GRACE HARTIGAN (1922-2008)
When Life Magazine ran a slick pictorial spread entitled “Women Artists in Ascension” in their May 13, 1957 issue, it named Grace Hartigan “the most celebrated of the young women artists.” Truthfully, any one of the five women – Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, and Helen Frankenthaler — identified by Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women as the key female members of the New York School of painters would have felt the claim marginalized their work when freighted with the qualifier ‘woman’. After all, they were forging their way into the emerging art scene at the very moment of the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism and doing so on equal terms with the men. Yet the more important point is that the assertion is in fact, true. During the 1950s, Hartigan was the most successful female artist of the time. Beginning in 1951, solo exhibitions had become a yearly occurrence at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. In 1954, Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art instructed the institution to purchase her canvas “The Persian Jacket”. To his mind, Hartigan’s diametrically brushed images utilized the lessons of abstraction to figurative ends that proved not a retreat from Pollock, but a way forward. It would be the first work by a ‘second-generation’ New York School painter of either gender accepted into a museum collection, let alone The Museum of Modern Art. She sold virtually everything she could paint.
Hartigan continued to work within a range between representationalism and abstraction; a predilection she shared with both Elaine and Wilhelm de Kooning. Early on, the hurly-burly activities and window displays outside her third-story studio were the visual sweetmeat she incorporated and served to showcase her abilities as one of the strongest colorists of the New York School. Later, in the landmark painting, Marilyn, she scattered the film star’s features across the canvas in a fashion that could not but conjure associations with Pop Art, the movement for which Grace would repeatedly claim her distaste. Yet she had actually touched upon one of its principal areas of inquiry — the banality of popular culture — in Grand Street Brides painted in 1954 when she splayed six bridal figures — mannequins actually — and wryly referred to the bridal theme as ‘one of her empty ritual ideas’; a direct reference to her own failed marriages stating “I paint things I’m against, to make them seem wonderful (but they are really not).” Following her final and last marriage, in 1960, she moved to Baltimore and turned to splashy, boldly colored themed canvases with some of the figurative imagery that was a part of her early career; costumes, paper dolls, saints, martyrs, opera singers, and queens.
Hartigan's paintings were included in the landmark midcentury exhibition, 12 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York (1956), and in The New American Painting, which was co-organized by MoMA and the United States Information Agency and traveled to eight European cities from 1958 to 1959. As one of few women painters to receive that level of exposure, Hartigan garnered significant press coverage and was featured in Life magazine in 1957 and Newsweek in 1959. Hartigan's work was included in the seminal Ninth Street Show, New York (1951), as well as other major group exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, New York (1957); Documenta, Kassel, West Germany (1959); Guggenheim Museum (1961); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1989, 1999); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1992, 1999). Aside from regular solo gallery shows at Tibor de Nagy (1951–59) and then Martha Jackson Gallery (1962–70), Hartigan's work was featured in solo exhibitions at Baltimore Museum of Art (1980); Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York (1993); and Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York (2001). Hartigan’s works are represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among many others.