10 things to know about Grace Hartigan
Grace Hartigan was arguably the most celebrated female artist of her day. Specialist Caitlin Foreht outlines what makes her oeuvre so compelling. Illustrated with works from Grace Hartigan: No Rules
‘Hartigan was recognised as one of the most talented artists of her time,’ says Foreht. ‘The curator Dorothy Miller and Alfred H. Barr identified her within a crowd of people and knew she was really special.’
She was the only female artist to appear in both the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 1956 show, Twelve Americans alongside Sam Francis, Philip Guston and Franz Kline and The New American Painting exhibition that toured Europe from 1958-59 and also featured Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.
A profile in Newsweek in 1957 was followed by one in LIFE magazine the next year, which pronounced her ‘the most celebrated of the young American women painters.’
‘The fact that Alfred Barr walked out of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1953 with a Hartigan painting under his arm and put it in the permanent collection of MoMA solidified her position in the canon,’ says Foreht.
The dealers Martha Jackson, Gertrude Kasle and Beatrice Perry also supported Hartigan; Perry was especially important in her later career.
Her friends clearly nurtured her creative life. Hartigan recalled an early visit to Pollock’s studio: ‘you've no idea what it is to see something that’s in the world for the first time. I was just stunned’; and was a regular at the Cedar Tavern, an ‘incubator’ of the post-war American art scene. She was a close associate and collaborator with the poet Frank O’Hara, and friend to Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell.
After marrying the epidemiologist and collector Dr. Winston Price in 1960, Hartigan left New York to live with him in Baltimore.
‘It removed her from the public eye,’ says Foreht, ‘but it was also the push and pull of fame and creativity. There was such an upward momentum when she was young, and then she went her own way.’
Hartigan missed her cultural social circle, but nevertheless pursued art on her own terms, and became a legendary teacher at the Hoffberger Graduate School of Painting.
Critic and art historian Irving Sandler later said: ‘She simply dismissed the vicissitudes of the art market, the succession of new trends in the art world. This didn’t in any real or important way affect her. Grace is the real thing.’
Although she was undoubtedly influenced by figures such as Pollock and de Kooning, ‘from the beginning she was always trying to find and navigate her own way through the rigid structure of Modern art in the post-war era,’ says Foreht.
She interwove abstraction with figuration and in 1952 began painting homages to Old Master painters including Diego Velásquez, Peter Paul Rubens and Francisco de Goya — for example The Persian Jacket in the MoMA’s permanent collection.
Despite institutional support, Hartigan drew fire from her peers for abandoning pure abstraction. But as she once said, ‘No rules… I must be free to paint anything I feel’.
In the mid 1950s she began her 'City Life' series, working from images on the Lower East Side. After that, ‘everybody got friendly again,’ she said, ‘because they thought they were pretty good and they’d forgive me for throwing a mango in or something that looked like a bicycle.’
‘She was a pioneer and remained a pioneer through her entire career,’ says Foreht. ‘How could you not be a fan of her work?’
The work Professor Max Heim of Hanover is named after the University of Hannover’s chief anatomy illustrator, and shows Hartigan immersed in medical illustration in the 1960s, leading to her ‘Anatomy Lessons’ series.
Through her husband Winston, ‘She had some of the most renowned medical drawings and publications at her fingertips,’ says Foreht. ‘Her life in Baltimore and her involvement in and exposure to the sciences affected and gave perspective to her practice.’
As her career was taking off, Hartigan was signing her paintings under a pseudonym in homage to two writers she admired, George Sand and George Eliot.
Hartigan denied this was an effort to be taken seriously, rather ‘there is a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to it,’ says Foreht.
‘But it can’t be ignored that the art world was and is incredibly gendered and polarising. I think this is just one example of the ways in which Hartigan was not just passively in this movement, but very much aware of the dynamics of institutional relations in a male dominated art world, but it clearly didn’t stop her.
‘And it didn’t stop her from questioning what was seen as the highest form of art amongst her contemporaries. That’s why these works, especially of the 1950s, are so inspiring and show so much bravery: she would not be confined.’
Eventually, the MoMA curator Dorothy Miller convinced Hartigan to show under her real name.
Her raw and gestural marks made way for more lyrical and intensely coloured paintings in the 1960s, including the 1962 work, Marilyn, in which the movie star’s features appear dotted across the canvas. This was the same year that Andy Warhol first painted his version of the Hollywood icon.
At this time Hartigan was in Baltimore, and ‘with that came feelings of detachment and isolation,’ says Foreht. ‘The spotlight was gone.’ Yet, as Foreht says, Marilyn Monroe was ‘a relatable character in the public eye that people across the globe were consuming.’
When Hartigan turned her attention to Monroe, Pop art was on the rise. ‘She had her hand on the pulse of what was driving culture. So of course, she took it upon herself to figure out a way to acknowledge and examine that,’ says Foreht.
This was the beginning of a new style. Hartigan went on to paint the actress Marlene Dietrich because of her defiance of Nazism as well as other women from myth and history, including the patron saint of young schoolgirls, Saint Ursula.
‘The 1950s and 1960s were incredibly explorative for her,’ says Foreht. ‘In the 1970s and onwards she solidified that freedom, using the female form as a starting point to tell a story, as a vehicle for a narrative in the way that abstraction was for her in the 1950s and 1960s.’
‘I have found my subject,’ said Haritgan in 1957. ‘It concerns that which is vulgar and vital in American life, and possibilities of its transcendence into the beautiful.’
This statement has been used by curators and critics to cast Hartigan as a Pop pioneer, and although the everyday and the glamorous in urban life were certainly subjects, including malls and shop windows — among her most famous works is Grand Street Brides, inspired by a local bridal display — she was dismissive: ‘Pop Art is not painting, because painting must have content and emotion’.
Hartigan would later say ‘It was picking up on some essential symbols of our American culture… I’m very interested in dolls because a doll is an essence, really, of what society thinks you should present to your little girls.’
A Matisse book given to her while studying in Newark in the 1940s ignited Hartigan’s love of Modern art — European painting and the idea of 'maximum colour intensities' echoes throughout her oeuvre.
Still Life - Yellow Ball, is a case in point, says Foreht. ‘It harkens back to Gorky, but also to still lives of the works of Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. There is an intimacy to their works that continues in her work.’
Geometric collages of the 1950s include The Cherries and Study for Montauk Highway II and show Hartigan drawing on ideas of the cut-out and explorations of depth indebted to Matisse.
‘Again,’ says Foreht, they also show ‘that she was not bound by one mode of thought.’
In the years since her death in 2008, Hartigan’s work has made a return to the public eye, as curators, scholars and collectors reevaluate the Western art canon.
Major shows including Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Denver Art Museum in 2016, and, in 2018, Grace Hartigan 1960-1965, The Perry Collection at the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando raised her profile, as did Mary Gabriel’s group biography of her female peers, Ninth Street Women published that year.
Hartigan is also currently on show in a large-scale survey at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Women Take the Floor, which takes aim at dominant histories of American art.
It means she is being seen as more than a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. As Foreht says, ‘I think that we can look at her career as fundamentally “her”. And there’s beauty in that.’