Grace Hartigan dies at age 86

Renowned Abstract Expressionist painter had taught for years at the Maryland Institute College of Art

November 16, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,

Her bold canvases made her a bright star in the 1950s New York art world, but she "sank from view faster than the Titanic" when she moved to Baltimore, The New York Times said.

Grace Hartigan, who ultimately found a second career offering her wisdom and advice to generations of young painters at the Maryland Institute College of Art, died of liver failure yesterday at the Lorien Mays Chapel nursing home. She was 86.

"I feel that I am an aristocrat as far as painting is concerned; I believe in beautiful drawing, in elegance, in luminous color and light," she said in a 1990 biography.

She burst upon the New York art scene in the 1950s, acclaimed for her brilliant, large canvases, which critics said displayed a "raw vitality, emotionally explosive color, excitement and anguish."

"What I had, what was my gift, I was a colorist," she said in 1987. "You can't learn that from anyone. I have what might be called a startling virtuosity."

In 1960, after marrying a Johns Hopkins University scientist, she moved to Baltimore and painted in a South Calvert Street rag factory she made into a loft studio. When it was torn down, she rented an antique Broadway and Eastern Avenue department store. She lived and painted there for decades.

She often walked along Baltimore's waterfront or the shop fronts of East Baltimore, and found some local artistic inspiration at the Reisterstown Road Plaza shopping center and the Lexington Market. She always described herself as a city painter.

In 1964, she joined the Maryland Institute College of Art's faculty and taught generations of graduate students. She founded its graduate school of painting, later the Hoffberger School.

"It's not hard to recognize Grace Hartigan," said The Sun's 1987 profile. "Tall, with a strong, proud face under breaking waves of blond hair, she has a presence rivaling that of her bold canvases."

"She is one of the seminal figures of Abstract Expressionism, a real breakthrough artist," said Robert Saltonstall Mattison, a professor of art history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., who is her biographer. "She has never changed her work to be in fashion, but her work has changed. In the mid-1950s she began moving away from total abstraction, and since then, there have always been figurative elements in her paintings," Mr. Mattison wrote.

Born in Newark, N.J., she studied mechanical drafting at Newark College of Engineering. She said when a co-worker at an aircraft factory introduced her to the work of Henri Matisse, she said, "I want to draw like that."

She moved to New York in 1945 and, three years later, decided to try to paint full time, setting up a studio atop a pickle factory and delicatessen in the Lower East Side.

"Grace painted large canvases in big, strong patches and swerves of color," wrote John Bernard Myers in his 1983 book, Tracking the Marvelous. "The paint strokes were relaxed and swift, wide and narrow."

He organized her first solo show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951.

"What she preferred was the art of the older generation - the so-called Abstract Expressionists, Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Clyfford Still, Stamos, Baziotes. She admired them and became friendly with them," Mr. Myers wrote.

In 1953, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., bought one of her paintings, The Persian Jacket. It was her first museum purchase. She bought a bottle of champagne, wrote the date on the label and kept it always in her studio.

"The air was electric," she told a Sun reporter in 1963. "We were each other's audience, meeting for coffee because no one could afford a drink, and all were talking about art. It was pure."

In 1957, a Life magazine photo essay called her "the most celebrated of the young American women painters." At age 37, she said, "I was a household name. For the next few years, I sold practically everything I could paint."

In 1959, an art collector, Winston Price, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, called and asked to see her other work. "He was tall, handsome and prematurely gray. We spent the next two days together. He was very romantic, and filled my apartment with freesias," she said in 2006. "That was it."

They married, and she moved from New York to Roland Park's Edgevale Road.

After living in Baltimore for several years, she phoned the landscape painter Eugene "Bud" Leake Jr., who then was Maryland Institute College of Art's president, and asked if he had any graduate students to teach. She recalled being told later by the college president, "I hired you for your name, but I didn't know you would be good at it."

This led to Ms. Hartigan's association with MICA's Hoffberger School of Painting, where she helped elevate its program to a top listing in the U.S. News and World Report annual survey of educational institutions. "I am a mentor, not a teacher," she told The Sun in 1987. "I give [my students] the example of having devoted my life to art, of constantly creating and growing."

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