Hartigan's art: layers of originality


October 09, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

This month will see no less than three important exhibitions of one of Baltimore's most distinguished painters.

Grace Hartigan, who came to Baltimore from New York in the 1960s, is showing her most recent oils and watercolors at C. Grimaldis Gallery. And both the ACA Galleries in New York City and the Neuberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York in Purchase have organized major retrospectives of her work.

Hartigan, who established her reputation in New York during the 1950s, has been called a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, though the term doesn't quite seem to fit her.

The first-generation Ab-Exers, like Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, created the characteristic style of "all-over" paintings that were largely non-representational and in which no part of the canvas was any more important than another.

In this reading, the second generation were those younger artists who continued with the "all-over" style but who also introduced recognizable figures into their work.

Hartigan was born eight years after Pollock, but even during the 1950s her works included figurative elements, as did the paintings of another Ab-Ex pioneer, Willem de Kooning, who was eight years Pollock's senior. And, of course, Pollock himself was deeply involved in abstract figuration for years before he embarked on the path of completely nonrepresentational abstraction that led to his famous "drip paintings," starting around 1947.

All of which is to say that Hartigan, who is today one of the last major figures from that period still working, was also there at the beginning. Though over the years her work has evolved stylistically and in terms of subject matter - sometimes in striking ways - there is a line of continuity that links her directly to the origins of America's most important and influential art movement.

That continuity is certainly apparent in Hartigan's show at Grimaldis. All of the paintings and watercolors are part of the artist's two most recent series, one based on the motifs of "Orientalism" - meaning here the 19th-century European and American art world's fascination with Near and Middle Eastern subjects - and the other inspired by Rococo, the fluffy, late 18th-century decorative style associated with France's pleasure-loving King Louis XV.

Hartigan has often said that the figurative elements of her work - in recent years drawn from Greek mythology, Arthurian legend and the exotic "floating world" of Japanese woodblock prints as well as from the Western art tradition - are in truth only "an excuse for a painting," in the sense that figurative motifs merely give the artist an intriguing starting point for her all-over compositions.

The use of figures also allows her to comment on the art of the past and its influence on her own work. In Harem Courtyard, for example, from the Orientalism series, Hartigan juxtaposes images of figures and architectural details familiar from the Oriental paintings of such earlier masters as Ingres, Gerome and Matisse in ways that confound the viewer's sense of scale - a hand or a flower appears nearly as large as the crenellated walls that enclose the harem. Yet the size and color of each element is precisely calculated to balance every other element of the composition.

In this way Hartigan suggests both the formal rigor of her abstractions as well as the art historical sources that inspired them. Many of her pictures are constructed in layers, so that the imagery of traditional figurative painting remains clearly visible below the nonrepresentational, abstract surfaces of her compositions.

This is a show that works on many levels (including, it must be said, its implied invitation to consider in light of current events how Western artists have represented Islamic societies in the past). It's also full of sly visual puns, jokes and double-entendres that demonstrate why after 50 years as a painter, Hartigan remains as original and as inventive as ever.

C. Grimaldis Gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 410-539-1080.

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