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Modern Artist: Grace Hartigan
Grace Hartigan is linked historically to the first generation of female Abstract Expressionist painters who moved to New York to forge a new kind of painting based on bold gesture and sensuous color. As a character within the movement, she was respected for her commitment and thick skin, and her stark paintings reflect this strong attitude. Though she built her early career upon complete abstraction, in 1952 Hartigan began incorporating recognizable items and characters from the media into her colorful paintings, and moved fluidly between figuration and abstraction throughout her long career. In this, her work is considered a precursor to Pop art.

Key Ideas
  • Hartigan's belief that painting must have "content and emotion" continued throughout her career. Even though her paintings had pop tendencies Hartigan disliked the idea of mass manufacturing that Pop art glorified, and was more interested in capturing the "spirit of her age" as a subtle political act.
  • The notion of impulse is of primary concern in Hartigan's paintings, which exhibit confidence and commitment to the creative process. Hartigan came to consider the creative process as intuitively linked to mysticism.
  • Having painted for nearly seventy decades, Hartigan's styles varied widely but she consistently experimented with vibrant palette as a means to express diverse emotions concurrently. Like de Kooning's paintings, one critic noted, Hartigan's paintings can be both "romantic and vulgar."

As a teen in New Jersey, Hartigan practiced art and was sent to Newark College of Engineering at night in lieu of college, which her parents could not afford. Married at seventeen, Hartigan found herself challenged with raising a baby boy whose father was away in the Army, yet she managed to study mechanical drawing, and worked as a draughtsman. She taught herself to draw and paint under the tutelage of a single night school professor, Isaac Muse, practicing in the evenings while caring for her child. For enduring this test, Hartigan is viewed as a strong feminine role model, and her strength served her well in the competitive artistic environment she would encounter in post-war New York City.

Early Training
Hartigan moved to New York in 1946, where she befriended many artists, such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and more. Her first paintings were influenced greatly by de Kooning and Pollock. In 1950, she was selected for the New Talent exhibition by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Shapiro alongside her friends. Her first solo show was held in the following year at Tibor DeNagy gallery. She became known as a brilliant colorist and for being a central member of the New York School. Though she revered Pollock, she yearned to develop her own style.

Mature Period
Shortly after her second solo exhibition in 1952, Hartigan renounced her aversion to figuration and began to incorporate recognizable imagery into her abstractions. Having had a "bout of conscience," the artist said, "I thought I was a robber, that I had taken from (other people)..I thought I didn't deserve it and I started to paint through art history." Living in New York's East Village, Hartigan enjoyed studying the masters, and made several paintings after some classics. Moreover, she observed daily life on the city streets, and began incorporating it directly into her work. Between 1952 and 1959, a variety of objects such as fruit and clothing apparel become evident in her abstract compositions. Hartigan said she was always interested in "the face the world puts on to sell itself to the world." To further engage with the New York artistic community, Hartigan collaborated with several poets such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. Subconsciously, Hartigan sought to create her own mythology through subject matter. In the early 1960s forward, beginning with her "Pallas-Athena" series, the artist discovered how to visually manifest ideas about the earth, nature, and Classical goddesses through paint. Her interest in the sublime and in spiritual matters would increase in coming years.

Late Years and Death
Hartigan's paintings, regardless of period, treat the canvas surface with extreme urgency, in that they are painted quickly and without much "regression" in space, as she called it. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hartigan took up printmaking, though she continued constantly with her painting practice, often applying thin layers of paint, or stains, to the canvas rather than using thick brush strokes. Hartigan's interest in spiritual expression can be seen in later paintings that have a Lyrical quality - a passion for line and color. Her work suffered critically when Pop art and Minimalism became popular, and she relocated to Baltimore in search of artistic freedom from painting trends. After she left New York, Hartigan found much satisfaction in teaching in the MFA Painting Department at Maryland Institute College of Art. During her long period as a college professor, Hartigan became an admired pioneer of feminist art, though she disliked her paintings being judged according to gender. Hopefully, the tragedy of her recent death will encourage a reassessment of this painter's oeuvre.

Hartigan is revered for having, as one critic noted, "resolved the problem that doomed many artists of the New York School: where to go from art in the 1950s." Since she was able to reconcile abstraction with her usage of realism and iconography, she influenced many painters in future generations, including Neo-Expressionists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel. Her unending exploration of "self-expression, self-identification, and self-creation" shows in each work on canvas, and it is this willingness to expose the deeply personal that many contemporary artists admire in Hartigan today.

Below are Grace Hartigan's major influences, and the people and ideas that she influenced in turn.

Peter Paul Rubens
Diego Velazquez
Pablo Picasso
Georges Braque
Henri Matisse
Clement Greenberg
Meyer Schapiro
Milton Avery
Adolph Gottlieb
Jackson Pollock
Grace Hartigan
Years Worked: 1940s - 2008
Julian Schnabel
David Salle
Philip Guston
Helen Frankenthaler
Pop Art

"Well, it is not very comforting when you are going through it. But after you have gone through it, won the facility after years of hard work, and are able to say what you feel and think, then it is a sweet triumph."

"A line is like a lasso. You throw it over your head and you grab something..It's like writing. You can read a line in painting almost the way you can read a word. Drawing is really like writing poetry. Color itself is not like a poem. It diffuses from the very specific. It's changeable - its images change."

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