The Pollock-Krasner Studioby Helen A. Harrison
In November 1945, the artists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner moved from their Greenwich Village apartment to a small homestead in the rural hamlet of Springs in East Hampton, Long Island. The newly married couple hoped that getting away from the city would relieve the pressure of urban life and help Pollock concentrate on work, which indeed proved to be the case. The retreat they chose was five miles from the nearest train station, but once on the train, they could get to Manhattan in three hours. And the property had a barn that was ideal for Pollock’s needs.
According to the niece of David Howard, a fisherman who owned the homestead from 1890 to 1926, the barn was used for storing fishing equipment. Probably built at the turn of the 20th century, it was little more than a large shed made of boards nailed to a wooden frame, with a concrete floor roughly 21 feet square in the main room, with double sliding doors in the west wall to admit the haulseining gear. The fykes (fish traps) were kept in a dirt-floored lean-to of roughly 12 by 20 feet on the south side. About 18 feet high at the peak, the roof was of cedar shakes over irregularly spaced rafters. In the south wall gable, a loft door and two windows let in light and air.
The building was earmarked as Pollock’s studio, but it stood directly behind the house, blocking the view across the salt marsh to Accabonac Creek. As Krasner later remarked, she and Pollock were strongly attracted to the natural surroundings and wanted to enjoy an uninterrupted vista from the house to the creek and harbor beyond. Consequently, in June 1946, before Pollock converted the barn to a studio, he had the building moved about 25 yards to the north. This created the beautiful prospect that is still a feature of the property, now a National Historic Landmark open to the public as the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center.
In its new location, the barn was raised onto cinderblock footings, a wood floor was put down, and a large window was cut into the north wall. There was no electricity, so Pollock worked exclusively in daylight. Nor was there any heating, although he reportedly used the studio in all but the coldest weather—Krasner spoke of his layering up in sweaters and jackets. By the summer of 1947, when his friend Herbert Matter photographed him at work on Alchemy—with the canvas stretched on his mother’s quilting frame and placed on the studio floor—he had clearly settled in. Alchemy is virtually finished, and four small poured paintings (Composition with Black Pouring, Galaxy, Phosphorescence, and Reflection of the Big Dipper), and completed earlier works are stacked around the walls. Tubes of artists’ oil colors, open cans of liquid enamel paint, and various tools and materials are visible.
This was not the first studio in which Pollock painted on the floor. Before the barn was converted, his workplace was a small upstairs room in the house, where, according to Krasner, he laid out the canvas for the Key, a painting from his Accabonac Creek series. But The Key is not a poured painting. Pollock probably put it on the floor as a practical matter, due to space restrictions. In the barn, however, he had plenty of room for a large easel, as well as the wall space to mount his canvases vertically. The fact that he chose to abandon the easel and continue working horizontally indicates a preference for that orientation, and suggests that he was ready to explore its potential.
Throughout the following three years, Pollock developed and refined his pouring technique, using unprimed canvas or Masonite panels placed flat on the wood floor. By April 1949, when he posed in the studio for the Life magazine photographer Martha Holmes, the floor showed significant evidence of his controversial working method, which involved the energetic application of fluid pigment. In the Holmes photographs, Pollock is beginning the painting now known as Number 1, 1949. Crouching at the lower right corner of the unstretched canvas, he draws in space with black enamel flowing from a hardened brush, and textures the paint with sand drizzled from his hand. Later he would add several colors to create a richly layered allover composition. His gestures, whether slow or rapid, deliberate or impulsive, often extended beyond the canvas edges, leaving marks on the floor corresponding to those in the paintings.
In a photograph taken the following year by Rudolph Burkhardt, the completed Number 1, 1949 hangs on the studio’s east wall. The overhead shot, in which Pollock and Krasner look up at the camera, also shows a portion of the floor embellished with numerous stray gestures. But the most thorough documentation of the residue was made by Hans Namuth, who photographed Pollock in action in the summer and fall of 1950. In Namuth’s still pictures and the 5-minute black and white motion picture film he shot inside the studio, the progressive buildup from four years’ worth of poured paintings is clearly visible outside the edges of the large canvases on which Pollock was working. And, though not evident in the photos, the floor under the canvases was similarly paint-spattered. While Pollock is best known for his mural-scale works, many of his poured paintings are small to medium size, and their random placement on the floor allowed much of the wood surface to be richly embellished over time.
