On Monday, March 9, the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society of East Hampton hosted Ruth Appelhof who discussed aspects of her upcoming book “Lee & Me.” She was interviewed by Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House.
“Angry, outrageous, defiant, and courageous,” are some of the words author Ruth Appelhof uses to describe the American Abstract Expressionist artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984) — the subject of a memoir inspired by Appelhof’s 1974 summer stay with Krasner in East Hampton, “Lee and Me: An Intimate Portrait of Lee Krasner.”
While perhaps best remembered by many as Jackson Pollock’s widow, she is regarded more by insiders as the producer of a major body of work that influenced the evolution of contemporary art — in particular, art made by women in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Appelhof is widely known to the Hamptons community for her almost two decades spent as executive director of Guild Hall. Her long list of accomplishments there includes programming efforts that drew a record-breaking 50,000 visitors a year. She also initiated the much-needed Guild Hall renovation by Robert A.M. Stern, planning and successfully leading a $17-million fundraising effort.
After stepping down in 2016, she began writing the book she vowed to write while still in college: “Lee and Me: An Intimate Portrait Of Lee Krasner.”
“I was a 34-year-old graduate student doing research on Krasner when she invited me to stay at her house on Springs-Fireplace Road for the summer. I was getting my masters in art history at Syracuse University, and she had agreed to let me interview her. I drove my bright orange Ford Pinto to New York City to pick her up. She was horrified by my car, but she did not own a car herself. I realized right then and there that she wasn’t really interested in my interviewing her, she just needed a chauffeur. In fact, even her knowledge of how to get to the Hamptons seemed sketchy, at best.”
Describing her Hamptons stay, Appelhof said, “At that time, Krasner was painting in the barn of Jackson Pollock’s old studio. I lived in a tiny bedroom upstairs in the house that’s now the Pollock-Krasner Museum. I’d interview her in the afternoon and type everything up at night. I’d bring down my notes in the morning and she’d take a Magic Marker and cross out all the good stuff. I thought I could get along with almost anybody, but Lee was difficult, to say the least. Re-listening to those tapes has been very difficult for me.”
Appelhof said, “I struggled with decades of self-loathing, internalizing Krasner’s behavior and blaming myself.” But with the help of Helen Harrison of Pollock-Krasner House, the author located and reached out to many of Krasner’s other summer sitters. “When quite a few shared experiences similar to mine, I was able to let go of that pain,” she related.
As a scholar and the friend to Krasner that she eventually became, Appelhof re-examines Krasner’s contributions in light of the intellectual and emotional experiences that Krasner so candidly shared with her in weeks of interviews. In her book, Appelhof explores Krasner’s relationships with others: friends, art-world luminaries, artists allowed into her private world. Those recollections offer a window into the artist’s intense and idiosyncratic personal life as well as into her contributions through the groundbreaking work she produced over the course of more than six decades.
Appelhof notes that “for all her cruelty, she also had a large circle of deeply loyal and supportive friends and allies who helped her achieve her greatest goal: getting the recognition she deserved for her life’s work.”
Among those, key was Barbara Rose, an art historian and critic who was pivotal in arranging a show for Krasner that began in Texas and concluded at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where Krasner would be one of a very small group of female artists to have a show dedicated to her work. It was a stunning pinnacle to the artist’s career.
But in keeping with a life filled with so many hurdles, challenges, and disappointments, Krasner died before the show ever reached New York.
Hers was a life both glorious and tragic. The story Appelhof tells is riveting.