"Most celebrated of the young American women painters, Grace Hartigan, who comes from Newark, N.J., has developed a brilliantly bold, semi-abstract style to capture the garish jumble of excitement of the market district of New York's lower East Side where she lives." LIFE Magazine, May 13, 1957
|Born||March 28, 1922|
|Died||November 15, 2008 (aged 86)|
Born in Newark, New Jersey, of Irish-English descent, Hartigan was the oldest of four children. Encouraging her romantic fantasies, her father and grandmother often sang songs and told her stories. Her mother, however, disapproved. At nineteen she was married to Robert Jachens. A planned move to Alaska, where the young couple planned to live as pioneers, ended in California, where Hartigan began painting with her husband's encouragement. After her husband was drafted in 1942, Hartigan returned to New Jersey to study mechanical drafting at the Newark College of Engineering. She also worked as a draftsman in an airplane factory to support herself and her son. During this time, she studied painting with Isaac Lane Muse. Through him, she was introduced to the work of Henri Matisse and Kimon Nicolaïdes’s The Natural Way to Draw, which influenced her later work as a painter.
Said Hartigan of her foray into painting, “I didn’t choose painting. It chose me. I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”
In 1945, Hartigan moved to New York City, and quickly became a member of the downtown artistic community. Her friends included Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning and Elaine de Kooning, Frank O'Hara, Knox Martin, and many other painters, artists, poets and writers. Hartigan gained her reputation as part of the New York School of artists and painters that emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. Hartigan was selected by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro for the New Talent exhibition at Koontz Gallery in New York in 1950.
She was often thought of as a “second generation Abstract Expressionist”, being heavily influenced by her colleagues of the time. Her early career was characterized by experiments with total abstraction, as seen in the work Six by Six (1951) currently in the collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in Poughkeepsie, NY. Beginning the early fifties Hartigan began to incorporate more recognizable motifs and characters into her paintings. Also during this time, she briefly exhibited under the name George Hartigan in an attempt to achieve greater recognition for her work.
Paintings from the Old Masters: In the early 1950s Grace Hartigan began painting figuratively from old master paintings. Clement Greenberg, an influential art critic in New York during the mid 20th century, enthusiastically supported Hartigan's Abstract Expressionist works, but opposed her painting figuratively. This discord resulted in her break from Greenberg. Painting from the old masters fostered Hartigan's growth in depicting space, light, form, and structure. Some examples of these paintings are Hartigan's River Bathers (1953), Knight, Death, and Devil (1952), and The Tribute Money (after Rubens) (1952), working after Matisse, Durer, and Rubens, respectively.
Brides: In 1949, Hartigan rented a studio at 25 Essex St in lower Manhattan. Inspired by the display windows of the numerous bridal shops concentrated on nearby Grand street, Hartigan (with two unsuccessful marriages behind her) began to paint groups of mannequins dressed in bridal gowns. Grand Street Brides (1954; Whitney Museum of American Art), based on Goya's Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1800), was one of several works that drew the attention of critics and collectors and established her reputation. Later in her career, Hartigan said, "[The] bridal theme is one of my empty ritual ideas ... it just seems ludicrous to me to go through all that fuss." Additionally, she stated, "I paint things that I'm against to try to make them wonderful ... very often."
Oranges: In November 1952, Hartigan and close friend Frank O'Hara began a collaborative project: Oranges. O'Hara had written a collection of fourteen poems while a student at Harvard. Hartigan created a painting in response to each of the fourteen poems, incorporating text from each poem into every image.
Memorials: Over the course of her career, Hartigan painted abstract compositions commemorating the deaths of friends and family members, including Martha Jackson, Franz Kline, Frank O'Hara, her father, and Winston Price.
Marilyn (1962): In the year of the actress' death, Hartigan painted an image of Marilyn Monroe. Her painterly, expressive treatment of the subject differs from the impersonal manner of such pop artists as Andy Warhol. Working from several photographs, Hartigan felt that her fragmented, semi-abstract picture represented Monroe more honestly than her glamorous, public image.
Reisterstown Mall (1965): Grace returned to her lifetime fascination with shop windows with an updated, modern vision. She began working her way back to more recognizable imagery, though keeping the objects floating in an abstract, buoyant, circular composition. Though she includes a plethora of recognizable objects, this is not Pop Art. Grace was "always too passionately involved with her subject matter to accept the deadpan perspective of Pop."
Modern Cycle (1967): This painting captures the American fascination and worship of machines in the 1960s. It was this spirit that Hartigan parodied in Modern Cycle, a humor that recurs frequently in her work.
Autobiography: Autobiography is present in all of Grace Hartigan's work, but it took on a more central role in the 1970s.
