"Grace Hartigan: New Paintings and Works on Paper" at the C. Grimaldis Gallery (through Dec. 1) leaves a number of impressions but the primary one is of freedom. Hartigan was always a strong painter, but at times there was a sense of struggle about her work, a feeling of self-imposed order which was to some degree at odds with her essence as a painter.
Sometimes this imposed order took the form of subject matter. Even at their most abstract, Hartigan's paintings had subject matter, but there were times, particularly in the 1970s and with some of the history-of-art works, when subject matter became so intrusive that the works became too descriptive.
Drawing was another of those imposed elements of order. There were works in which one felt that drawing was not simply one part of an abstract whole, but dominated and dictated the work.
Hartigan has seldom if ever been totally non-referential, but her essence is as an abstract painter, and while her work was never uninteresting it seemed at times that she was working within constraints that didn't allow her to be abstract enough.
In the 1980s, however, and especially in the last few years, those constraints seemed to be gradually falling away, and in 1988 Hartigan produced a painting, "Society Wedding" (not in this show) that had the look of a breakthrough. Yes, one can see forms in it, but the painting is really about light and color.
The present show's spattered, dripped and poured oils and watercolors communicate much the same freedom. Yes, there is subject matter and, yes, things are represented in these works, but one has the sense that Hartigan here uses something visual as a way to order her abstraction rather than taking a thing or a group of things and trying to make them abstract. In "West Broadway," the quintessential painting in this group, it seems that the three more or less human shapes are swirling into forms out of a void.
Yes, there is line, but it is often poured or dripped and always so fluid that it's closer to acting as part of the overall integrity of the work and farther from imposing too much of a structure. It can be descriptive, but also becomes a part of the interplay of the work's forces in a more abstract way.
The swirling line that spirals up the trees in "Chateau Garden" acts as a lyrical, dancelike force, and the line that defines the windows in"Chateau Garden" or the sails in "Les Tuileries" represents a deliberately unsuccessful attempt to restrain light, which bursts out as one evidence of the exuberance and the energy of these works.
With the watercolors, including "Clowns" and "Wiscasset Pitcher," as well as with the oils, part of Hartigan's success is her willingness to take chances; her new freedom is as much as anything else the freedom from safety. Another is the apparent spontaneity of these works at their best. "West Broadway" looks as if it sprang into being of its own accord.
They are not all equally successful, but as a group they represent Hartigan at a period of particular strength and apparent release from former constraints.