Uncovering hidden layers of Grace Hartigan

Famed abstract expressionist takes an outspoken look at the state of the world of art.


October 28, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Grace Hartigan, one of Baltimore's most distinguished painters, has been the subject of no less than three important exhibitions this month, at C. Grimaldis Gallery on Charles Street, at the ACA Galleries in New York City and at the Neuberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York in Purchase.

Hartigan, who made her reputation in New York during the 1950s as a member of the abstract expressionist movement, moved to Baltimore in the 1960s and has been living and working here ever since. In addition to painting every day, she also heads up the Hoffberger School graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Recently we sat down with Hartigan to talk about her work, the continuing influence of abstract expressionism and her view of the direction taken by art in the years since.

After abstract expressionism, there have been many art movements -- pop, conceptualism, minimalism, etc. How do they stack up against America's first important art movement?

I think the short answer is that abstract expressionism has continued to feed art ever since.

Now some of it is misunderstood -- I mean, taking Jackson Pollock as a license to make an installation that's just candy on a floor because Pollock said you should be free is stretching Pollock a bit, I think.

Yes, Pollock was a tremendous, explosive artist. I mean, no one had ever seen paintings made of drips before.

But the formal ideas behind the work, which you can still see in contemporary painting, where everything is on the surface and it's all-over painting, that part is all owed to abstract expressionism.

Why do you paint in layers?

What it is, you know the word pentimento? It's a word from the old masters and what you do is try to see what they did under the finished painting. I'm doing it in a modern way, so that you see through a layer.

If you look at my painting at Grimaldis called Oasis, for example, in the center of the picture there is a whole group of figures that I put a brown wash over. My assistant's son looked at it and said, "Grace, there's people in there!"

I just said, "You ever hear of a sandstorm?" And that satisfied him.

In the past, if artists wanted to make something look as though it was far away, they used perspective. Well, I'm a modern painter, so it's the surface that counts. But I still want the sense that something is behind something else, without going into deep space. So that's my solution.

What I did with the Ingres Bath [in the Baltimore Museum of Art] was I painted a modern sort of corny bathroom with a toilet and a bowl and a potted plant and a tub, and then I painted the figures from Ingres' famous painting on top of it. And that's the joke, of course; it's my sense of humor, or irony.

So how did you feel about pop art, which came right after abstract expressionism?

Here's a catalog of a show some years back called "Hand-Painted Pop." Let me show you the beginning -- there, that's Larry Rivers and me. We were declared the mama and papa of pop art. When I was interviewed by the New York Times about this show, I was quoted as saying I would "rather be the pioneer of a movement I hate than a second generation of a movement I love."

It's the pioneer part I like.

What I didn't like about pop art is -- for example, when I use popular culture in my art, I use it as a metaphor; I don't take it deadpan just the way it is. I want it to exist on many levels.

When I depicted Napoleon, for example, I depicted him as a very big head questioning what he was getting into as the man on the horse. But Larry Rivers did Napoleon and called him the last great homosexual. You get the difference: I'm looking at the kind of man he was and the questions he raised; Larry is camping out. That's the difference. His is ironic, take it or leave it; there's no sentiment, no feeling.

So what did you think about Warhol?

Fortunately, I was here in Baltimore by then and I didn't have to think about it. I moved here in 1961, when pop art exploded. And I knew abstract expressionism was over when I left New York.

The difference is there is hot art and cold art -- art with emotional content and art that is deadpan and ironic, where emotion has no place in it. What you see is what you get. And these two couldn't be more different.

I think pop art has ruined the whole concept of art for a while, as if artists just don't realize that you're supposed to get really emotionally involved in this and that you're not supposed to paint at arm's length.

Are there any great painters working anywhere today?

Not that I know of.

Is there any great art of any kind being done today.

Not that I know of. But I feel fortunate that I was around at a time when there was.

How can you say no great art is being made today?

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