Hartigan, Grace (1922—)

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Hartigan, Grace (1922—)

American abstract-expressionist painter who rose to prominence in the 1950s. Born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 28, 1922; the eldest of four children of Matthew Hartigan (a certified public accountant) and Grace (Orvis) Hartigan; attended Milburn, New Jersey, schools, 1929–40; studied privately with Isaac Lane Muse, New York, 1942–46; married Robert Jachens, on May 10, 1941 (divorced 1947); married Harry Jackson (an artist), in March 1949 (annulled 1950); married Robert Keene (a gallery owner), in 1958 (divorced 1960); married Dr. Winston H. Price (an epidemiologist), on December 24, 1960 (died 1981); children: (first marriage) one son, Jeffrey.

Selected works:

Secuda Esa Bruja (1949); Months and Moons (1950); The King Is Dead (1950, Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Arts, New York); Kindergarten Chats (1950, private collection); Knight, Death, and the Devil (1952, private collection); The Tribute Money (1952); River Bathers (1953, Museum of Modern Art, New York); The Persian Jacket (1952, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Orange #4 (The Changing Dialectics of Our World, 1952–53, Gallery K, Washington, D.C.); Orange #6 (The Light Only Reaches Halfway, 1952–53, Gallery K, Washington, D.C.); Grand Street Brides (1954, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); Masquerade (1954, Art Institute of Chicago); Giftwares (1955, Neuberger Museum, State University of New York at Purchase); City Life (1956, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Nelson A. Rockefeller collection); The Vendor (1956, Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City); Montauk Highway (1957, private collection); Billboard (1957, Minneapolis Institute of Arts); New England October (1957, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York); Dublin (1958–59, private collection); Sweden (1959, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); The Fourth (1959); August Harvest (1959, Baltimore Museum of Art); No Man Is an Island (1959–63, Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

Dido (1960, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas); Pallas Athens—Fire (1961, private collection); Phoenix (1962, private collection); William of Orange (1962, Baltimore Museum of Art); Lily Pond (1962, private collection); The The #1 [sic] (1962, State of New York, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Albany); Marilyn (1962, private collection); The Hunted (1963, private collection); Human Fragment (1963, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis); Mistral (1964, private collection); Mountain Woman (1964, Arthur M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas at Austin); Barbie (1964, Signet Bank, Baltimore); Skin Deep (1965, private collection); Frank O'Hara, 1926–1966 (1966, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.); Reisterstown Mall (1965, private collection); Modern Cycle (1967, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.); Fire and Water (1969); The Anatomy of Calvert Street (1969); When the Raven Was White (1969, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York).

Saint George and the Dragon (1970, Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore); Year of the Cicada (1970); Dragons and Other Animals (1970, private collection); Beware of Gifts (1971, Watkins Collection, American University, Washington, D.C.); Another Birthday (1971, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Summer to Fall (1971–72); Black Velvet (1972, Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan); Autumn Shop Window (1972, Baltimore Museum of Art); Purple Passion (1973); Coloring Book of Ancient Egypt (1973); Blood and Wine (1975); Testament (1975); Bread Sculpture (1977); I Remember Lascaux (1978, private collection); Twilight of the Gods (1978, private collection).

Lexington Market (1980, Federal Reserve Bank, Baltimore); Constance (1981, private collection); Eastern Avenue Florist (1982, private collection); Saint Martin (1983); Joséphine (1983, private collection); Theodora (1983, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York); Renaissance Woman (1984, private collection); Saint George (1985, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama); Lady Gathering Pomegranates (1985, private collection); Renaissance Card Game (1985, private collection); Crowning of the Poet (1985, C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore); Bacchus (1985, private collection); Spanish Vendor (1985, private collection); Visions of Heaven and Hell (1985); Malibu (1986, private collection); Tarzana (1987); Madonna Inn (1987); Casino (1987); Society Wedding (1988, private collection); The Hunt (1988, private collection); Chicago (1988, Kouros Gallery, New York); West Broadway (1989, Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore).

