Grace Hartigan: 1922-2008

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New England October, Grace Hartigan, 1957/Albright-Knox Art Gallery

New England October, Grace Hartigan, 1957/Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

The Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan died over the weekend in Baltimore. I hadn’t given her much thought in recent years until last summer, when a couple of her canvases turned up in “Action/Abstraction”, the excellent show organized by the Jewish Museum in New York that’s now at the St. Louis Art Museum. (And which heads next to the Albright-Knox in Buffalo.) In the 1950s Hartigan, along with Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and a few others, was one of the very small handful of prominent women abstractionists. (And even then they were treated much of the time as a kind of ladies auxilliary to the all important boy’s club of guys like Pollock and de Kooning.) She was included in two of the most important group shows of the decade, “Twelve Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and MOMA’s even more crucial “New American Painting”, the famous victory lap exhibition that MOMA sent all over Europe, more or less to announce that New York had now trumped Paris as the capital of modern art. In that one, among 17 artists, she was the only woman.

For a time Hartigan also had the support of Clement Greenberg, the all powerful critic whose competition with Harold Rosenberg for influence over American art is the organizing theme of the “Action/Abstraction” show. It was Greenberg who persuaded the Manhattan gallerist Tibor de Nagy to give Hartigan her first solo exhibition in 1952. But for Greenberg the only kind of painting that mattered was resolutely abstract. And in the early ’50s Hartigan committed the unthinkable sin of re-introducing vaguely representational imagery into her work, generally I would say with a debt to Matisse. Those faint allusions to landscape in New England October, the picture up top, are typical. Likewise the references to a fruit stand in Summer Street.

Summer Street, Grace Hartigan, 1956/Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Summer Street, Grace Hartigan, 1956/National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Greenberg was horrified by the new turn in Haritgan’s work and never supported it again. In the (very good) catalogue for the “Action/Abstraction” show there’s a passage where Hartigan describes a studio visit from Greenberg that went badly.

“I was furious and screamed at him that day in my studio, and when he left, I remember breaking some cups and saucers and glasses or whatever — hurling them after him when it was too late to hit him.”

This might explain why Hartigan’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in Art and Culture, the collection of essays Greenberg published in 1961. And it’s probably true that her work in that vein helped inspire a lot of insipid suburban semi-abstraction in the years that followed. But Hartigan was a sophisticated colorist, and in her best work had an interesting way of blurring the line between abstraction and representation, flatness and depth, interior and exterior. In that connection, New England October looks pretty good to me, but Summer Street starts crossing a line into kitsch — maybe it’s that green striped melon in the upper third.

By 1960 Hartigan had moved to Baltimore to follow her new husband, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins. It wouldn’t be true to say she fell off the radar but in those days the American art world was even more New York-centric than it is now. Then Pop came along, a movement she hated. (Pop was cool, Hartigan was tempestuous on the canvas and in life.) Though she had a long and successful career as a teacher in Baltimore, and continued to paint and exhibit, she was certainly never as famous again.

One of her most intense personal relationships was with the poet Frank O’Hara. Though he was gay, she once said that their bond was more intense than any she ever had with a straight guy. O’Hara died in the summer of 1966 when he was hit by a jeep on the beach at Fire Island. On his gravestone today there are some lines of his poetry. “Grace /to be born and live as variously as possible”. Those words are supposed to have been written for her, and maybe they could be her epitaph, too, for a painter who went her own way, even if sometimes that took her to the margins.