Appelhof/Krasner: A Reunion Four Decades In the Making

Ruth Appelhof is currently in Rome, assembling a book proposal on the American artist Lee Krasner
Ruth Appelhof stood next to a portrait of Lee Krasner at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs last month. Durell Godfrey

It might seem odd that Ruth Appelhof is currently in Rome, assembling a book proposal on the American artist Lee Krasner. But most everything about the project embraces the improbable and the serendipitous.

Almost two years ago, when Ms. Appelhof announced her retirement from Guild Hall, she told The Star that she wanted to revisit some interviews she had taped during a summer she spent with Lee Krasner.

Since she began the project last year, she has found enormous support from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, and the American Academy in Rome, which is hosting her as a visiting scholar for five weeks, ending June 5. The foundation, based in Manhattan, announced this week that it has bestowed upon her a $25,000 research fellowship.

It was Krasner’s suggestion that Ms. Appelhof write her master’s thesis about her artwork and that she spend the summer with her in Springs in 1974. Ms. Appelhof picked Krasner up at her high-rise building in her bright orange Ford Pinto, not realizing that neither of them knew how to get to Springs.

Once they sorted out directions and found their way to the house, Ms. Appelhof discovered that Krasner, some 20 years after Jackson Pollock had left her a widow, was just as interested in having her drive and run errands as she was in supporting her thesis. Yet they still became good friends.

“I stayed in the room Lee used as her studio when Jackson was alive,” Ms. Appelhof recalled recently over breakfast. “On my bed was a beautiful old quilt,” part of Lee’s collection. “I remember it so clearly.” The room is now being used as part of the museum’s office space, but the view from the window onto the property on Accabonac Harbor remains familiar to her. 

Over the past few months, Ms. Appelhof has spent most afternoons at the house, reading books and research materials at the same marble table where she and Krasner had breakfast. “I always burned the toast,” she said. “She was never very happy with me.”

Although much of the house has been transformed from residence to museum, many things look the same to her. “I think they still have the same mats in the bathroom upstairs from when I was there.” The pantry also looks as if no time has passed since Krasner’s death in 1984, “with all the same utensils.”

She spent her mornings interviewing Krasner and typed up the contents of the reel-to-reel tape recordings in the evenings. Krasner would look at the transcript the next day and redact much of it. But Ms. Appelhof preserved the tapes and recently had them transcribed. 

The interviews are the wellspring of her work, but she has also compiled what she calls her bible of some 100 people who knew Krasner, intending to interview them all. “I want a rich taste of everyone’s understanding of her.”

So far, her quest has taken her to the New York City apartment of Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress who founded Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., with the bulk of her collection. Still in her personal collection is a mosaic table that Krasner made with materials left over from a work Pollock had experimented with in the late 1930s. 

“I walk into the apartment and it is filled with the most amazing art,” Ms. Appelhof said. “Right smack in the middle of the living room is Lee’s table, where the maid served us tea.”

Ms. Appelhof asked Ms. Walton if she could crawl under the table to see if it was signed. “She crawled right under with me. And it was signed. She just wrote ‘Lee.’ ”

She has spoken with many of Krasner’s dealers through the years, including John Cheim, who accompanied Krasner to a retrospective of her work in Houston during the last year of her life. It traveled to the Museum of Modern Art as well, but not until after her death. At the time, Mr. Cheim, now a partner in the Cheim & Read gallery in New York, worked for the Robert Miller Gallery, which closed last year. “He had tremendous fondness for her. He said he always falls for old women.”

Ms. Appelhof has also interviewed Krasner’s current representative, Eric Gleeson, at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, who she said has been gracious with time and resources. Betsy Miller, of the Robert Miller Gallery, has been a source of remembrances and information. 

In addition to committing Gail Levin’s biography to memory, Ms. Appelhof has tracked down scholars of Krasner’s work and era, such as Irving Sandler. Barbara Rose, who put the original Krasner retrospective together, has been in Rome during Ms. Appelhof’s stay and has been “generous in sharing her thoughts.”

Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock-Krasner House, has given her contacts and pulled out a lot of the house’s collection of primary and secondary sources. These include the tapes Jeffrey Potter used for his book on Jackson Pollock, “To a Violent Grave.” Ms. Appelhof said everyone he interviewed talked about Lee in addition to Jackson, “and they don’t hold back.”

Molly Barnes, a former Springs neighbor, recalled having a blast going to tag sales with Krasner, and Ms. Appelhof would like to find other neighbors and friends on the South Fork. “I found someone in Montauk who was a companion. She didn’t like to spend the night there alone. She had me come out because she needed a chauffeur. I think the way a lot of people met her was through those relationships.” 

She has encouraged anyone who knew Krasner to email her at She is also keeping a blog at

After months of work, she said, “the more I read, the more I realize everything has been covered quite well. Lee is an important artist and has been treated seriously by scholars.” Ms. Levin’s recent biography was “a fantastic book. I see my job as bringing Lee Krasner back to the forefront as a human being” through the words of her friends and colleagues and “some people who weren’t her friends for a rounded view of this amazing artist.”

Lee Krasner in her Springs studio with "Morning Glory," 1982.Ann Chwatsky