Lisa Lehman Trager
Lehman Exhibition at the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center.
From August 4 to October 30, 2022, the Pollock-Krasner House, in East Hampton, Long Island, New York will be featuring Harold Lehman: The Nineteen Thirties. The show will include paintings, drawings, and documentation of Lehman’s 1930s work—including a painting for which the model was a human skull borrowed from Pollock (now in the Pollock-Krasner studio)—lent by the artist's family, and detail studies for Man’s Daily Bread, from The Wolfsonian-Florida International University's Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.
I took the opportunity to meet with Helen A. Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House, to learn more about her, the P-K House, and why she chose to focus the exhibition on Lehman’s WPA mural, Man’s Daily Bread, which he created in 1937- 38 for Rikers Island Penitentiary.
Helen A. Harrison, Director of the P-K House
Harrison first visited the P-K House in 1987, when she was an art critic for The New York Times and was assigned to cover the restoration of the studio floor. Soon after, in 1990, she was offered the position of director and has remained in the position for the last 32 years.
In addition to her work for The New York Times, Harrison has been a National Public Radio commentator and is the author of numerous articles, exhibition catalogs, and essays in scholarly and popular journals. Her books include Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach (with Constance Ayers Denne), Such Desperate Joy: Imagining Jackson Pollock, monographs on Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock, and three mystery novels set in the art world.
The mission of the P-K House is to interpret the site, a National Historic Landmark, as “a museum of their lives – not their art.” The art is owned by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. As Harrison explained,
It’s about being a venue that enlarges and brings to life their presence, influence, and circle of friends and fellow artists.
History of the P-K House
The P-K House is among dozens of other historic homes or studios that operate under the auspices of The Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, which is “is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the places where art was made.”
The house itself has an interesting history. Built in 1879 by James S. Corwin, a local fisherman, eventually it was inherited by Howard Quinn. Upon his death, in 1944, the property was put on the market. A year later, on November 5, 1945, just after Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner married, they moved into the house. With the help of Jackson’s patron, Peggy Guggenheim, who lent them the $2,000 down payment, they were able to get a $3,000 mortgage from the local East Hampton bank. As the P-K House website explains, “Lee had a studio area in the back parlor, and Jackson painted in an unheated upstairs bedroom. In June 1946, he had the barn moved from behind the house to the north side of the property and renovated it as his studio.”
When Krasner died, she instructed her executors to deed the property to a charitable institution with the mission of creating a “public museum and library.” Due to her good relationship with Stony Brook University, which gave her an honorary degree just before her death, the property was deeded to the Stony Brook Foundation, a private non-profit affiliate of the university. One of the stipulations was that no other artist would ever be allowed to use the studio. So, what to do with that space? As Harrison explained, the founding director, Meg Perlman, decided to create an installation of photographs and text panels, “to interpret what happened in the studio, to provide more background of the lives and work of Pollock and Krasner while they were living in the East Hampton home.”
Doing research for the exhibition, Perlman realized that photographs showed a different floor surface than what was there. As part of a major 1953 renovation to winterize the studio, a Masonite floor had been installed over the original wood. Ted Dragon, a good friend of Krasner and Pollock, who was helping Perlman research the exhibition, told her, “You know, there's another floor under there.”
Prying up one of the Masonite tiles, Perlman revealed the original floor. As Harrison said, “The studio became a very different affair after that discovery.” A team of conservators removed the Masonite surface and restored the original floor. Today, the studio is the main attraction. Visitors can wear padded slippers to walk on the floor, which is covered with outlines and dripped paint from Pollock’s most famous paintings.
Lehman and Pollock’s relationship
Currently, through July 31st, the P-K House is featuring the work of Terence Netter, a close friend of Krasner’s. As Harrison said, “There’s something nice about following that up with a show featuring Pollock’s close friend, Harold. Not many other artists have a background with him that goes back to Manual Arts High School, where they first met.”
