'A restless spirit'

After a surge of fame, painter reinvented her art and waited for world to catch up

Grace Hartigan 1922-2008

November 17, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Before she passed away Saturday after a long illness, Grace Hartigan was adamant, even imperious about the arrangements for how she would be memorialized. And she will get her way, as Hartigan, a seminal figure in the U.S. art world and a longtime Baltimore resident, usually did.

"There will be no memorial service. She said that her memorial should be more about her body of work than about her physical body. She's always felt that way," says Rex Stevens, chairman of the drawing and general fine arts department at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The 86-year-old painter will be cremated, he said.

Hartigan's friends and former students - and there are legions - can remember her by visiting the five dozen prints, collages, drawings and paintings (including four currently on display) at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Or, if they happen to be traveling out of town, they can check out her muscular, bold, highly colored canvases in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, or in the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Her work is represented in every modern major museum collection of American paintings," says Jay Fisher, deputy director of curatorial affairs for the BMA. "No one would ever consider her a regional artist. She just happened to be working in Baltimore."

Or the painter's fans can rent Shattering Boundaries: Grace Hartigan, the 2008 documentary about her life.

"Grace's influence as a painter is huge and widespread, and it will just continue to grow," says Stevens, who also was Hartigan's longtime personal assistant.

"She and Larry Rivers simultaneously invented pop art. She was on a life's journey to find her own voice, and I think she succeeded. She had a restless spirit, and was quite inventive. A Grace Hartigan painting snapped like a sword."

Before moving to Baltimore in 1960, Hartigan was an intimate colleague of some of the most influential members of the Abstract Expressionist movement: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. She and the abstract artist Franz Kline were lovers for two years.

In her long and restless life, she survived a suicide attempt, alcoholism, the death of her only child, and the long, slow mental and physical deterioration of her beloved fourth husband, the epidemiologist Winston Price.

Hartigan kept a photograph of the Baltimore-born poet Frank O'Hara in the bedroom of her final studio, in Timonium, and he wrote several verses to Hartigan, his close friend. They include this lovely reflection: "Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible."

Though Hartigan never lacked self-confidence, she was a gimlet-eyed realist about her own career. In a 2006 interview, she said that she wasn't a genius on the order of Henri Matisse but was the next best thing: someone who could take a groundbreaking discovery and find in it unexpected ramifications.

"I think that history will place me with Franz Kline and Philip Guston," she said. "I will be considered a major female artist. I'm not enough of an innovator to be ranked with Pollock and de Kooning."

Hartigan's success is especially remarkable considering that she was largely self-taught. She was born in 1922 in Newark, N.J., the eldest of four children. She married for the first time right out of high school and never attended college.

During World War II, she got a job as a draftsman, where she learned the rudiments of drawing, and where, just as importantly, a co-worker introduced her to the works of Matisse. She moved to New York in 1945 and began painting full time three years later.

Her introduction to the world of artistic giants came when she phoned Pollock out of the blue one day to tell him how much she admired his work, and he invited her to visit his weekend home.

Hartigan had her first solo show in 1950, and just eight years later, she was the only woman included in a touring show called the New American Painters that electrified the international art world. She and her work were featured in spreads in Life and Newsweek; in the latter publication, Hartigan's photo was on the same page as an article about Judy Garland.

In 1960, when she was at the height of her career, she fell in love with Price, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, married him and moved to Baltimore.

About that time, her art began to change in significant ways. Previously, she had painted the broad swaths of color that exemplified the second wave of Abstract Expressionism. When she began to add recognizable human figures to her drawings, many considered it heresy.

"She wasn't afraid to stop painting the type of work that was greatly admired by collectors and museums, and move on to a new style," Fisher says. "She worked tremendously hard, and her work continued to change and evolve. That wasn't true of all of her contemporaries."

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