19 December 2019

It took some years until Lee Krasner earned her well-deserved attention. But then she received a huge commission for a mural in Manhattan.

By Natalie Wichmann

Today I take the subway all the way downtown to the south tip of Manhattan to find the last remaining murals of Lee Krasner in New York. Jackson Pollock died unexpectedly 1956 in a car crash, together with his mistress Ruth Kligman who survived. This was a huge shock for Lee and changed the course of her life. As the sole heir to his paintings, she was once again left with caring for Jackson’s belongings, overseeing his estate and trying to place his works in shows and private collections. But she also started to use his former studio, the barn in Springs, to work on large scale projects herself. Finally, after years of struggling, she earned some critical recognition for her work, though, enough attention to get a huge commission by Bob Friedman and Uris Brothers.

As I exit the subway at Bowling Green, I walk by the National Archives at New York City building and straight ahead to 2 Broadway. The 20m wide and 3.6m high mosaic mural should be right above the front entrance, but I can’t see it. On a second look, it peeps out behind scaffolding and a green wooden construction fence. The light green, bright blue, muted red, and black pieces of glass are formed into large spiked, shard-like shapes. Though the mural is almost completely blocked from sight; it is none the less impressive in scale.  

Bob Friedman, then VP of the Uris Brothers real estate company was in love with a mosaic table Lee made 1947 in Springs with left over glass tesserae from another project. When the architects Emery Roth & Sons suggested to include mosaics above the entrance and in the back of the Uris Brother’s corporate headquarters built in 1958-59, he insisted on commissioning these murals from Lee Krasner. And Lee brought her nephew Ronald Stein into the project, he was the only one of her relatives that found his way into the arts, as well. Together they decided not to, as was conventional, cut the glass plates into uniform squares, but rather to break them free form. This would allow for a less rigid look and make the mural more abstract.

In hoping to get a better look on the mural in the back, facing Broad Street, I round the large 32-story tower only to find that a pergola is blocking the view and the entrance is closed for a private event. Hating the idea of being defeated, I enter Marketfield Street, a small back alley, to try and get a sideways look at the mosaic. There is some major construction going on here, as well, and the whole street is covered with scaffolding, blocking the view, but making it easy to climb up a little and get a glimpse of the piece over the construction fence. Lee first got into making murals at the WPA’s Federal Art Project where she started working right after its founding in 1935. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was designed to employ artists to create pieces for public buildings during the great depression, helping over 10,000 artists during that time. The project was divided into an easel and a mural division, Lee was assigned to the latter. Though the art requested from the buildings wasn’t her style, she was grateful for the work. Most of the time she finished mural designs by other artists, blew them up from a small sketch and implemented them on site. It’s here were she learned to work on a large scale – long before she met Jackson Pollock.

Lee Krasner and Ronald Stein, mosaic murals, 1959; 2 Broadway, Photo: Elizabeth Felicella, Image via craftcouncil.org

The colors of the murals in the back are similar to the front: muted red, light green, black, and blue, but also adding a large amount of orange, that makes it livelier. The abstract, shard-like shapes remind me of Matisse’s abstracts and cut outs, which she has surely seen at MoMA’s Matisse retrospective in 1951, since he was her favorite painter of all time. Suddenly, there is a loud bang coming from the far end of the alley like someone slams a door shut, I haven’t been paying attention to my surroundings while balancing on the first bar of the scaffolding. I jump down and quickly make my way back to Broad Street, as a car comes out of nowhere, splashing through a puddle, and speeding off. Seems like I accidentally busted some sort of [drug] deal. Well, the things we do for art, right?