When Grace Hartigan became director of the Maryland Institute's Hoffberger School of Painting in 1965 -- a position she has held since -- she had left behind the glory days as a leading abstract expressionist painter in 1950s New York and settled quietly in Baltimore with husband Winston Price. Since then, her work has changed in major ways, and has emerged from the last quarter century looking awfully good. On the way, however, there were periods of struggle, doubt and uncertainty, and one can glimpse those along with successes in a show that opens at the Institute tomorrow.
Titled "Grace Hartigan: 25 Years at the Maryland Institute, College of Art" (through Dec. 31), it's a somewhat unbalanced show, with six of its 17 oils and watercolors from the first 15 years of the period and the rest from the 1980s. Nevertheless, it does leave an impression of the artist's evolution.
For about the first half of the period, from "Skin Deep" of 1965 to "Toyland" of 1976, these works tend toward a greater degree of representationalism, of definition of areas, separation of colors and filling up of the surface with discrete imagery. Robert Mattison, in his recently published book, "Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World," titles his chapter on the 1970s "A Rage for Order." One can see the "rage" in full force here in the crowded "Toyland," a work that grows stronger with sustained viewing but nevertheless speaks of a certain move away from an earlier, more dynamic freedom of expression.
Then, from "Celtic Painting" (1978) on through the 1980s, there is a definite loosening up, an evolution toward more lyrical movement, color and line, a re-experimentation with a greater degree of abstraction, more willingness to take chances. In short, there is a regaining of freedom and daring, culminating in "West Broadway," a painting not on view here but in Hartigan's current, impressive show at the C. Grimaldis Gallery (through Saturday). In that painting, freedom of expression combines with a surface tension to recall Hartigan's quite different but similarly exciting works of the 1950s.
The best works from the 1980s at the Institute are the watercolors, which in this context appear to have aided in the loosening process. The joy of "Plein Air Dancers" (1984), the beauty of color and movement in "Swan" (1984) and the extraordinary study in fluid grays of "Pagliacci" (1986) are indelible images. Some of the oils, such as "L. A. Boudoir" (1987) and "Weekend in Hawaii" (1988) are not among Hartigan's best works but rather transitional paintings in which she struggled toward the resolutions so successfully revealed in the Grimaldis exhibit. To have the two shows on at once, however briefly, is a rare opportunity.
For all her changes, Hartigan's constants include her engagement, her strength, her expressive communication whether through color, gesture, subject matter or all three. One is as likely to see a Hartigan show and remain unmoved as to walk through a downpour and remain dry.