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From left: Grace Hartigan, Inclement Weather (1970), courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Grace Hartigan in her studio in 1993 with her painting Junk Shop With Egyptian Violet, courtesy of Marty Katz/; Grace Hartigan, Summer Street (1956), courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Grace Hartigan (1922 - 2008):
An Appreciation

by Michael Klein

Grace Hartigan was a painter who refused to be trapped by labels or styles. She was born in Newark, New Jersey, lived and worked in New York during the halcyon days of Abstract Expressionism, and then moved—because of love--to Baltimore, Maryland, where she lived, worked, taught and painted every day. Although she left New York City, she remained a presence in the Eastern art establishment.

Hers was a style that was both well thought-out and emotional, planned and yet inventive. On a recent visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art, my hostess and I, after enjoying the Cone sisters Matisse collection, trekked to the second floor of the new wing and looked at four large-scale paintings by Hartigan that had just been installed. Installed as a small tribute to a local painting hero, they now stood as a memorial, to her energy, vision, and longevity. 

I first heard about Grace through a college friend who, like me, was in the Whitney Independent Study Program. I was studying Milton Avery’s paintings with Hilton Kramer, and she had signed up with Irving Sandler and decided to work on a paper on Grace Hartigan. “Who is she?” I asked, “Grace Hartigan” she repeated and then pointed to a beautiful, fresh, lush abstraction called Sweden (1959) that we were going to include in our group’s curatorial project. This collaborative project was the efforts of six of us Helena Rubinstein Fellows in Museum Studies. The show, Frank O’Hara, A Poet Among Painters went on view at the Whitney Museum in the early spring of 1974. This was my first exposure to the school of New York painters and poets, and it left me wanting to know more and anxious to meet more artists and writers.

Sweden was typical of Hartigan’s forays into the painting life: her pictures were landscapes or landscape-inspired, like Matisse: rich and absorbed by patches and blocks of color animated by a continuous and sinuous line often in black. Abstraction was not Hartigan’s only means of painting. She pushed herself and her limits and dug deep into herself to break beyond what she knew to open her paintings to what visual art might be. She was not in search of a signature style but in search of that which would express her ideas at a particular moment and time. From the start she made reference to nature; later, she included the figure and created large tableaux in which paint and figure merge, where paint is the figure and the figure is an explosion of paint, color, and energy. 

As expressionist painting gave way to other contemporary styles of the day, she painted still lifes and created mythological landscapes and exotic gardens. These are akin to Malcolm Morley’s invented and inventive pictures of tigers and parrots and the tropical and Mediterranean islands he visited in the late 1970s and 80s. Similarly, Hartigan’s growing body of work shimmers with the same powerful color as the robust and energized landscape-inspired high abstractions de Kooning painted in the same decade. And like her friend Philip Guston, she repurposed figurative painting, though unlike Guston, she was not included in the flood of exhibitions and magazine articles devoted to the new figuration that came to attention across the US throughout the 80s.

Hartigan’s subjects included many drawn from popular culture and life in the city, storefronts and shop signs, vessels and shoes, yet she was no advocate of Pop art. Hartigan sought to translate the everyday through paint, through composition and color, and not just by replicating methods of reproduction used in magazines or newspapers. The photograph served her as a tool for inspiration, not an element to be used in her art; painting, she has been quoted as saying, must have content and emotion.

Emotion is evident throughout the decades of paintings that follow. It is there in the thick, chromatic, tangle of jungle vines and animals, the images of lords and ladies, and the cornucopia of real and imagined signs, symbols and figures that populate her world: dogs, clocks, jewelry, oranges, and ancient statuary. Autumn Shop Window(1972), in the Baltimore museum of Art, is one such picture. Through the window, we glance at a cluttered display of fruits and vegetables in the foreground, kitchen utensils and price tags in the middle ground and, in the background, a few larger, indefinable forms and the reflections of colors and lights from the street behind all bathed in the late afternoon sun of a fall day. Hartigan holds us here, caught by the curious content before our eyes and held by a warm almost fragrant color that permeates the view and seeps into our minds.

Sensuous and seductive, romantic and poetic, Hartigain kept these ideals alive in her work despite a life of struggle with alcohol, an attempted suicide, a bad hip, and the loss of her husband, the love of her life. The battles within never seem to appear directly on her canvases. The world of painting is not immune to these internal dramas and psychological struggles but, for Hartigan, the field of painting was not a battleground. Instead she saw herself as” an aristocrat as far as painting is concerned; I believe in beautiful drawing, in elegance, in luminous color and light.” And she could add somewhat sarcastically: “I don’t mind being miserable so long I am painting well.”

Over time she evolved more and more as a monumental figurative painter, opening up to a vast array of subjects and topics including contemporary characters, religious and historic figures, and literary sources. The scale of her earlier Abstract Expressionist paintings, which were in keeping with the idea of a painting as a field of action, gave way to a scale that could express the inherit grandeur of her subjects and the radiance of the color and light in which she portrayed them. Style and technique became means by which to create grand tableaux in the tradition of 18th and 19th century painting. These paintings are drenched in color, the paint stained and dripped into place; characters and figures are drawn as bold black outlines and the entire field appears deceivingly simple in its outward appearance, echoing the ideal of Matisse, her earliest mentor, in his wish to “create an art which is filled with balance, purity and calmness.”

The last two decades of Hartigan’s life saw the evolution of these grand pictures and large scale works on paper. She looked to history as an important and seemingly endless source of ideas and inspirations from St. George and the Dragon to Bosch’s Women while at the same time creating her own history: a history that is unique, imaginative, and entirely of her own making.

Michael Klein is an art dealer and curator in New York City.

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