Retiring Pollock-Krasner House director Helen Harrison inside Jackson Pollock's studio in...

Retiring Pollock-Krasner House director Helen Harrison inside Jackson Pollock's studio in Springs on April 30, 2019. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As a young woman at The Art Students League in Manhattan, Helen Harrison often headed to the nearby Museum of Modern Art at lunchtime, where she'd sit and ponder “One, No. 31, 1950,” the wall-sized canvas Jackson Pollock painted in his revolutionary abstract expressionist drip technique. It was a style that, in 1949, led Life magazine to ask: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Harrison knew Pollock studied at The Art Students League with the legendary Thomas Hart Benton, knew the reputation and regard, knew the tragedy — that at the height of his career the 44-year-old Pollock died behind the wheel in a 1956 drunken-driving crash in Springs that also killed a passenger.

But the work?

“I'm from the duck-and-cover generation,” Harrison said, alluding to the Cold War and school-time nuclear attack drills. “We thought it [One, No. 31] was about the atomic bomb and chaos.

“I thought it all negative energy.” 

On Wednesday, Harrison retired after 34 years as director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University, responsible for operations at the Springs home and studio barn where Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, created some of the most heralded, and controversial, artwork of the 20th century. During those decades, Harrison, author, curator and former art critic for The New York Times, not only brought the museum into the 21st century, earning awards and a designation as a National Historic Landmark, she came to see Pollock in new light.

“Now I look at it and I see the lyrical qualities, the structure,” she said of “One, No. 31.” “It's not that the painting is different now, it's that I see it in a different way.”

A longtime resident of Sag Harbor, Harrison hopes her lasting legacy as director will be that visitors to the house will see another side to Pollock — and, to Krasner — too.

“While the museum has just one early Pollock, one not painted here, the materials he and Krasner used, the furnishings, the furniture, how they lived their daily lives, all that is intact,” Harrison said. “It's pretty rudimentary, a simple environment, and because of that it kind of brings it all down to earth. It is a reminder that you don't have to have a palatial environment to create great art.”

Harrison was curator at the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton when she became full-time director of the house in 1990; the property set aside after the death of Krasner in 1984. Born in Richmond Hill, Queens, Harrison was educated at The Art Students League, Adelphi, Brooklyn Museum School of Art, Hornsey College of Art in London and Case-Western Reserve in Cleveland, where her expertise was Roosevelt New Deal-era Works Progress Administration artists, including Pollock and Krasner.

The house had no modern amenities. And, no endowment.

What there was, Harrison said, was a treasure trove of goodies that enabled her to transform the site, bordered by Springs-Fireplace Road and Accabonac Creek, into a must-see for a worldwide audience. The venue held 240 events in 2023, attracting more than 11,000 live and virtual visitors.

Though the Masonite floor in the 420-square-foot studio was removed before her arrival, uncovering wooden floorboards covered in splatter from some of Pollock's famed poured paintings — “Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950"; “Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950"; “Convergence: Number 10, 1952"; and “Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952,” to name a few — it was under the guidance of Harrison that the property was transformed. Through her efforts, the museum, operated by the private nonprofit university-affiliated Stony Brook Foundation, was brought up to code. And, it earned a Save America's Treasures Grant, then secured an endowment in 2012, when a fundraising goal from the annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala was met, then matched, by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.

In 2021, the museum was the recipient of the Silver Telly Award, recognizing a virtual reality tour allowing visitors to envision famed canvases in place among the spatter where they were created.

“The museum was just beginning when Helen took over,” said Bobbi Coller, chairperson of the advisory committee of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. “She not only established it, but she preserved the authenticity. Not only is there the overspill on the floor where Pollock created his work, but there's overages on the walls where Krasner painted her works. When there was a renovation, Helen made sure she saved the original shingles to be reinstalled.

“There's the checkbooks Pollock and Krasner used to pay bills. There's the furnishings, books on the bookshelves, the records they listened to … Helen understood the importance of preserving all that and because she did when you come to the museum you feel like you were transported to the time when Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived there.”

Though her successor has not been named, Stony Brook has announced an annual three-month research fellowship to study Abstract Expressionism in Harrison's honor.

Cleaning out her desk recently, Harrison, who has authored nonfiction books that include “Hamptons Bohemia,” “The Jackson Pollock Box” and “Guild Hall for All,” found photos taken by her artist husband, Roy Nicholson, on her first day at the Pollock-Krasner House: March 1, 1990.

“I'd forgotten all about them,” she said. “There was a foot of snow on the ground and I couldn't believe how much things changed … Or, how much I had.”