A disciple of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan emerged from the New York School of abstract expressionists to become the most visible woman painter in the United States during the late 1950s. She was the single woman represented in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition, "Twelve Americans" (1956), and in its international touring show, "The New American Painting (1958–59)." Her works were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney. Although Hartigan's popularity waned with the Minimalism and Pop art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, she was discovered once again with the arrival of the "new figurative" and new expressionist painting of the 1980s. Through five decades, the artist continued to evolve, moving alternately between abstraction and figuration, drawing subject matter from both past and present and synthesizing it through her own rich and varied life experiences.

Grace Hartigan was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1922, the eldest of four children of an Irish-English family. Her early years were spent in a two-family house in the industrial city of Bayonne. A free-spirited, difficult child, Hartigan was alienated from her mother, but had a close bond with her father whom she later credited with unleashing her creativity and her independence. "My father was the one who told me I could do anything I wanted to do," she later wrote. As a youngster, her maternal needs were met by her grandmother, who told her stories and sang old English and Welsh ballads. At the age of five, Hartigan suffered a yearlong bout with pneumonia, after which the family moved to Milburn, New Jersey, hoping that the country air might improve their daughter's health. She flourished in the more open environment which also seemed to unleash her rich fantasy life. At Milburn High School, Hartigan became interested in literature, debate, and drama, everything except the visual arts. At age 17, fresh out of high school, she married Robert Jachens, "the boy next door." After seeing the movie Call of the Wild, the couple decided to set out for Alaska. "We traveled as far as Los Angeles," Hartigan later recalled. "We were pregnant, we were broke, and World War II began. A triple calamity."

Fortunately, Hartigan's young husband was sensitive to her creative impulses and urged her to take art classes at night. Having had little practical experience, Hartigan was frustrated at first but persevered, drawing whenever she could throughout her pregnancy and after her son Jeffrey was born. When her husband was conscripted into the armed services, Hartigan returned East with her son and enrolled in a night course in mechanical drafting at the Newark College of Engineering. She then took a job as a mechanical draftswoman in an airplane factory and spent evenings creating watercolor still-lifes. Her first experience with contemporary painting came when a co-worker showed her a book on Henri Matisse. It made a lasting impression. Unsuccessful in attempts to duplicate Matisse's style on her own, she began art lessons with Isaac Lane Muse, an avant-garde teacher in Newark. In 1945, she moved to New York with Muse and rented a house on 19th Street and 7th Avenue. Working to support the household, she commuted daily to a drafting job in White Plains. "Slowly, I realized the terrible unfairness of it all," she said later. (By the end of the war, Hartigan and her husband had gone their separate ways. They would divorce in 1947, and, because Hartigan was certain that her penniless, bohemian lifestyle was not good for her son, Jeffrey would grow up with his father in California.)

In January 1948, Hartigan attended the first exhibition of Jackson Pollock's controversial large-scale drip paintings, an event that changed her life. "I was mesmerized and fascinated," she recalled, "but I can't say that I liked the paintings initially." Upon returning home, she fought with Muse who did not appreciate Pollock or abstract painting. Soon after, she left him and established her own small studio. After contemplating Pollock's paintings for several months, Hartigan and another young painter, Harry Jackson, hitchhiked to Long Island to visit Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner . Hartigan spent a week immersed in Pollock's paintings and came away with a renewed dedication. "I knew the paintings and the person who painted them were one-and-the-same," she said. "Painting was not an activity but a total life. And you would do anything to keep painting, even if you starved. You were the paintings and the paintings were you."

Through Pollock, Hartigan met Willem de Kooning, whose influence was more intellectual, less visceral, than Pollock's, though his message about commitment was the same. De Kooning, whom Hartigan viewed as "a great classicist," advised her to study the masters and to discover her own subject matter. "De Kooning provided a model for Hartigan of freely expressive but masterly painting technique," writes Robert Mattison in his book Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World.

