With `New Paintings,' Hartigan remains vital to art and feminism

Art Column


Painter Grace Hartigan, whose latest works are on view this month at C. Grimaldis Gallery, traces her artistic roots back to the abstract-expressionist movement of the 1950s, when her contemporaries included such giants as Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Philip Guston.

But Hartigan, 84, has outlived all of them, as well as the heyday of America's first internationally important art movement, and chances are that she will be remembered as much for being a pioneer of all that followed as for her initial contributions as an Ab-Exer.

By the time she left New York for Baltimore in the early 1960s, for example, Hartigan was already being described, along with painter Larry Rivers, as a protean figure in the origins of Pop Art. In the 1970s, her paintings of women resonated with a new generation of feminist artists, while in the 1980s her sly recycling of Old Masters paintings showed she was not losing a bit of ground to the emerging postmodernist movement.

All of which is to say that today Hartigan's work looks as fresh and up-to-date as ever, while remaining faithful to its New York School roots -- the "all-over" compositional style with its emphasis on the flat surface and layered paint-handling in which every part of the canvas is treated as equally important.

The paintings at Grimaldis represent a continuation of Hartigan's deconstruction of the image of women in art, from Shakespeare's Ophelia and Ingres' Madonna to Flemish master Rogier van der Weyden's aristocratic ladies and the exquisitely coiffed geishas of Japanese woodblock prints.

One of the loveliest works in the series is Hartigan's portrayal of Empress Wu, who ruled China during the Tang Dynasty (618-906), a period that witnessed a great flowering of art and culture in China as well as an extended period of political stability.

Hartigan imagines the only woman ever to rule China as emperor as a figure of great beauty and majesty, yet charmingly, even girlishly, feminine. In Hartigan's vision, Wu, clad in her elegant imperial robes, emerges from behind a silken veil of painted drips like a goddess of heaven (which she, in fact, claimed to be) calmly surveying her realm.

The historical Wu Zetian (who ruled from 625 to 705) was a supremely ambitious and wily political infighter who used her undeniable physical charms and her position as a favorite concubine in the court of the emperor Kao Tsung to usurp power and ruthlessly eliminate her rivals.

But though her methods could be as brutal as any man's, she presided over a period of relative peace and prosperity with great efficiency -- she sharply limited, for example, the power of the military warlords and introduced competitive exams for civil servants -- and earned for herself an honored place in Chinese history.

Another of Hartigan's women, Ginevra (2004), is surely inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait of Ginevra da Benci on display in Washington's National Gallery of Art, the only painting by the Italian Renaissance master known to exist in the United States.

(Oddly, the public seems barely aware of da Vinci's Ginevra, with its magical, mirror-like surface. It sits in plain view in the museum's often virtually empty 16th-century galleries, while the artist's better-known Mona Lisa, at the Louvre Museum in Paris, is invariably mobbed by tourists.)

Hartigan's Ginevra is more shy young girl than enigmatic seductress, and her very ordinariness is what seems to have interested the painter. Ginevra is a woman who, through artists of genius, has survived with her name and identity intact, despite being born into a period in history when a woman was often regarded as a mere appendage to her husband's estate.

But Hartigan is a survivor, too, so perhaps that's as good a theme as any to characterize this magical show of stylistic reinvention.

Grace Hartigan's Portraits from the Masters: New Paintings runs through April 29 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080.


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