As a young woman at The Art Students League in Manhattan, Helen Harrison often headed to the nearby Museum of Modern Art at lunchtime, where she'd sit and ponder “One, No. 31, 1950,” the wall-sized canvas Jackson Pollock painted in his revolutionary abstract expressionist drip technique. It was a style that, in 1949, led Life magazine to ask: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Harrison knew Pollock studied at The Art Students League with the legendary Thomas Hart Benton, knew the reputation and regard, knew the tragedy — that at the height of his career the 44-year-old Pollock died behind the wheel in a 1956 drunken-driving crash in Springs that also killed a passenger.

But the work?

“I'm from the duck-and-cover generation,” Harrison said, alluding to the Cold War and school-time nuclear attack drills. “We thought it [One, No. 31] was about the atomic bomb and chaos.

    WHAT TO KNOW

  • Helen Harrison retired on Wednesday after 34 years as director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs
  • The Springs home and studio barn is where Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, created some of the most heralded, and controversial, artwork of the 20th century.
  • When Harrison got to the house in 1990, it had no amenities and no endowment. It did have a treasure trove of goodies that enabled her to transform the site, bordered by Springs-Fireplace Road and Accabonac Creek, into a must-see for a worldwide audience

“I thought it all negative energy.” 

On Wednesday, Harrison retired after 34 years as director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center at Stony Brook University, responsible for operations at the Springs home and studio barn where Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, created some of the most heralded, and controversial, artwork of the 20th century. During those decades, Harrison, author, curator and former art critic for The New York Times, not only brought the museum into the 21st century, earning awards and a designation as a National Historic Landmark, she came to see Pollock in new light.

“Now I look at it and I see the lyrical qualities, the structure,” she said of “One, No. 31.” “It's not that the painting is different now, it's that I see it in a different way.”

Museum has one painting

A longtime resident of Sag Harbor, Harrison hopes her lasting legacy as director will be that visitors to the house will see another side to Pollock — and, to Krasner — too.

“While the museum has just one early Pollock, one not painted here, the materials he and Krasner used, the furnishings, the furniture, how they lived their daily lives, all that is intact,” Harrison said. “It's pretty rudimentary, a simple environment, and because of that it kind of brings it all down to earth. It is a reminder that you don't have to have a palatial environment to create great art.”

Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Kranser House and Study Center,...

Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Kranser House and Study Center, outside of the Pollock-Krasner house in Springs on July 31, 2018. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Harrison was curator at the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton when she became full-time director of the house in 1990; the property set aside after the death of Krasner in 1984. Born in Richmond Hill, Queens, Harrison was educated at The Art Students League, Adelphi, Brooklyn Museum School of Art, Hornsey College of Art in London and Case-Western Reserve in Cleveland, where her expertise was Roosevelt New Deal-era Works Progress Administration artists, including Pollock and Krasner.

The house had no modern amenities. And, no endowment.

What there was, Harrison said, was a treasure trove of goodies that enabled her to transform the site, bordered by Springs-Fireplace Road and Accabonac Creek, into a must-see for a worldwide audience. The venue held 240 events in 2023, attracting more than 11,000 live and virtual visitors.

Though the Masonite floor in the 420-square-foot studio was removed before her arrival, uncovering wooden floorboards covered in splatter from some of Pollock's famed poured paintings — “Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950"; “Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950"; “Convergence: Number 10, 1952"; and “Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952,” to name a few — it was under the guidance of Harrison that the property was transformed. Through her efforts, the museum, operated by the private nonprofit university-affiliated Stony Brook Foundation, was brought up to code. And, it earned a Save America's Treasures Grant, then secured an endowment in 2012, when a fundraising goal from the annual Stars of Stony Brook Gala was met, then matched, by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.

'Preserved the authenticity'

In 2021, the museum was the recipient of the Silver Telly Award, recognizing a virtual reality tour allowing visitors to envision famed canvases in place among the spatter where they were created.

“The museum was just beginning when Helen took over,” said Bobbi Coller, chairperson of the advisory committee of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. “She not only established it, but she preserved the authenticity. Not only is there the overspill on the floor where Pollock created his work, but there's overages on the walls where Krasner painted her works. When there was a renovation, Helen made sure she saved the original shingles to be reinstalled.

“There's the checkbooks Pollock and Krasner used to pay bills. There's the furnishings, books on the bookshelves, the records they listened to … Helen understood the importance of preserving all that and because she did when you come to the museum you feel like you were transported to the time when Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived there.”

Though her successor has not been named, Stony Brook has announced an annual three-month research fellowship to study Abstract Expressionism in Harrison's honor.

Cleaning out her desk recently, Harrison, who has authored nonfiction books that include “Hamptons Bohemia,” “The Jackson Pollock Box” and “Guild Hall for All,” found photos taken by her artist husband, Roy Nicholson, on her first day at the Pollock-Krasner House: March 1, 1990.

“I'd forgotten all about them,” she said. “There was a foot of snow on the ground and I couldn't believe how much things changed … Or, how much I had.”

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