Grace Hartigan

Our view: The celebrated painter was New York's gift to Baltimore, and we are grateful

November 18, 2008

Grace Hartigan, the renowned artist and educator who died over the weekend at the age of 86, was a painter's painter.

"The thing that's been incredible is that one way or another, I've been able to arrange my life so that I could paint every day," she told The Sun in a 2001 interview. "I have great plans to live as long as Georgia O'Keeffe," she added. Ms. O'Keeffe lived to 98, and Ms. Hartigan said she needed the time because "there's a lot of work I still want to do."

Ms. Hartigan was not granted that wish, but what she accomplished over a career spanning more than six decades was little short of astonishing. She was not only a member of the pioneering group of New York Abstract-Expressionist painters who created America's first internationally important modern art movement, but she was also that group's foremost female member at a time when women artists were rarely taken seriously. She never achieved the fame of her friends Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but they acknowledged her importance as a peer, and the art world eventually came to accept their judgment. Today, her works hang beside theirs in major museums around the world.

Ms. Hartigan was a romantic free spirit, and it never would have occurred to her to apologize for her art's playfulness.

She left New York for Baltimore in 1960 to marry Johns Hopkins University professor Winston Price. A few years later, she founded the graduate painting school at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she taught hundreds of students to follow their intuitions about light and color. She never encouraged her students to paint like her (she insisted art was about finding their own path) and her own style kept changing - from abstract to figurative, from painterly to pop and back again - even as everything she did was stamped indelibly with her powerful personality. She showed Baltimore what an ambitious American modern master could accomplish because she was the genuine article herself, and that was her great gift to the people of her adopted city.

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