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Lee Krasner Paints Gansevoort Street

Although she is best known for her Abstract Expressionist paintings, Lee Krasner never ceased to transform her artistic style throughout her career. Born in 1908 to Russian Jewish parents, Krasner began receiving recognition for her artwork when she was just a teenager. She studied at Cooper Union and later at the National Academy of Design. To support herself during college, she waited tables at a Greenwich Village nightclub called Sam Johnson’s, where she met many of her future friends and peers in the Abstract Expressionist movement. From that point forward, the Village became a critical part of Krasner’s life and work.  

Krasner in her studio.

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established to help Americans find jobs in the wake of the Great Depression. Lee was hired by the Federal Art Project (FAP), along with many other artists, to paint public murals. Krasner lived in Greenwich Village throughout her time with the WPA, and continued to socialize with artists whose work departed from the social realism that dominated 1930s American art. They were instead experimenting with completely abstracted forms and novel methods of paint application, inspired by early twentieth century European artists like Vassily Kandinsky. These artists included Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Krasner’s future husband, Jackson Pollock, whom she would later support as he hurtled into turbulent superstardom. 

In 1934, while working on her first murals for the WPA, Krasner produced a separate painting unlike any of her other works. Gansevoort Number 1 is believed to be the view from her apartment. The painting carefully highlights each individual cobblestone on Gansevoort Street leading up to the Hudson Pier. Krasner painted one of her murals on the pier, though unfortunately it no longer exists. Perhaps appropriately, what can today be found at this site is the Whitney Museum, which was then just a small collection on 8th Street. The Whitney now holds a number of Krasner’s works in its collection, and is now the preeminent institution (and the first) devoted to the art of the United States.

Gansevoort, Number 1, 1934. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The surprising realism of Gansevoort, Number 1 demonstrates just how technical Krasner could be. Even in her later push toward abstraction with the influence of mentor Hans Hoffmann and other artists, Krasner’s work would maintain motifs rooted in concrete representation that her peers did not share. One of the things that she was most committed to was experimentation. Just a year later she would recreate the painting from the same vantage point but with dramatic, flattened planes of color, all of the architecture simplified with hard edges.

Gansevoort II, 1935. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York; Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Two of Lee Krasner’s art works still exist in situ in New York: a pair of large mosaics adorning the entrance of 2 Broadway in the Financial District. They were commissioned in 1958 by Bob Friedman, vice president of the real estate company Uris Brothers, after he saw her WPA murals.

2 Broadway Murals, 1959.

To learn more about artists and the history of the WPA in Greenwich Village, check out our New York School of Artists and Writers Tour, as well as our other blog posts on the WPA

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