I the late 1950s, Hartigan began to experience a high level of exposure. In 1956, her paintings were included in the 12 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as in The New American Painting, which traveled throughout Europe from 1958 to 1959. Hartigan received significant press coverage as she was one of few women at this time to receive this level of exposure. Subsequently, she was featured in Life magazine in 1957 and Newsweek in 1959. Life magazine referred to Hartigan as “the most celebrated of the young American women painters.”
Hartigan's work around this time shifted, and she began creating more transparent paintings and watercolor collages. In an explanation of this change she said, "I have left the groan and the anguish behind. The cry has become a song." Examples of these paintings include Phoenix, William of Orange, and Lily Pond (all completed in 1962). Also in 1962, Hartigan painted Monroe, marking another shift in her work toward more anxiety-laden imagery. The Hunted (1963), Human Fragment (1963), and Mistral (1964) are representations of this mindset and approach to painting. JFK’s assassination and the rise of Pop art (a movement Hartigan vehemently opposed) occurred around this time. Said Hartigan, “The world was ill at ease. Socially and morally as well as culturally, America suddenly seemed a frightening and foreign place." (Mattison 68). In 1965, Hartigan was named director of the Hoffberger School of Painting at Maryland Institute College of Art, a graduate painting pro-am where she taught until her death.
More jovial paintings of the ‘60s included Reisterstown Mall (1965) and Modern Cycle (1967), in which she continued to draw from popular culture, but retained her expressive hand.
When the Raven was White (1969), Hartigan’s first memorial painting since Frank O’Hara (1966), foreshadowed future paintings of the 1970s. A memorial to her friend Martha Jackson, the work was also autobiographical. The painting represented hope amidst dark times, that there was a time before "the raven turned black". Concurrently, Hartigan was experiencing trauma in her own life - alcoholism, attempted suicide and the mental and physical decline of her husband, Dr. Price.
The 1970s marked a time of autobiographically-laden imagery in Hartigan's artwork. Having been influenced by the Cubists since her early education, the paintings of the 70s heavily reflected that interest. The paintings had crowded compositions, with shallow space, and collections of recognizable subjects.
During this decade, Philip Guston became Hartigan's closest artist friend. Their imagery had in common that icons in the work were representations of their respective thoughts and feelings.
Harold Rosenberg, an art critic with whom Hartigan had corresponded with since her split with Greenberg in the 1950s, continued to be a part of Hartigan's life in the 1970s. He argued that “the enemy of art is conformity, not just to the values of values of a totalitarian state or to a society of mass consumption, but to one’s own established style (Mattison 88).
Beware of Gifts (1971), Another Birthday (1971), Summer to Fall (1971–72), Black Velvet (1972), Autumn Shop Window (1972), Purple Passion (1973), Coloring Book of Ancient Egypt (1973), I Remember Lascaux (1978)and Twilight of the Gods (1978) were all painted during this period.
In the 1980s Hartigan returned to some of the figurative imagery that was a part of her work early on in her career. Paper dolls, saints, martyrs, opera singers, and queens were subjects in some of these paintings of the 1980s. Hartigan was really struggling with alcoholism and each day, trying to abstain, put much vigor into her arts practice. She worked serially with subject matter.
Hartigan married Robert Jachens in 1941 and had one son, born 1942. They were divorced in 1947. Artist Harry Jackson was Hartigan's second husband. They married in 1949, but the marriage was annulled in 1950. Hartigan married Long Island gallery owner Robert Keene in 1958; they were divorced in 1960.
In 1959, Hartigan met Dr Wilson Price, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, whom she married in 1960. Price died after a decade long mental and physical decline in 1981, caused by injecting himself with an experimental vaccine against encephalitis that left him with spinal meningitis.
Hartigan had a close friendship with Frank O'Hara. They had a falling out and did not speak for six years during the course of their friendship, but then reconnected until O’Hara's death in 1966. Philip Guston was the artist Hartigan was closest to in the 1970s.
Grace Hartigan died in November 2008 at age 86 of liver failure.
- Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Albany, NY
- Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, FL
- Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
- Figge Art Museum, Davenport, IA
- Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
- New York school : abstract expressionists : artists choice by artists : a complete documentation of the New York painting and sculpture annuals, 1951-1957, p.16; p.37
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- Hirsh, Sharon L., Grace Hartigan: Painting Art History. Carlisle, PA: The Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, 2003.
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- Mattison, Robert S., Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990.
- Marika Herskovic, American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s An Illustrated Survey, (New York School Press, 2003.) ISBN 0-9677994-1-4. p. 162-165
- Marika Herskovic, New York School Abstract Expressionists Artists Choice by Artists, (New York School Press, 2000.) ISBN 0-9677994-0-6. p. 16; p. 37; p. 174-177
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