In 1958, Grace Hartigan was the only woman to be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “The New American Painting” that toured eight European countries between 1958 and ‘59. This show effectively ended Paris’s reign as art world capital, as New York emerged as the center of all that was exciting and innovative. At the time, Hartigan’s paintings were already found in nearly every major American museum. The Museum of Modern Art acquired Persian Jacket (1952) and River Bathers (1953), and the collector Nelson Rockefeller purchased City Life (1956) and Salome (1963) for his Kykuit estate. Thus, Hartigan’s reputation as one of the leading painters of her generation was already set in motion, culminating in a decade of successful exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad.
During the early 60s, Hartigan worked with what she called “maximum color intensities,” in creating high-keyed abstractions where interlocking planes of color create a kind of push and pull on the canvas surface. It is perhaps not surprising that Matisse was a key influence in her use of color, especially as seen in Mimosa, 1949/1951, and that she learned the shallow depth of surface from William de Kooning, who was a close friend from her Cedar Tavern days in New York in the early 1950s. “A big issue for her in these works was how to avoid leaving any ‘negative space,’” her biographer Cathy Curtis has explained, “so that every square inch of the canvas would be activated - if not with a recognizable object, then with areas of paint that create their own drama” (C. Curtis, Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 151).
In the present work, Hartigan has moved away from the raw, gestural immediacy of her 1950s paintings to a more composed and lyrical abstraction, using transparent, thinned-down pigments that she rubbed with rags and fine-grade steel wool. In her earlier work, Hartigan had attempted to render the world seen in “fragments…like being on a fast train and getting glimpses of things in strange scales as you pass by,” she said (G. Hartigan, quoted in A. Barber, “Marking Some Marks,” Arts Magazine, Vol. 48, No. 9, June 1974, p. 51). She had found inspiration from the fruit vendors and street carts outside her loft on the Lower East Side. By the time she painted The Phoenix, in 1962, however, her forms have softened, becoming more lyrical and Matissean, rendered in thinned-down, jewel tones that have the transparency of stained glass.
I have left expressionism, and although the new paintings have feeling, the emotion is that which each painting demands…Left behind is the ‘anguish.’ I now hope to triumph, to bring to each painting as much clarity, beauty and even ecstasy as I am able. The scream has become a song.”
The change in Hartigan’s paintings of the ‘60s is related to her move away from New York to Baltimore, following her marriage to the Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Winston Price. The couple spent a prolonged honeymoon in rural New England, renting a cottage with a lily pond in Clark’s Cove, on Maine’s Bristol Peninsula. It was there that her work began to evolve, taking on more lyrical forms and a brighter palette. “Grace had worried about the softening influence of nature on her work,” Curtis explained, “yet the combination of a fulfilling love life and the pleasures of a summer retreat inspired a strong group of newly lyrical abstract paintings -- including Lily Pond, The Phoenix, Marilyn [and] William of Orange...suffused with bright color and laced with the curving shapes of fruit, leaves and sexual organs” (C. Curtis, op. cit., 2015, p. 206).
Hartigan would go on to explain this newfound change in her work later that Fall, when the paintings were exhibited at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. “The ‘look’ [of the paintings] is the result of a completely new (to me) attitude toward emotion. I have left expressionism, and although the new paintings have feeling, the emotion is that which each painting demands…Left behind is the ‘anguish.’ I now hope to triumph, to bring to each painting as much clarity, beauty and even ecstasy as I am able. The scream has become a song” (G. Hartigan, quoted in Hartigan ‘62, exh. cat., Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1962, np.).
Hartigan was a major figure of the downtown New York arts scene in the 1940s and ‘50s. Her friends included Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, the poet Frank O’Hara, and countless other artists and writers. She was arguably the most celebrated woman artist of her day, with profiles in Life magazine, Newsweek and Time, and a string of successful shows with Tibor de Nagy throughout the ‘50s. Through de Kooning, she developed the use of free, gestural movements, using a thickly-loaded brush, and a kind of shallow perspectival space, where “there’s no recessional space, there’s no perspective,” she explained. “That comes out of the Abstract Expressionist idea of projecting surface. ...it’s a very shallow, loose, moving, mobile surface space” (G. Hartigan, quoted in “Oral History Interview with Grace Hartigan,”Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., May 10, 1979; accessed via: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-grace-hartigan-12326)
Shortly after it was painted, The Phoenix was acquired by Beatrice “Beati” Perry, who became Hartigan’s dealer after her break with Tibor de Nagy. (It was also through Perry that Hartigan had first met her future husband). Beati was an elegant and stylish gallerist who was the director of Gres Gallery in Washington D.C. She developed an interest in Hartigan’s paintings, and convinced her to join the gallery around 1960. A few years later, Beati would go on to partner with Martha Jackson in showing Hartigan’s latest series of paintings in the Fall of 1962. The show was favorably reviewed, with the New York Times art critic Stuart Preston declaring them “beautiful” paintings.” Preston wrote that Hartigan “manages to suggest something sensuous and even sensual in the way softly rounded forms snuggle and embrace….Form and glowing color are one and indivisible” (S. Preston, “Drawings and Paintings,” The New York Times, October 28, 1962, Section 2, p. 15).
Lot Essay Header Image: Grace Hartigan in her Lower East Side studio, New York, 1957. Photo: Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images. Artwork: (C) Grace Hartigan Estate.