GRACE HARTIGAN (1922-2008)
A child of northern New Jersey whose first seven years were spent in urban Newark and industrial Bayonne, Grace Hartigan's earliest childhood was full of the grit and color of America's immigrant and working classes. When the family moved to leafy Millburn, young Grace's life unexpectedly included an exotic element not generally associated with small town, Rockwell-esque America: Gypsies. From her perch in an apple tree overlooking an empty field, she'd watch as Gypisies \"came with caravans and horses and built bonfires outside and cooked over the fires in big black pots, just like romantic movies and stories. They really did it. I watched them all the time. The women would come around in marvelous long skirts, brilliant colors, and big earrings, and tell fortunes. The men would sharpen knives.\" For a child already enamored of the romantic tales and songs passed to her from her Irish paternal grandmother, is it any wonder that the emotion inherent in bold lines and aggressive color she saw in this Gypsy encampments would find their way into her adult artistic expression?
Hartigan's early exposure to the romance of folktales and the wildness of life wove through her personal experiences, and in 1945, after a marriage and its failed adventure to Alaska, the birth of a son, the dissolution of the marriage, and a brief but fruitful return to the city of her birth, Newark, to study mechanical drafting and fine art, twenty-three year old Grace Hartigan moved to New York's Lower East Side. The young woman who would rise to be among the major figures of contemporary art was ready to grab her place in the New York scene.
And what a scene it was! Artists Pollock, de Kooning, Krasner and Kline; poets Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery; critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg; everyone flinging ideas about America's wild new art of Abstract Expressionism and arguing about the place of abstract artists in post-War America's conformist society. There weren't many women in this hard-driving world but Grace Hartigan could more than hold her own amid all that creative male angst and aspiration. As she would say years later in an interview, \"I didn't choose painting. It chose me. I didn't have any talent, just genius.\" Nothing as trivial as entrenched male privilege would stop Grace Hartigan from exercising her own genius.
Abstract Expressionism's reverence for the physical act of painting, the emotional experience carried in its gestural brushstrokes and bold use of color, suited Grace Hartigan perfectly. But Grace Hartigan's Abstract Expressionism had a rather different orientation than that of its then-acknowledged masters such as Pollock and Kline, whose paintings almost exclusively explored the inner life of the mind and soul. Grace Hartigan's work began in her soul but then looked outward to the world, observing its details and incorporating them into her canvases. The world's bits and pieces, its advertising signs, shop windows, movies and other elements of everyday American culture, and even images from art history were hers for the taking. By some accounts her work prefigured Pop Art. Moreover, Grace Hartigan didn't entirely abandon figurative elements. Among the Abstract Expressionists, Grace Hartigan shared with de Kooning a link to the art historical presence of the human figure.
Critical attention arrived in 1950, when Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer Shapiro included Grace Hartigan in their important New Talent exhibition at the Samuel Koontz Gallery. A solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery soon followed. Alfred Barr, the first Director of the Museum of Modern Art, admired Grace Hartigan's work and in 1953 arranged the museum's purchase of The Persian Jacket, a painting completed a year before. Barr and MoMa Curator Dorothy Miller assured Grace Hartigan's place among Abstract Expressionism's stellar lights by including her work in the museum's 1956 Twelve Americans show, and in 1958 in the seminal New American Painting exhibition which toured Europe through 1959. During this period, Grace Hartigan was featured in several art publications and national magazines, including Newsweek and Life.
In 1960, Grace Hartigan married epidemiologist Dr. Winston Price and relocated to Baltimore. She remained there for the rest of her life, eventually teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art, which built the Hoffberger School of Painting, a graduate school based on her practice. She became the Director of the school in 1965. Though the influence of Abstract Expressionism was on the wane, Grace Hartigan maintained her fidelity to its principles of gesture and emotion. Even early on, her abstract work expanded to include the figure and recognizable elements taken from everyday culture and art history. In this way Grace Hartigan's art continued to strengthen and evolve. In 1993, she was included in the Whitney Museum's Hand Painted Pop exhibition. Grace Hartigan's inclusion in this culturally important exhibition is a testament to the durability of her vision and her secure place in the contemporary American canon.
Grace Hartigan is revered nationally and internationally. During her lifetime, she was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Her work continues to be exhibited in museums and galleries in America and around the world and is held in major collections including the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Boston's Museum of Fine Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and many others.