In March 1949, Hartigan married Harry Jackson (the marriage was annulled in 1950) and spent a year with him in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. With Jackson's money from the GI Bill, the couple rented a villa and painted full-time. Some of Hartigan's earliest preserved works date from this period, and reflect the themes of witchcraft and folklore she found in Mexican folk art. Representative is Secuda Esa Bruja (The witch is flying), a painting that resembles the late Surrealist works of Mark Rothko, whom Hartigan had met while living with Muse.

Returning to New York, Hartigan began to paint large abstract canvases and to associate with other artists of the New York School, including Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell , and Franz Kline. She also befriended poet Frank O'Hara, with whom she collaborated in 1952, creating a series of poem-paintings based on his work, Oranges. In the spring of 1950, art critics Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro had included Hartigan's Secuda Esa Bruja in their landmark exhibition "New Talent," held at the Kootz Gallery. Following "New Talent," Hartigan had her first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which later became the leading showcase for the younger New York School artists. The exhibition featured ten of her works, including the large canvases The King Is Dead, King of the Hill, and Months and Moons, described by Charlotte Rubinstein in American Women Artists as "energetic swaths of dripping housepaint and collage." Though reviews were sympathetic, the exhibition was not well attended, and the one painting that sold was returned the following day. Public apathy as well as perpetual poverty were constants for Hartigan, who, until the late 1950s, often had to stop painting for a month or so and take a job to pay for paint and canvases.

In 1952, around the time of a second solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy, Hartigan became dissatisfied, declaring herself "fed up with everything I am doing." Feeling a need to learn the secrets of the past and incorporate them into her work, she temporarily gave up abstraction and spent a year doing free studies of the masters, including Dürer, de Zurbarán, Rubens, Matisse, Velasquez, and Goya. This foray temporarily alienated her from painters like Pollock, Kline, and Rothko, who viewed her as a defector. However, according to Mattison, it provided Hartigan with "important compositional lessons about space, tactility, form, structure, and light." Her search for personal style and subject matter continued, as did her rise as an artist of note. During her third solo exhibition in March 1953, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., purchased The Persian Jacket (1952) for the Museum of Modern Art. It was her first painting to be acquired by a major museum, an occasion that marked her arrival as an important American artist of the "advanced tendency."

Hartigan's largest and most complex painting of the 1950s was Grand Street Brides (1954), a work inspired by the rows of bridal shops on nearby Grand Street. "I passed by a store window jammed full of mannequins in cheap white lace bridal gowns with a seated figure in a bilious violet maid of honor dress," Hartigan recalled. "It would make a marvelous group picture, a kind of modern court scene." In preparation and as reference for the work, Hartigan purchased a wedding gown and collected a group of photographs of store windows, taken by Walter Silver, which she tacked to her painting wall. "As the mannequins and store windows were in themselves distanced from life, the photographs provided another degree of removal," writes Mattison. "Thus Hartigan was allowed a wide latitude in the reinvention of imagery and structure." (This method of gathering, assimilating and synthesizing images continued to be used by the artist, with slight variations, throughout her career.) In this work, Hartigan also utilized a new painting technique that involved scraping and rubbing down through the layers of paint, "as if," says Mattison, "she were digging down to the essence of personality."

During the late 1950s, Hartigan produced some of her best-known works, including Shop Window (1955), City Life (part of the "Twelve Americans" exhibit in 1956 and purchased by Nelson Rockefeller), and Billboard (1957), as well as several works from her first trip to Europe in 1958, including Dublin (1958–59) and Sweden (1959). By the end of the decade, the artist was something of a celebrity. She was the subject of a Life magazine photographic essay, "Women Artists in Ascendance" (1957), while a Newsweek article contained her photo by Cecil Beaton. Hartigan began to find public acclaim distracting. "I must close my door so I can be alone again," she wrote in her notebook. "I must have time to think and paint without constant interruption."

In the winter of 1958, Hartigan married art dealer Robert Keene and, in the summer of 1959, purchased a permanent residence on Long Island, where her husband owned a gallery. That summer was a prolific one for Hartigan, despite mounting friction with Keene. She completed 17 oil paintings, among them The Fourth, a large work which embodies the spirit of Independence Day, with vibrant splashes of red, white, and blue exploding at the top of the painting like fireworks.

