Art in transition Grace Hartigan is still seeking new ways to express her artistry

August 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

At 71, Grace Hartigan is still, as she always has been, a searcher. She greets a visitor to her Fells Point studio and living space, in the city she has called home since 1960, and announces that her work is undergoing yet another major change. She's left the Seurat-like, pointillist style in which she was working for several years and is now doing paintings with much more drawing in them. Her work in the pointillist style, though, was hailed as some of her best work in decades, so she's taking a big chance. Why?

Because, she says of the former style, "I got so I knew how to do it. When you know how to do it, it's time to move on."

That searching, restless, intuitive spirit -- that sense that life is all about becoming, while being anything for long represents creative death -- is one of the principal things Hartigan inherited from the abstract expressionists with whom she has usually been grouped. Another is the passion that makes her work vital. Such qualities are far removed from the cool, detached, ironic spirit of pop art, a movement Hartigan has always disliked. In a 1963 lecture she publicly expressed her opinion of it:

"Pop art is not painting, because painting must have content and emotion. It must tell you what it is like to be a human being and have plastic qualities. Pop art is not like other reactions against abstract expressionism such as the return to the figure, hard edge or even 'dada' because they were serious attempts to express an opinion, a belief."

Moreover, it was probably pop art more than anything else that put the abstract expressionists in the shadows in the 1960s. It is only in the last decade that Hartigan has emerged from those shadows to renewed major recognition. So why is she delighted to be included in "Hand-Painted Pop," a show that groups her with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and other pop artists who all but eclipsed her for a time?

"I would rather be a pioneer of a movement I hate than the !B second generation of a movement I love," she says succinctly. There's truth in that, and it has to do with the searcher in her. She has often been called one of the "second generation" of abstract expressionists, and she doesn't like that, either.

For one thing, she never felt that abstract expressionism belonged to her as it did to its pioneers, especially Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. "I felt I didn't have the right to it if I hadn't discovered it." And for another thing, "The second generation has been accused of being academic. The second generation made [abstract expressionism] a usable formal language -- the all-over painting, the importance of the surface and so on. I can teach abstract expressionism, and when you can teach it, it has become academic."

But she feels, too, that being placed with the abstract expressionists defined her too narrowly -- it only got part of her. While her work relates to abstract expressionism in formal terms, it doesn't in terms of subject matter. "There [has been] so much misunderstanding. I was not an abstract painter. Maybe [now] they won't try to make me look like an abstract artist all the time."

The two major Hartigan paintings in "Hand-Painted Pop" -- "Grand Street Brides" (1954) and "Billboard" (1957) -- show that as early as the mid-1950s she was not only painting figuratively but painting the kind of banal, everyday American subject matter that the pop artists would make their own. "Grand Street Brides" was based on mannequins in a bridal shop near her studio on New York's Lower East Side. "Billboard" contains imagery from Life magazine ads.

With characteristic openness, Hartigan says she wasn't thinking initiating a major change in the history of American art when she painted those works. "That's too grand," she says. "I was finding subject matter. The traditional subjects available to the artist -- the model, the nude, the still life, the interior, the landscape -- I found that very boring. And I was a great starer in kitschy windows."

Nor does she place herself with the pop movement. "I don't belong with the pop artists because my attitude toward art history is not ironic, condescending or campy. I'm respectful. My attitude is that paintings are wonders, metaphors, meanings and poetry."

But she is pleased to be in "Hand-Painted Pop" because she thinks it will incline people to see her work more fully, and to see that she really belongs wholly to no movement.

"I'm an independent and wonderful artist. Look at [Alberto] Giacometti, look at [Francis] Bacon. They're completely independent of movements. That's how I'd like to be looked at."

Through a career that now spans more than 40 years, Hartigan has changed often; the constant has been the search. In a diary entry in 1954 she wrote, "I'm calm now after an upsetting afternoon. I have borrowed 'The Persian Jacket' [1952] from the Museum of Modern art for my show at Vassar, and it arrived here today. It is so close to what I'm doing now and it seems I've `` made no progress, so I dived into a typical swoon of depression, self-doubt, where am I going? How can I do more, be braver, stronger, more original, etc., etc. . . . Above all I must avoid getting stuck in a 'style' -- one look, one way."

That commitment to "do more, be braver, stronger, more original" is as true of Grace Hartigan today as it was 39 years ago.

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