Although there were other artists who knew Pollock from his high school days, like Philip Guston and Reuben Kadish, his friendship with Lehman was unique. Lehman shared his passion for the Italian Renaissance painters with Pollock, and even taught him how to play the harmonica. In 1936, after Lehman returned east, he reconnected with his mentor, David Alfaro Siqueiros, who also happened to be in New York to attend the American Artist’s Congress as a guest speaker. Together, they formed the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop and invited artists, including Pollock, to join them.
Most of the work to come out of the Workshop was politically motivated, such as floats and installations for various parades to support workers, as well as anti-fascist sentiments related to World War II. It was also intended to encourage the artists to experiment with various techniques and use various types of paints, solvents, and industrial tools.
Lehman directed Pollock to work on the floats produced by the Workshop, but certainly the new experimental techniques, which Siqueiros shared with the group, proved to have a decisive influence on Pollock’s later poured paintings. As Lehman recalled his experience of working with Pollock in the Workshop,
I remember well working all night and leaving the next morning just as Jack was coming in for the day shift. I showed him what we were doing and how we were doing it. Years later, in a painting called “No. 1A, 1948” that very image appears - hands upthrust through he paint. But beyond this specific image, the methods used in the Siqueiros Experimental Workshop - the panels laid flat on the floor, the paint dripped, poured and splattered, the use of the “accidental” and myriad other techniques - all find their echo in Jackson Pollock's later work - in particular, the so-called “drip period.”
Lehman was also a friend of Pollock’s brother Sande. Another coincidence with this exhibition is that Sande worked as Lehman’s assistant on the Rikers Island mural.
The Significance of bringing Lehman’s work to the P-K House
Harrison did her graduate work at Case Western Reserve University with a focus on New Deal murals. As part of the research for her master’s thesis, in 1974 she interviewed Lehman. As Harrison explained,
The Rikers Island mural was an important project. Not only did it illustrate the kind of work that was typical for the WPA, but its subject matter was also relevant to the specific location, the penitentiary for which it was created.
Initially another artist, Ben Shahn, was given the commission. His concept was based upon his interest in penal reform, comparing conditions before and after more enlightened methods of prisoner rehabilitation. But when the authorities saw initial sketches of prisoners in various states of torture, replete with chain gangs, and police lineups, they opted for Lehman's more inspirational message set in the prison's cafeteria.
In fact, Lehman did quite a bit of research to prepare for this project. The first thing he did was to reach out to his twin brother, Albert, who at the time was a social worker at Elmira Penitentiary, to learn more about the “sociological, penological, and psychological” aspects of the project. As Lehman explained,
The mural was in the mess hall of Rikers Island prison, where eight to nine hundred prisoners ate three times a day. So, it seemed to me that a theme that had some connection with not only the handling of food, but the idea of earning one's bread by one's own sweat so to speak, would have some good constructive connection with that prison without being an obvious lecture.
Another point that Harrison brought up—something many people today don’t realize—is that the WPA artists were actually paid a weekly wage. At the same time as Lehman was working on the Rikers Island mural, Pollock and Krasner were working on the WPA easel and mural projects, subsidized by the federal government.
The idea of getting a weekly wage to create art is just so alien today. There was a time when the government actually looked out for the people, especially those who had very few options for making a living wage.
When the New York City jail on Rikers Island was created in the late 1930s, it was considered a model of penal reform. A value was placed on the prisoners’ entire well-being, as well as on the aesthetics of the environment, including the mural, which prisoners would be looking at while eating. All of this dissolved in the 1960s, coincidentally when the mural was taken down and destroyed. One of the things that motivated many WPA artists was the feeling they were doing good, that their work would be making a difference in society and providing benefits to the community. Even the most abstract artists, like Stuart Davis, who created a mural for the Williamsburg Houses, wrote about how abstract art was a new kind of realism and that this public art would bring enrichment to people’s lives, regardless of whether it was in a hospital, community center, public housing, or prison.
Approximately 65 years since Lehman and Pollock last saw each other at the very house
where this exhibition will be shown, there’s something poetic about bringing them back together this way. As Harrison said,
I think Jackson would be very pleased about it. I think there as a real kinship there. . . Without Lehman’s encouragement, Pollock would not have joined Siqueiros’ experimental workshop and been introduced to the pouring technique that later made him the most famous abstract painter of his generation.