colors—teal, red and chartreuse—manage to be both feminine and as jarring as the Russian Constructivists' purposefully unaesthetic aesthetic. Stretched Yellow acts as the large room's centerpiece. Blocky ocher shapes are stretched vertically. Thick black holes seem to be torn completely from the canvas. A primary blue slashes through the canvas as though showing a second layer underneath. It's good and masculine, its lines interestingly geometric, its color use pure and visceral. It should have taken her places, but there was that whole “Pollock” thing with which to contend. That and the fact that she gave up her career to scramble his eggs. Pity.

Gay Outlaw's “Centric 61” in the adjacent galleries is absolutely delightful. The San Francisco artist (it's her real name) creates sculptures out of pencils and pieces of rubber hose, all cut on the diagonal. Pencil Wave, for instance, comprises dozens of colored pencils carved down on the sides so their lead is exposed. They're then glued painstakingly into position. The trajectory of the diagonal is such that it seems like a Star Trek special effect: the molten color seems to move forward in time and space like a transporter beam.

She goes on like that, crafting pencils into sticky honeycombs and mounting them like butterflies on pins. They're arresting. She culminates with Black Hose Mountain, rippling with a rubber hose filled with white plaster, undulating up to 10 feet high. It's a wonderful combination of what can only be meth-fueled obsessiveness and abstracted realism. It's a treat.

“The Hampton Krasners” and “Gay Outlaw: Centric 61” at Cal State Long Beach, University Art Museum, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761. Open Tues.-Thurs., noon-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Through Dec. 16.

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