Hartigan's life changed dramatically in 1960 when she divorced Keene, married epidemiologist Dr. Winston Price (noted for his work on developing a vaccine for encephalitis), and moved to his home in Baltimore, Maryland. Hartigan had met Price in 1959, when he purchased one of her paintings, and they fell in love immediately. (Both divorced their respective spouses so they could marry.) Hartigan wrote to a friend after the wedding: "All that this letter could possibly be is a song of my love; the first time I have ever loved so deeply or committed myself so completely. This is the man of my life. There is no doubt about it."

Price's emotional and intellectual support had a tremendous impact on Hartigan's work, which became more sensual, brighter in color, and more transparent in painting style. The paintings No Man Is an Island (1959–60), Phoenix (1962), William of Orange (1962), and Lily Pond (1962) are all reflective of Hartigan's new-found security and happiness. During this period, she also invented the watercolor collage, called "second expression," in which she used luminescent washes in combination with overlays of torn paper. In 1962, Hartigan turned from what Mattison refers to as "a lyrical state" to undertake a personal and psychological study of Marilyn Monroe , a haunting abstraction that she simply called Marilyn (1962). Inspired by a collection of photographs and Monroe's comment, "Fame may go by—and, so long I've had you," the painting reflects the tragedy of Marilyn's inability to cope with the crushing responsibilities of her fame. It also encompasses Hartigan's feelings about the decline of her own celebrity after 1960.

The tense and fearful mood of Marilyn persisted in Hartigan's subsequent paintings, The Hunted (1963), Human Fragment (1963), and Mistral (1964), all of which embodied the artist's reaction to a world exploding in crisis—the civilrights movement, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "The world was ill at ease," she recalled. "Socially and morally as well as culturally, America suddenly seemed a frightening and foreign place." Other paintings of the period are indicative of Hartigan's continuing search for images. A series of works—Barbie (1964), Skin Deep (1965), and Beauty Mask (1965)—were inspired by dolls.

Hartigan was sometimes playful and irreverent in her themes. In Reisterstown Mall (1965), she explores the shopping mall as a cultural phenomenon. A humorous painting, Modern Cycle (1967), had its genesis in Hartigan's teaching, which also began during this period. To counteract her loneliness and isolation from the New York artistic community, she began instructing graduate students from Maryland Institute. (The classes later evolved into the Hoffberger School of Painting, where Hartigan served as director.) Hartigan's first few students were interested in motorcycles as well as art, so Hartigan indulged them with her own "cycle." Inspired by a poster of Marlon Brando and ads cut from the motorcycle magazine Modern Cycle, the painting is a playful ode to machine worship.

During the 1970s, Hartigan endured a series of crises: the loss of her father, the illness of her husband, a bout with alcoholism, a painful hipjoint problem, and a suicide attempt. Amid her personal upheavals, painting became a lifeline. Mattison finds her works in this period new and complex in structure. They are comprised of "split images, obsessively crowded surfaces, hidden and submerged colors—all revealing attempts to order a fragmented world vision…. These paintings are some of the most difficult works in Hartigan's career to interpret, yet they are also among the most rewarding." Hartigan's art was also increasingly out of step with the popular styles of Minimalism, Color Field, hardedge painting, and superrealism. She was so far ahead of her time that when the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston received her painting Another Birthday (1971) through a donation, they locked it away in storage until 1984.

Without the "rage for order" how can there be art?

