After having been Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, New York since 1990, it’s fair to say that Helen A. Harrison knows pretty much all there is to know about Jackson Pollock. A renowned historian and journalist, Harrison is meticulous in her work and has a wide breadth of knowledge. You can ask her pretty much anything about Jackson Pollock and Harrison will not only have the answer but usually an intriguing anecdote to further illuminate you in all things Pollock. In other words, she has all the facts.
Which is why it’s funny that Harrison decided two years ago to start writing a fictional account of Jackson Pollock---and a mystery to boot. The result is the fast-paced and gripping new novel AN ACCIDENTAL CORPSE, which reimagines the night that Jackson Pollock and his friend died. And includes murder. We had a few questions for Helen A. Harrison who will be speaking at Doyle on the evening of October 17.
Q What was the impetus for you to become an art historian? Were there certain painters who inspired you?
After earning studio art degrees and practicing as a sculptor for a decade, I decided to satisfy my long-standing curiosity about the New Deal art projects. Several of my teachers were WPA alumni, and they inspired me to study the subject in depth. That's my scholarly specialty.
Q Were you always a fan of Jackson Pollock’s work?
Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, were both on the WPA Federal Art Project for its entire duration, from 1935-43. Growing up, I didn't know that, but I think it was serendipity that I came to specialize in the period that was formative to both of them. As a youngster growing up in New York City and encountering Pollock's work for the first time at MoMA, to say that I was flabbergasted is an understatement. When I attended the Art Students League, I would go to the museum with my fellow aspiring artists and argue endlessly over the merits of his work. As I remember, I often lost those arguments.
Q In your professional life, in your role as Director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, you spend a lot of time ‘with’ Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Do you feel as if you know them? Do you like them?
In An Accidental Corpse, both Jackson and Lee are presented as complex, and not entirely sympathetic, characters. My treatment is based on many years of immersion in the copious literature on both of them, which bears out that characterization. I never met Jackson--I was 12 years old when he died, and not a habitue of the Cedar Bar--but I did know Lee slightly, in my role as an art critic for The New York Times and curator of Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton. She was always most gracious to me, and I admired her enormously.
Q How did you decide to write a mystery about the night Jackson Pollock died?
In my first murder mystery, An Exquisite Corpse, set in New York City in 1943, I created two fictional NYPD cops, Juanita Diaz and Brian Fitzgerald. I thought they had possibilities for development, and I decided to take them to the Hamptons and see what sort of mischief I could get them into. Jackson and Lee make cameo appearances in the first book, so I guess that's what put the idea into my head.
Q Why do you think the Hamptons have always attracted artists?
The Hamptons have been attracting artists since the 1870s. There was an art colony here more than a hundred years ago. What's the attraction? As I wrote in a previous book, Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach, this region is blessed with two decisive attractions: a beautiful maritime environment and proximity to New York City. It's no wonder that artist have flocked here for 140 years.
Q Tell us about your next book, An Exquisite Corpse, which is a prequel to An Accidental Corpse.
That book was actually the first mystery I wrote, and since all my other books had been non-fiction I had no track record in fiction, so I self-published it. Fortunately for me, Liz [Doyle Carey] and Carrie [Doyle] wanted not only to publish the next book but also to re-issue the prequel under the Dunemere Books imprint. They also commissioned a third book, An Artful Corpse, which will follow some of the characters into the 1960s.
Q Do you have any anecdotes about an artist that you have uncovered during your professional life that may be of interest to our readers?
Although An Accidental Corpse is a work of fiction, it includes a lot of real people and actual situations. I love the story about hiring a call girl, which was told to me by the artist Paul Brach on pp. 185-186. That's the kind of fly-on-the-wall material that I relish, both as an art historian and as a fiction writer.
An Accidental Corpse: Was Jackson Pollock a Murderer?
Join us for an evening of intrigue on Wednesday, October 17, 2018 at 6:30pm as author Helen A. Harrison discusses the 1956 accident in her new novel, An Accidental Corpse, published by Dunemere Books.
The event will take place at Doyle, 175 East 87th Street. It is free and open to the public. Space is limited, and reservations are required. Copies of the book will be available for purchase.
Doors open at 6pm
Slide Presentation at 6:30pm
Book Signing Reception immediately following
Reservations: 212-427-4141, ext 600, or events@Doyle.com