Art World's Spotlight Shines On Hartigan Once Again

October 28, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

"Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in America. Well we'll see," says Grace Hartigan, whose career may be poised for a socko second act beginning this fall.

The curtain went down on its first act 30 years ago. After recognition as one of the leading abstract expressionist artists of the 1950s, in 1960 she married Dr. Winston Price, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, and moved from New York to Baltimore. She views that move now as both salvation and destruction.

"The attention that I got in the 1950s was almost impossible to deal with," she says. "I wouldn't have survived [life in New York]. I would have died." The marriage to Dr. Price and the resultant move to Baltimore "saved my life and ruined my career."

Since then she has had shows here as well as New York, critical praise and continued recognition among cognoscenti in the art world. But to the world in general, "I'm not popular," she says. "Who knows me in Germany, in Switzerland, even in New York?"

After this fall, they may, they may. Hudson Hills Press has just published the first book-length study of her work, "Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World," by Robert S. Mattison, associate professor of art history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. He considers Hartigan, he says, "a major artist of the 20th century, one who has been neglected but who has dealt with many of the issues which are germane to this century."

In conjunction with the book's publication, there will be five shows of her works this season, three in Baltimore, one at Lafayette and one in New York. The first Baltimore show opens at the C. Grimaldis Gallery here on Thursday, with another opening late next month at the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- where she has been on the faculty for 25 years -- and the last opening in early December at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

If ever there was a time for that second act curtain to go up, this is it. But Hartigan has always realized what constitutes real success. "My concern is not to be famous. I want the work to get out and to be seen and known. If it happens it happens, but it's up to the work."

In his book, Mattison identifies many "cogent questions of modernism" with which the work deals, including "the relationship between past art and the avant garde, the heritage of Abstract Expressionism, the creation of a personal set of painterly symbols, the interaction between high art and popular culture, the image versus abstraction, and the distinctive characteristics of a woman's vision."

One of the salient facts about Hartigan's career that Mattison brings out is her having anticipated much that others are given credit for in contemporary art. She "turned away from total abstraction in 1952" even though, to devotees of abstract

expressionism, "Hartigan's willingness to incorporate the figure in her paintings was viewed as a betrayal."

Her "involvement with popular culture took place well before that of Johns, Rauschenberg or the Pop artists," Mattison writes. She was, for instance, painting cheap items in store windows as long ago as "Grand Street Brides" of 1954 and "Giftwares" of 1955.

And as for such 1980s issues as appropriation of earlier art and postmodernist search for roots in the past, Hartigan was doing ++ that as far back as the 1950s, too. Her 1953 "River Bathers" was a reinterpretation of Matisse's "Bathers by a River" (1916-1917), and "Grand Street Brides" is in part a reinterpretation of Goya's "Family of Charles IV" (1800). Transforming art history into contemporary art has been a continuing concern down to such 1980spaintings as "Bacchus" (1985) and "Saint George" (1985).

Hartigan says her anticipation of concerns that would attract the art world in general has not been the result of objective analysis; "it's something that comes out of my unconscious. I'm in touch with the world around me, but I don't know how."

Another aspect of modern art that runs through Hartigan's work is its autobiographical element, which Mattison mentions time and again as a wellspring of Hartigan's art. Of "Grand Street Brides" he writes, "The theme of the wedding also had strong personal associations, because Hartigan had already been involved in two unfulfilling marriages." Of "Another Birthday" (1971), he writes, "[It] does not abrogate the artist's responsibility to choose carefully from experience. But it does accept the fact that those selections must to a large extent be arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and autobiographical."

Hartigan, too, recognizes this element in her work, and in an effort to shed as much light on the work as possible she was candid with the historian about her own history, including the lows as well as the highs: There were the failed marriages before the one to Dr. Price (which lasted until his death in 1981); there was a suicide attempt in 1978; alcoholism landed her in the hospital in 1982, after which she stopped drinking.

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