—Grace Hartigan

Perhaps most deeply troubling to Hartigan throughout the 1970s was her husband's illness, which was the result of his experiments with live encephalitis vaccine. Beginning with bouts of severe depression, Price suffered a slow mental and physical decline until his eventual death in 1981. In a two-year period preceding 1978, Hartigan actually believed that her husband might recover. He had told her that he was working on important new experiments and that he was about to receive an inheritance. In truth, however, he was delusional, growing worse, and spending their savings. In 1978, the truth about his illness and their disintegrating financial situation came crashing in on Hartigan, who painted what she believed to be her last work, I Remember Lascaux (1978), and then attempted suicide by combining sleeping pills and alcohol. Discovered by her husband, Hartigan was taken to the hospital and revived, but the painting, I Remember Lascaux, serves as a lasting reminder of this painful episode. Ironically, it is one her calmest works, executed in muted tones and depicting a group of wild beasts organized around a beautiful gazelle at the center. The reference to the Lascaux caves in Southern France harkened back to her 1958 trip to Europe when she was among the last tourist parties to view the caves before they were closed to the public in 1963. "In her recollection of the caves Hartigan transformed the animals," explains Mattison. "Whereas the creatures depicted in Lascaux are characterized by their animation… Hartigan's animals are at rest. The mood in her work is restrained, quiet, and contemplative in a way that the paintings on the cave walls are not."

After her husband's death in 1981, Hartigan suffered a deep depression and succumbed to an increasing dependence on alcohol that had begun during the difficult '70s. In 1982, she entered Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where she underwent treatment and subsequently joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Hartigan's recovery was followed by a vigorous return to life and to her art. Eastern Avenue Florist, her first painting after leaving the hospital, is referred to by Mattison as her "resurrection painting," executed in a thin wash that "glows like stained glass and seems about to dissolve before the viewer's eyes." Coinciding with Hartigan's personal renewal came renewed public interest. Exhibitions of her work appeared more frequently, including solo shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art (1980), the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Museum of Art (1981), and American University, Washington, D.C. (1987). Hartigan was also included in two important surveys of painting of the 1950s, organized by the Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Harbor Beach, California: Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955–60 (1984) and The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism (1988).

Many of Hartigan's later works harken back to the figurative painting of the 1950s and utilize a variety of tools, from Japanese brushes to wool mitts, to sticks, and even, on occasion, to her own hands and feet. Her subjects included a watercolor series "Saints and Martyrs" (inspired by the illustrations of 12th-century Catalan frescoes), a "Great Queens and Empresses" series (Joséphine, Elizabeth I, Theodora ), and a group of Renaissance paintings (Renaissance Woman, Lady Gathering Pomegranates, Renaissance Card Game, Crowning of the Poet, Bacchus, and Visions of Heaven and Hell).

In the late 1980s, Hartigan made another foray into Modernism with her "American Places" series, a group of ten large canvases begun in 1986. One of these, Malibu, a sevenfoot square oil painting inspired by a trip to California the previous year, is Pollockesque. Hartigan took the finished painting from the wall, placed it on the floor, and poured paint over the images. Compelled to be closer to it, she then walked onto it, pushing the paint around with her hands and feet. Working in this manner, she said, brought back to mind Pollock's statement: "When I am in my painting… I see what I have been about." Mattison calls the painting "elemental" and "somewhat mad." He further describes it as "the very essence of sand, sea, sun, and bodies—a breakthrough painting of this period." Other California-inspired paintings in the group include Tarzana (1987) and Madonna Inn (1987). The "Places" series also includes the later works: Casino (1987) is an expressionistic work inspired by the compulsive gambling that Hartigan observed in Atlantic City; Chicago (1988) includes images of some of her favorite performers; and West Broadway brings the artist full circle to the city of her artistic birth.

In 1989, as he finished his biography on Grace Hartigan, Robert Mattison set to wondering what he might find when he next visited her, for it seemed clear to him that as long as life engaged her, Hartigan would continue to evolve as an artist. "Somehow, in painting I try to make some logic out of the world that has been given to me in chaos," the artist once said. "I have a very pretentious idea that I want to make life, I want to make sense out of it. The fact that I am doomed to failure—that doesn't deter me in the least."

sources:

Baigell, Matthew. Dictionary of American Art. NY: Harper & Row, 1979.

Mattison, Robert Saltonstall. Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World. NY: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1962.

Naylor, Colin, ed. Contemporary Artists. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1989.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts