Ornament and Obsolescence: Lee Krasner’s Mosaics for Wall Street

Speaker: Dr Emily Warner (Postdoctoral Researcher, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Photograph of outside of building and road i Lee Krasner and Ronald Stein, mural for 2 Broadway, 1959

In 1959, Lee Krasner completed her first mural, an 86-foot-long mosaic stretching over the entrance to 2 Broadway, a new glass and aluminum office building near Wall Street. The mural drew on various elements of Krasner’s artistic practice, including earlier mural designs, experiments with mosaic in the 1940s, and recent collages. But it also spoke to an emerging sensibility about the postwar city, and the need for a visual language that would alleviate its worst tendencies. Against the building’s rectilinearity—the right angles, boxed massing, and gridded surface—the mural offered an explosion of swooping forms, splintered tiles, and craggy edges. Against the building’s drab palette, the mural unfurled a ribbon of high-saturation color. And against the seeming lightness and ephemerality of the glass-walled structure, the mosaic offered an obdurate and flinty surface, laced with cement mortar—a reference, more than one critic suggested, to the textured and ornamented Victorian building that had stood on the site until its demolition two years before. Considering Krasner’s mural, murals by her Abstract Expressionist peers, and the postwar mosaic revival, this talk examines the period desire to see abstraction as a form of warmth and humanism in an age of corporate rigidity and mindless speculative growth. It considers why abstract murals became such a popular choice for speculative office towers (and other buildings) in the 1950s and ’60s, and explores their relationship to issues of ornament, communication, and public relations. Following the talk there will be a drinks reception. 

Emily Warner is a historian of American art. Her work has been published in Archives of American Art Journal and by the Tate, among others, and supported by fellowships from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Dedalus Foundation, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is presently completing a manuscript entitled Abstraction Unframed: Abstract Murals at Midcentury. In Spring 2020, she will be Tyson Postdoctoral Scholar at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. 

Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)