What the sea was to Melville, the heath to Hardy, or Giverny to Monet, the East End of Long Island was to Jackson Pollock. The house where Pollock and his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, lived and worked has recently been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Almost 50 years ago, Pollock (1912-56) and Krasner (1908-84), both first-generation Abstract Expressionists, moved from Greenwich Village to The Springs, a rural hamlet of East Hampton less than 100 miles east of New York City. Their home, known as the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, is open to visitors and scholars.
"Jackson Pollock was the key artist in the postwar school of American painting through which New York became the focal point of the art world," says James Rubin, professor of art history and chairman of the art department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which operates the center. Prof. Rubin adds, "Lee Krasner is probably the premier woman painter in postwar American art."
"The Mt. Vernon of American art" is how Stephen Polcari, New York director of the Archives of American Art and an Abstract Expressionist scholar, describes the house. Indeed, Pollock is seen as the father of American avant-garde painting, and his stature has only increased since his death almost 40 years ago, after he drunkenly crashed his car into a tree.
Called by an Italian critic "the Presley of pictures," Pollock and his tragic life are the subject of burgeoning interest. Recently, crews from the BBC, PBS, and Japanese television filmed segments at the site. Three biographies of the artist have been optioned for studio films. Actors like Robert De Niro and Ed Harris are vying to play Pollock, while Barbra Streisand is interested in the role of Krasner. A catalogue raisonne of Krasner's work and a supplement to Pollock's catalogue raisonne are being published this fall. In a faltering art market, Pollock paintings continue to sell for eight-figure sums.
'Myths and heroes'
Why the fascination? According to B.H. Friedman, author of the first Pollock biography, "Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible" (1972), just reissued by Da Capo Press, "It's a moment in history when we need myths and heroes."
Each year, 3,500 devotees from all over the world trek to the site where Pollock created his masterpieces. The house itself is humble - a simple two-story farmhouse built in 1879 - and life was a struggle. There was no plumbing or bathroom, and the couple burned wood 12 hours a day for warmth. Behind the house, Pollock dug clams in the bay and grew vegetables for food. (Today, as visitors walk toward the creek, the pungent smell of thyme from the long-ago garden rises from the grass.)
Even so, this is where Pollock reached the culmination of his development as an artist. "He had the good years there," Mr. Polcari says. "The surroundings were poor, but his imagination was rich. All he needed was space - in more ways than one."
Deeply troubled emotionally, in the city Pollock sank into alcoholic binges and belligerent behavior. He tore doors from their hinges, slashed his rivals' canvases, and once pounded a table so hard a box of matches burst into flame.
At The Springs, as Pollock said, he got away "from the wear and tear" and found the mental space needed to create his monumental works, as epic in scale as his ambition. Instead of painting synthetic works amalgamating those of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Henri Matisse, his work suddenly became mature. "Within six months after the move, he was creating original work," says Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House. The site, she adds, "is a tool to help people understand how to interpret his paintings, by looking at the environment where they were created."
The most outstanding feature of this environment is the converted barn that served as Pollock's studio, then as Krasner's after his death. Standing on the 21-by-21-foot floor, visitors are surrounded by the process of creation. On the walls are traces of Krasner's work, but underfoot is a gigantic record of Pollock's.
'Jack the Dripper'
The critic Harold Rosenberg called Abstract Expressionism "action painting," and this floor was Pollock's "arena of action." There he pioneered the all-over webs of interlocking lines and swirls of poured paint that earned him Time magazine's label "Jack the Dripper."
To create his masterpieces from 1948-50, Pollock laid unprimed canvas directly on the floor, dancing around the edges to hurl, flick, and squirt free-flowing paint into dynamic abstract compositions. "The source of my painting is the unconscious," Pollock said, as he reacted to each work in progress, letting it dictate content and form.
"I'm walking on history!" one visitor exclaimed, as she studied the floor where Pollock's splashes escaped the bounds of the canvas or soaked through it.
In fact, visitors to the studio walk on an extremely important artifact of art history. Pollock covered the paint-spattered studio floor in 1953 (when his productivity had all but ceased). By a fluke of redecorating, when that flooring was lifted 35 years later, the colors of his original work were preserved in all their splendor, much brighter than the faded hues of his canvases in museums.
One can see where he did his works of genius - the black and aluminum paint of "Autumn Rhythm," now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and ultramarine pigment from "Blue Poles" at the Australian National Gallery. On the floor are "ghost" outlines of canvases, criss-crossed with comet-streaks of silver paint. It's like standing inside the Big Bang.
Pollock's work launched the golden age of American art. Earlier innovators like Paul Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso updated an inherited tradition, while Pollock exploded all tradition. A seismic shift in 20th century art occurred, and Paris yielded to New York as the epicenter of original art.
For all the history made in this spot, there are no velvet ropes or museum mustiness. Since Krasner left the house at her death as a non-profit institution, nothing was disturbed. Inside the house are the couple's 78-r.p.m. Charlie Parker records, their first edition of Joyce's "Ulysses," and their collections of natural objects like driftwood, scallop shells, and gourds.
In the studio are Pollock's cans of commercial house paint like Sash and Trim Black and Silver Lustre. The opened cans, with an inch of hardened paint at bottom, still contain the turkey-basters and mixing sticks Pollock used to apply paint.
Until Oct. 28, Krasner's early charcoal drawings hang on the walls at the center. An exhibition of her oil paintings at nearby East Hampton's Guild Hall until Oct.15 shows why her reputation has climbed since her death.
Both a shrine and an educational center, the Pollock-Krasner House memorializes a heady time in American art. Before his inspiration dried up, Pollock took art somewhere it had never been before.
"I find the place very moving," says Friedman, who knew Pollock and Krasner when they lived here. "It's almost as if a spirit hovers over the place."
Pollock's daring in art corresponded with the chances he took in life. He lived fast and died hard, taking that last turn at 90 miles an hour before hurtling off the road. As his art dealer, Betty Parsons, said of him, "There was futility at the end of all his rainbows."
*Guided tours of the house and studio are by appointment only from May 1 through Oct. 31. Telephone: (516) 324-4929.