Three-alarm fire damages studio of noted Baltimore artist

January 13, 1992|By Deborah I. Greene Reporter Liz Bowie and art critic John Dorsey contributed to this article.

The Fells Point art studio of widely-known painter Grace Hartigan was damaged yesterday in a three-alarm fire that erupted just as the artist was completing a painting scheduled for an upcoming exhibit at C. Grimaldis Gallery in Charles Village.

"My whole show is in there," said Ms. Hartigan, clutching the collar of a full-length fur coat as she stood among throngs of onlookers gathered in the noontime cold.

She and two assistants rescued from the blaze watched somberly as firefighters ripped into the frame of the smoky, four-story building at Eastern Avenue and South Broadway.

There, on the floors above a REVCO drugstore, which was closed for the day, the artist and her assistants, who declined to give their names, had lived, worked and stored what she said was more than $1 million worth of art.

Fire officials said the blaze, which was reported at 12:14 p.m., DTC broke out in the front of the drugstore shortly after noon. Flames shot out of the store's front window, and plumes of thick, black smoke spread quickly inside.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze within an hour. They had no explanation of how the fire started and no damage estimate. REVCO representatives could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Hartigan said she was sitting on the floor putting the finishing touches on her painting, "The French Doll," when she heard what she thought was a car alarm outside her second-floor window.

"I left the painting drying on the floor and got up to go to the kitchen. That's when I saw the smoke," she said. "I tried to call my assistants on the third floor, but the smoke got so bad that I just grabbed my coat and my purse and got out of there. I was hoping that firefighters would save them [the assistants]."

As Ms. Hartigan fled from a side door on Eastern Avenue, firefighters lowered the aerial tower of a truck against a third-floor window and rescued the assistants: a woman and a man who cradled a tabby cat, named Mac, beneath his coat.

An internationally-known abstract expressionist, Ms. Hartigan's works are in the collections of several New York museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Her works are also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection of American painters.

Ms. Hartigan was working on what her dealer called a pop American series of paintings -- ranging in price from $15,000 to $50,000 -- scheduled April 2 for an exhibit at Constantine Grimaldis' gallery on Morton Street.

"Oh, my God," yelled Mr. Grimaldis when a caller telephoned him about the blaze. Too upset to talk, he abruptly hung up and rushed from his gallery to Ms. Hartigan's side.

Ms. Hartigan's work has enjoyed a resurgence of public attention after being overshadowed for years by such prominent movements as pop and minimalism.

The 69-year-old artist's fame grew steadily during the 1980s, culminating in a book published two years ago about her career entitled "Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World."

Born in Newark, N.J., Ms. Hartigan first came into prominence as a leading American abstract expressionist in New York in the 1950s.

But her career waned after she moved from New York to Baltimore and married a Johns Hopkins researcher. She taught for years at the Maryland Institute, serving for some years as director of its Hoffberger School of Painting.

But Ms. Hartigan's own art has remained her passion.

Critics said Ms. Hartigan seemed always fascinated by the energy, brashness and even vulgarity of the American scene. Her works loomed larger than life on canvases up to eight feet tall, most of which she kept in her studio. "I work here because of the space. Everybody likes a little space," Ms. Hartigan said.

She feared some of the art in her third floor studio may have been damaged by the heavy smoke and water that firefighters used to douse the flames.

"Thankfully, the flames did not go that far," said Mr. Grimaldis after returning from the burned studio. "There is minimal smoke and water damage in the storage area on the second floor, but as far as we can see the paintings look OK."

NB And Ms. Hartigan's show in April will go on, the dealer added.

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