In 1951, Pollock’s work changed direction: he re-introduced representational imagery, and virtually eliminated color. “I’ve had a period of drawing on canvas in black—with some of my earlier images coming thru,” he wrote to his friend and fellow artist Alfonso Ossorio and his companion Ted Dragon in June. “Think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing.” In fact the critics embraced his so-called black pourings, which he exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery that winter, but they did not attract buyers. He later re-worked some of them, for example layering multiple colors over a large one to create Convergence and adding color to the face in Portrait and a Dream.
After disappointing sales from both his 1950 and 1951 shows, Pollock left Betty Parsons and joined the Sidney Janis Gallery. His new dealer was good at marketing his work, earning him just under $11,500 in 1952—the highest annual sum he would ever receive, putting him in the top 4% income bracket nationally. (The median family income that year was $3,900.) With a healthy bank balance of more than $2,500 at the end of the year, he decided to have the studio winterized. He hired local handymen to help him transform the building into a 24-hour, year-round workplace. The lean-to room got a concrete floor and built-in storage units, as well as a tall door for loading stretched canvases. The barn doors were closed off, and the exterior was shingled. The interior walls were insulated and covered with Homasote, a porous wallboard ideal for tacking up work in progress. The wood floor was covered with tarpaper overlaid with squares of Masonite, and the entire room was painted white. Fluorescent lights and a kerosene stove were installed, enabling Pollock to work on dark days, at night, and in freezing weather. He was already settled into this efficient “white cube” by August 1953, when Tony Vaccaro photographed him in the studio with Krasner and some neighbors. Several works in progress, including Portrait and a Dream, are visible in the pictures.
Sadly, Pollock never took full advantage of the improved facilities. After a two-year period of sobriety, he had fallen off the wagon in the winter of 1950 and gradually lost his lifelong battle with alcoholism. After 1951 his productivity declined, and following the completion in 1952 of Convergence and Blue Poles, the last of his large-scale canvases, he moved away from the pouring technique, combining it with more orthodox paint application and often working vertically against the Homasote walls. Thus the floor no longer served as an inadvertent document of his colors and gestures, and at the time of his death in August 1956 it was relatively unmarked. Photographs of the studio taken soon after he was killed in an automobile accident show a few linear marks and splotches of color on the white surface, but little, if anything, that corresponds to the paintings of 1953-55. He made no paintings in 1956.
While Pollock used the renovated studio for only about three years, Krasner used it for 27 years, from 1957 until her own death in 1984. After a decade of working in the cramped upstairs room that had been Pollock’s first studio on the property, she now had the luxury of ample space in which to paint large and work on several pieces at the same time. She typically tacked her canvases and drawings in progress on the Homasote, often using sweeping gestures that, like Pollock’s, spilled over the compositions’ edges. Clearly visible on the walls are remnants of some of her most important paintings, including Gaea, Siren, and Portrait in Green. Also like Pollock, the last months of her life were unproductive. Hampered by ill health and preoccupied with plans for her traveling retrospective exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in October 1983, she ceased painting soon after the summer of 1982, when she completed Morning Glory.
After Krasner’s death, her estate deeded the Springs property to the Stony Brook Foundation, a non-profit affiliate of Stony Brook University, to be maintained as a “public museum and library.” No artwork accompanied the bequest, but the buildings and grounds were passed intact to the foundation. The house, containing the artists’ furnishings and personal possessions, was readily adaptable as the sort of memorial Krasner had envisioned, but finding an appropriate use for the studio was more difficult. Although her will did not say so, Krasner had let her executors know that she did not want other artists to work in it; this effectively prevented the development of an artist-in-residence program. The museum’s founding director, Meg Perlman, decided to use the studio for an exhibition of photographs and text panels outlining the artists’ lives and careers. The neutral white interior, with only a few marks from Krasner’s paintings in evidence on the Homasote walls, seemed ideal for such a purpose. To write the text, Perlman commissioned Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, the foremost Pollock scholar and a longtime associate of Krasner’s, and she began collecting documentation of the studio’s history.
