When Helen Harrison became director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in 1990, the former home of artists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner had no endowment, no air conditioning, and no national landmark status. Today, as Harrison prepares to retire on January 17, she leaves the historic Hamptons property with all of that and more.
“It’s a very special place,” she said. “When you go to a traditional museum, you see the artwork isolated from the environment in which it was created. You can observe it within the context of other artworks from the period, but you don’t get a sense of what it feels like to actually be in the artist’s environment, because it’s somewhat divorced from its creator.”
The Pollock-Krasner House provides intimate insight into the lives and work of two eminent abstract expressionists who gave rise to the illustrious art community of eastern Long Island.
Although the property only houses one original piece – an early Pollock – its very walls and floorboards are imbued with both artists’ legacies. Nearly every square foot of the studio is graced with old strokes or splatters of paint that extended beyond the edges of canvases now hung in museums across the world. These markings pinpoint the precise locations where Pollock and Krasner created many of their most famous paintings.
In 2019, Harrison used these fragments of paint to develop a virtual reality experience that places three paintings from each artist in the areas where the works were brought to life. Pollock would put his canvases on the floor while Krasner, who began using her husband’s studio in 1957 after he passed away, tacked her canvases to the wall. At one point, she covered her stray paint with a layer of white – but according to Harrison, the shrouded markings are still visible, contrasting with the vibrant ones on the surface of the haze.
While the Pollock-Krasner House serves as a museum, an educational resource for students and a venue for special events, the Study Center in the Stony Brook Southampton Library is a hub for art-related research. Opened under Harrison’s leadership in 2009, it contains extensive physical archives documenting modern American art with an emphasis on the eastern Long Island community.
Harrison – an esteemed art historian with experience as a curator, critic, journalist and sculptor – hopes the Study Center will continue to expand and evolve in the coming years. The Pollock-Krasner House, however, is all about preservation.
“It’s not palatial and it’s not a fancy environment,” she said of the property, located in Springs, a hamlet four miles north of the Village of East Hampton. “But it has beautiful natural surroundings and a certain level of isolation so that people can concentrate. When other artists come here, I find it very interesting because many of them are inspired by the surroundings the same way that Jackson and Lee were.”
The site is open to the public from May through October, with guided tours held Thursdays, Fridays and weekends. Harrison kicks them off at Accabonac Creek and leads guests toward the house on foot so they can soak in the natural idyll that attracted Pollock and Krasner in the first place.
“This was not an art colony that the couple simply moved into,” Harrison said. “They really established the Springs as a destination for artists. It’s still a very active art colony today, but they were the first ones.”
After buying their property in 1946, Pollock and Krasner would invite fellow artists and friends over for the occasional visit. Soon enough, more and more of these friends became their neighbors.
At the Pollock-Krasner House itself, Harrison welcomes visitors into the studio on the North side of the home, where photographs and text panels expounding the lives and work of both artists accompany the storied walls and floorboards. The experience concludes with a tour of the house’s living quarters, furnished exactly as Krasner left them when she died in 1984.
Thanks to Harrison’s dedication, the site has come a long way since she took the reins in 1990. Her predecessor Meg Perlman had prepared the once-private property for public use and exposed Pollock’s painted floorboards beneath a Masonite covering, which “really made it a unique attraction,” said Harrison, a curator at Guild Hall Museum at the time. When Perlman called her up and extended the opportunity to steward the Pollock-Krasner House, the invitation came with a warning – the house had no endowment from Krasner’s foundation and fundraising would be difficult.
Harrison accepted the challenge head-on. By 1994, she’d successfully registered the site as a National Historic Landmark, solidifying it as a place of incredible value to American culture and opening the door for new avenues of funding. Less than 10 years later, her efforts landed the house a Save America’s Treasures Grant that enabled the installation of climate control and fire suppression systems.
“Stony Brook Foundation members, the university administration, donors, and people on the outside who are interested in this have all been enormously helpful,” she said. “Working with them has been a real pleasure.”
“Helen Harrison’s undertakings for Stony Brook University and the Department of Art have gone far beyond her duties as Director of the Pollock Krasner House and Study Center,” said former Interim Chair and Professor, Affiliated Faculty for Art, Margaret Schedel. “She has served the department in every facet of its entity, and at the highest level. As she ends her service to the University I would like to honor her years of dedication to our mission.”
The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center were endowed in 2012 after the fundraising goal was met at the annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala and matched by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, with an additional endowment for the director’s position from the Thaw Charitable Trust. This was the culmination of a steadfast campaign led by Harrison, who raised operating expenses independently in the prior years.
A 2021 recipient of the Silver Telly Award, the museum’s virtual reality exhibit is just one innovation that sprouted from Harrison’s passionate stewardship of the now-endowed landmark. The house also offers virtual tours, lectures, symposia, exhibitions, community programs and more on a year-round basis. In 2023 alone, the venue held 240 events that saw more than 11,000 on-site and virtual attendees, she said.
Harrison’s legacy is far from over, as an endowed research fellowship is to be established in her honor. This annual three-month program aims to support the study of abstract expressionism as a historically significant movement and a lasting art form. The selection committee will favor applicants who are also interested in exploring eastern Long Island’s enduring history as a mecca of the American art world.
“We’ve already had five scholars, four conferences and a publication,” said Harrison. “And these are real contributions to the field. This fellowship is a great milestone in our mission to become the top destination for scholars who are interested in studying abstract expressionism.”
– Sabrina Liguori