`Restless creator' on a half century of American art

Grace Hartigan reflects on her ever-changing styles

Art

November 23, 2003|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

Grace Hartigan held court Thursday evening at Maryland Institute College of Art's new Brown Center. It was the first time since the mid-1980's that the artist has addressed a large audience in Baltimore, and her thoughts on life, influences and art fell on the adoring ears of about 350 art students, faculty, trustees and friends.

Though she wore all black and sat to the side of the stage, her colorful presence and personality seemed to fill the room. "She's a legend," said Carrie Fuclie, a MICA student who arrived before the doors opened.

Hartigan's lecture coincided with the exhibition Grace Hartigan: Painting Art History, on view at MICA through Dec. 14. It includes an abstract expressionist piece from the 1950s, more figurative works from the '80s and '90s, even the artist's take on pointillism.

More recent works are also on display. These focus on "women who rule - queens, amazons and goddesses" and are large canvases painted in a primitive style with bold lines and splatterings of paint.

The moment Hartigan began speaking, the room fell silent. She described her childhood influences and quickly moved on to her life as a painter. "Now we can begin the slides," she said.

The only thing in the room not held in thrall, it seemed, was the remote control used to change the slides, But when a new image failed to appear at her command, the artist had only to yell out - "SLIDES!" - and a skinny hipster would scurry on stage to advance the next image.

Hartigan, who has lived in Baltimore since 1960, directs MICA's Hoffberger Graduate School of Painting.

She first gained acclaim in the 1950s for her abstract expressionist work.

At the time, she lived in New York City and ran with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Their work influenced her early paintings, and she is known as part of the "second generation" of abstract expressionists.

Later, she returned to imagery in her work and was called "mother of Pop art." Her 60-plus-year career is marked by vastly contrary styles of art.

"I am a restless creator," she told her audience. "I explore the style and once I know how to do it, I stop doing it. That makes me different from a lot of artists who basically paint the same image in different colors their whole life."

Hartigan's almost two-hour lecture touched on a range of styles. She emphasized a theme of "art history" that runs through her work, much of which was influenced by the Masters.

Hartigan had no formal training in art or art history. Her first art class was part of an adult education program she took with her first husband. When given their first assignment, she said, "He began to draw and I began to cry."

She went on to become part of the New York art scene in the late 1940s and '50s. She spoke of her early dealings with Pollock, whom she adored at a time when he had few young admirers.

She married for a second time and lived frugally for a year in Mexico, reusing canvases and painting with house paint (which, she pointed out, has held up quite well). Later, she married again, to Dr. Winston Price, and moved to Baltimore.

"I'm a process painter," she told her audience. "I find the painting in the act of creation." That included setting up challenges for herself. Could she borrow from the pointillist tradition of Seurat and use imagery from Manet?

She does this in Dejeuner sur l'herb, a large canvas referring to Manet's masterpiece. In her interpretation, the nude women are hardly recognizable and two blurs of flesh-colored paint represent the men in Manet's work. She wanted to fling so much paint on the canvas that the Manet image would barely be recognizable.

The artist often draws on childhood memories such as going to "talking pictures," or climbing a tree and watching gypsy women with colorful skirts and gold earrings. The rituals and colors of religion also intrigued her: Often, she and a girlhood friend sneaked into Catholic Masses.

At times, Hartigan spoke bluntly, once describing museum docents as "the blind leading the blind." From time to time, members of the audience called out, prompting her to relay this or that detail about a work. She obliged, and the back-and-forth made the large auditorium feel intimate.

In one work - Angels over Manhattan - Hartigan commemorated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The painting depicts six angels, suspended in a brilliant blue sky with white clouds - mournfully looking downward. The image came to the artist after she saw people jumping to their death from the twin towers.

"It is a private memorial," she said. "I just did it for myself. I hate tombstones as a tribute."

Grace Hartigan: Painting Art History, is at MICA's Decker Gallery, 1300 Mount Royal Ave., through Dec. 14. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. Call 410-225-2300, or go online to www.mica.edu.

Recent Hartigan works are on display through Dec. 6. at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 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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