Among those she contacted were Ossorio and Dragon, who had been close friends of the artists since 1949. As frequent visitors to the studio, they had witnessed its transformation, first as Pollock’s workplace and then as Krasner’s. Ossorio recalled Pollock’s telling him about the origin of the Masonite squares that were used as flooring in the 1953 renovation. They are copies of the Autograph Baseball Game, a board game manufactured by Pollock’s brother Sanford, a commercial screen printer, for the Raff Company in 1948. There were many partially printed and unprinted boards left over, and Sanford gave them to Jackson to paint on. Pollock used 17 of them for a series of small square paintings in 1950, and he gave some to Ossorio as well, but there were plenty more. When it came time to renovate the studio, they made a practical flooring material, which Pollock and his helpers laid down over the original boards. (They also used them on the floors in two of the upstairs rooms in the house.) Ossorio advised Perlman that there was something interesting under them, as she could see from the 1947-50 studio photographs, the Namuth series in particular.
Reasoning that the floor underneath would only be of interest if it were extensively marked, Perlman removed one of the squares from near the center of the room. To her delight, she found a dense, multi-layered residue that had been perfectly preserved by the Masonite overlay. This discovery abruptly changed the focus of the studio exhibition from a didactic presentation about the two artists to a dramatic evocation of Pollock’s famous and still controversial pouring technique. But first the original floor had to be exposed. Perlman called in a team from New York Conservation Associates to handle the removal of the Masonite boards, which were numbered and stored for future reference. They painstakingly peeled away the tarpaper that served as a cushion between the wood and Masonite, and gently cleaned the residue from the exposed paint. The work began in November 1987 and was completed the following March. Meanwhile, in preparation for the museum’s public opening in June, the interpretive exhibition was fabricated and installed, with an added section explaining the floor’s discovery and restoration. Krasner had saved some of Pollock’s open paint cans and other materials and tools, and they were also put on display along with those of hers that were left.
The floor proved to be a remarkable artifact. Its allover coverage showed clearly that many of Pollock’s poured paintings were small, dispelling the misconception that they were all huge. Specific marks visible in the period photographs were seen to be intact, and the colors, sealed away from light for 34 years, were as bright and fresh as the day Pollock laid them down. Gestures analogous to those in the paintings are evident, and the positions of specific works can be verified. For example, outlines near the west wall, partially visible in the Namuth photographs, correspond to the dimensions of Number 26A: Black and White, though there are other outlines suggesting that more than one canvas was underpainted white in that area. The dominant colors of Autumn Rhythm, Lavender Mist, Number 27, 1950 and other well-known poured paintings are also obvious.
Among the most evocative remnants are those of Convergence and Blue Poles, both of which Pollock completed in 1952, just before the floor was covered. The artist rolled out his largest canvases from east to west and developed his strategy from a position in front of the north window, where the paint residue is thickest. During his re-evaluation of the black painting that became Convergence, he appears to have used the floor as a makeshift palette, mixing various intense colors—red, orange, gold and blue—with white before applying them over the existing monochromatic imagery. In the case of Blue Poles, the dominant orange, yellow, aluminum, and the ultramarine blue of the “poles” define the limits of the canvas, which stretched almost all the way across the width of the studio. At three points outside the edges, Pollock’s footprints indicate that he walked barefoot across the wet canvas; in fact, if one knows where to look, the corresponding prints are visible in the finished painting. Also, embedded in the Blue Poles residue are fragments of the glass turkey basters Pollock used as paint applicators and sometimes broke—whether carelessly or in frustration we can only speculate.
Unfortunately many of Krasner’s marks on the walls were masked when the room was repainted white from time to time, so while they are still partly visible they lack the impact of Pollock’s floor, which is a vivid testament to his creative process and a fascinating record of his most productive and innovative years. Following the conservators’ recommendations the surface is on open display. A glass or acrylic covering was considered inadvisable because of possible condensation and the distorting reflections that would interfere with viewing. Visitors are required to remove their shoes and put on padded foam slippers before entering the main room. Traffic on the floor is strictly limited, and specialized wood conservators periodically evaluate both the surface and the structure. An old powder post beetle infestation was successfully treated soon after the museum opened, and continues to be monitored. So far, after 24 years of public visitation, the paint remains undamaged. As long as demand does not compromise the floor’s integrity, those who come to see the studio can literally walk in Pollock’s footsteps.
See photographs: AAQ /Landmarks — The Pollock-Krasner Studio
For more information, visit www.pkhouse.org
Helen A. HarrisonEugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Director Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center