By Shelley Esaak
Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:
Grace Hartigan did, indeed, get her start as an Abstract Expressionist–she was a “second generation” member of the New York School, and its most visible female member. She very quickly moved on, though, and caught tremendous flak from artist friends and critics for introducing representational elements into her work.
She has been called a precursor to Pop Art (a movement with which she did not care to be associated). In honesty, Hartigan was so intellectually curious that her work changed regularly over six decades. The most accurately descriptive stylistic phrase would be “her own.”
Date and Place of Birth:
March 28, 1922, Newark, New Jersey
Grace was the eldest of four children born to her accountant father and housewife mother. According to interviews, her parents seemed to have lacked sympathy and understanding for their daughter’s creative nature. However, her grandmother and schoolteacher aunt (both of whom lived in the other half of the family duplex in her early childhood) filled her imaginative young head with Irish folklore, fairy tales and a love of the English language.
All of this manifested in Grace’s desire to become an actress, and fascination with Gypsy caravans that passed through the area seasonally.
Her Start in Art:
Alas, Grace would never become an actress. She married for the first time (there would, eventually, be four Misters Hartigan) straight out of high school. The newlyweds’ cross-country trip to homestead in Alaska ended in Los Angeles when they (1) ran out of money and (2) Grace discovered she was pregnant.
Shortly afterwards, the United States entered WWII. Her husband drafted, Grace returned to the East Coast to live with her in-laws and got a job as a mechanical draftsman (on the strength of a few drawing classes in California). In this most un-creative setting, a co-worker introduced her to Matisse’s works.
A Star Is Born:
Hartigan–never one to take half-measures–moved very quickly from “wanting to draw like that” (meaning Matisse) to painting full-time in a cold water flat on the Lower East Side. It was here that she met nearly the entire “First Generation” of New York School painters, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. This community of artists accepted her as one of their own–although it is important to remember that no one was selling at the time, and all of them were financially strapped. A band of talented equals, happy to meet nightly at the Cedar Tavern for talk, drinks and an affordable meal.
In due course Pollock and de Kooning were “discovered,” which focused critical and gallery interest on the entire New York School. Hartigan had been showing with the undiscovereds; Pollock recommended her for the New Talent 1950 show at the Kootz Gallery and the rest, as they say, is history. As was the case with nearly everyone else in the Cedar Tavern circle, Grace sold every canvas she could paint in the 1950s–albeit at lower prices than her male counterparts commanded. More importantly, to her, she developed many new artistic friendships and maintained most of those that she already had.
A Star Voluntarily Disappears:
And then, in 1960, she married her fourth husband, Winston Price, a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Hartigan moved to Baltimore, which was at that time akin to Outer Mongolia in terms of sales or gallery interest. (Coincidentally, 1960 was also the year that Pop Art began to be the Next Big Thing.)
She kept painting, though, and in 1965 carved a niche for herself as an instructor, a role she enjoyed for the next 42 years. Grace Hartigan will forever be best known as one of the few women who were accepted by the “guys”–and successfully showed and sold–in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism.
- Persian Jacket, 1952
- The Oranges (series), 1952-53
- Grand Street Brides, 1954
- New England October, 1957
- Reisterstown Mall, 1965
In the category of “Important Works,” it would be shameful not to include Ms. Hartigan’s 40+ years as director of the graduate program at the Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art. She didn’t care to be called a “teacher,” and downplayed her influence. But the fact remains that from 1965-2007 she mentored, criticized and generally helped hundreds of painters find their own paths.
Date and Place of Death:
November 15, 2008, Timonium, Maryland
Quotes From Grace Hartigan:
- Art is still the only place in the world where you can do exactly what you want if you pay the price, which is having no one else want it. — Grace Hartigan interview, 1979 May 10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- I cannot expect even my own art to provide all the answers – only to hope it keeps asking all the right questions.
- There’s a lot of work I still want to do. But the thing that’s been incredible is that one way or another I’ve been able to arrange my life so that I could paint every day. And that’s been the main thing. — Baltimore Sun interview, October 28, 2001.
Sources and Further Reading
- Hartigan, Grace. Grace Hartigan (exh. cat.).
Purchase, N.Y. : Neuberger Museum of Art, 2001.
- Hartigan, Grace. Grace Hartigan: Painting the Renaissance (exh. cat.).
New York : Gruenebaum Gallery, 1986.
- Hirsh, Sharon L. Grace Hartigan: Painting Art History.
Carlisle, PA : The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, 2003.
- Kleeblatt, Norman L. (ed.) Action/Abstraction:
Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976 (exh. cat.).
New Haven : Yale University Press, 2008.
- Mattison, Robert S. Grace Hartigan: A Painter’s World.
New York : Hudson Hills Press, 1990.
- Munro, Eleanor C. Originals: American Women Artists.
New York : Da Capo Press, 2000.
- Puniello, Françoise S.; Halina R. Rusak. Abstract Expressionist Women Painters: An Annotated Bibliography: Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Ethel Schwabacher.
Lanham, MD : Scarecrow Press, 1996.