Grace Hartigan's shining point Art: At Loyola, her 'abstract expressionist pointillist' works show painter at her best.

November 03, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In the 1880s, French artist Georges Seurat developed a system of applying paint to canvas in tiny dots that became known as pointillism. His greatest work, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," is at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1988, after seeing it, abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan began to employ a dotting technique in her own work.

She created paintings in this style until 1993, and has since referred to those years as her "abstract expressionist pointillist" period. It's one of her best periods, and nine of the paintings from it form an exhibit at Loyola College.

The gathering provides an opportunity to revisit Hartigan's enduring strengths as well as the particular qualities of the pointillist phase. Color and energy have always been two Hartigan hallmarks, and the dots add a staccato effect to her energy, as if the whole surface were in motion.

At times, as in "Casa," the dots appear to act as a scrim over the image, giving it more depth. At times, as with the white dots in "House Boat," they seem to explode toward the viewer, while elsewhere, as with the black dots in "New York Autumn," they seem to rush inward, coalescing to create the figures in the scene. Whatever the effect, they endow the paintings with a sense of being created as one looks at them, adding to the immediacy that characterizes this artist's work.

In Hartigan's art, the contemporary moment mingles with the long continuum of art history. Here, the use of dotting is a bow to Seurat and the French origins of modernism. The homage takes on more levels in the painting "Dejeuner sur l'herbe (after Manet)." The Hartigan work was inspired by Manet's 1863 masterpiece, which in its time was considered shockingly revolutionary, yet which referred to much earlier works by Renaissance masters Raphael and Giorgione. With this work Hartigan thus proclaims herself heir to the great tradition of Western painting, but also to the artistic tradition of breaking with tradition.

These works aren't mired in the long ago and far away, however. They encompass contemporary America and popular as well as high art. "New York Autumn" and "Weekend in Hawaii" are as up-to-date as today, the latter's colors as brightly tropical as the former's are autumnal. "Garbo at Home" and "Follies '34" refer to the American entertainment industry, and "Follies" is surely one of the funniest Hartigan paintings. While one of its four chorus girls steps out of the picture (presumably onstage) with a self-satisfied look on her face, two others eye each other in a suspicious, sizing-up sort of way. The purple hats all of them wear could not be more appropriate.

A Hartigan show is always a must-see occasion, and this one is no exception. It's not perfect, though. It lacks Hartigan's greatest work in this style, "West Broadway," though that work, now in a private collection, was on view as recently as September at the Grimaldis Gallery. The gallery at Loyola proved too small to accommodate three of the 12 paintings pictured in the show's catalog. And while it's great to have the catalog as permanent record of the show, Hirshhorn curator Phyllis Rosenzweig's essay curiously concentrates on Hartigan's origins and early career, dealing with the pointillist period only in its final three paragraphs.

Nevertheless, this is a fine opportunity to see a representative selection of works from one of the best periods of one of America's formidable painters, who has now lived in Baltimore almost 40 years. Don't pass it up.

'Grace Hartigan: Ab-Ex Pointillism'

Where: Art Gallery, Loyola College, 4501 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 7

Call: 410-617-2799

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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