09 December 2019

Long before Lee Krasner met Jackson Pollock, she shared an apartment with her partner Igor Pantuhoff in a rugged area of Chelsea. On their former rooftop you can still feel a strong connection to the artist.

By Natalie Wichmann

It’s a surprisingly cold and gray May morning – people are still wearing scarfs and jackets – as I make my way down 14th Street to find the building where Lee Krasner lived with her then partner Igor Pantuhoff in the mid-1930s, and were she painted “Fourteenth Street” from the rooftop in 1934.

Lee and Igor met at the Academy of Design in 1929. He was the young Russian golden boy interested in the avant-garde and she was a fascinating, self-sufficient woman trying to free herself from her rigid Jewish upbringing to find a way into the New York art world. Their relationship began hot and heavy, they moved in together in 1930 and spent more than a decade as partners. They never got married, though, probably because Pantuhoff’s family didn’t approve of Lee’s Jewish heritage. During their time together money was scarce, as for most artists in the 1930s, so they moved into 213 W 14th Street because it was relatively cheap.

Photo: Natalie Wichmann

Even today this area of Chelsea feels a little more rugged with vape shops, dive bars, and run-down cafes – the opposing four-story walls of an empty lot show two rivaling old school breakdance crews by famous street art twins Osgemeos. When I finally arrive, I find a flower shop on the ground floor of the building. Maybe they can help me get onto the roof? Since, they’re only renting the place, they tell me to reach out to the landlord and I’m in luck he just arrived outside taking care of some reparations on the front of the house. After explaining my project, he agrees to let me take some pictures from the roof. He seems genuinely excited, his mother was a painter, as well, and has painted the same view from the top of the building many times.

“Fourteenth Street” is an almost Hopper-esk city scene and typical for Lee’s very early more realistic work. She painted it before she went to study with Hans Hofmann, before she was influenced by the modernists, and before she saw Picasso’s “Guernica”. While she was more and more committed to contemporary art, Pantuhoff’s interest in modernism waned and he focused on a career as a portrait painter. Although she was slowly steering away from him, she was still stunned when he suddenly ran off to Florida in 1939 to live with his parents after a decade of making their lives together. In the end, Pantuhoff became a portrait painter meets gigolo for the lonely women of the South and Lee became one of the most forward-thinking abstract artists of her time.

As we finally reach the roof, I feel a strange connectedness with Lee for the first time. Over 80 years ago, she was here, standing where I’m standing right now, only with an easel, a paint brush, a canvas, and some oil paints instead of pen and paper and a cell phone. The view might have been slightly different, but looking at “Fourteenth Street” you can still see the same kind of elements: the roof exhaustion pipes, the skylights that look like small saddle roofs, the water tanks on buildings nearby, and the omnipresent burnt brick that is typical for the older buildings in Lower Manhattan.