- The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955Our PickBy Grace Hartigan, William T. La Moy, Joseph P. McCaffrey
Important Art by Grace Hartigan
In this early painting, completed after she returned from Mexico, Hartigan works in a typical all-over Abstract Expressionist style with influences from Surrealism. The work showcases her quick, vibrant brushwork along with her interest in chance as shown by the dripping paint and the fact that she did not complete any preliminary drawings for this painting. The dominance of curved, biomorphic forms seems a foreshadowing of her later interest in figuration, while the addition in the lower left of a cutout from a Life magazine advertisement for pancakes underscores her interest in everyday life.
This work shows Hartigan coming into her own as an artist, combining both painterly brushwork and her burgeoning interest in figurative art. This painting was the first in a series, based on 12 prose poems by Hartigan's friend Frank O'Hara, entitled "Oranges: 12 Pastorals." O'Hara often wrote about his spontaneous creative process and it may have been this that intrigued Hartigan - how to translate the immediacy of his creativity into her own work. Hartigan had declared in her journal in October 1951 that for her "the 'all-over' picture is finished. It had become a formula." Hartigan's use of the word "formula" suggests that she was bored with abstraction and wanted to experiment with more traditional compositional structure. Her related experiments with figuration that began the next year are evident here. She includes the entirety of the poem on the canvas in a graffiti-like interplay of image and text that challenges the traditional relation between surface and representation. The figure with blonde hair placed horizontally along the bottom of the canvas seems to correspond with the Ophelia of O'Hara's poem but without traditional gender markers. Her inclusion of a figure that registers as human only because of the reference to "Ophelia" painted on the canvas likely points to her indebtedness to Willem de Kooning.
This is one of Hartigan's best-known pieces that again underscores her willingness to abandon total abstraction in favor of adding recognizable elements into her composition in order to incorporate the everyday world that enthralled her. Her experiments in this vein set her apart from other Abstract Expressionists with the exception of Willem de Kooning and made her work a bridge between the Abstract Expressionists, neo-Dada, and Pop artists. Here she is also showing the influence of her study of the Old Masters, which she began in 1952.
Mannequins from a bridal shop window in her Lower East Side neighborhood, where arranged brides were often brought from Europe, are on display much like the women posing in Francisco de Goya's Charles IV of Spain and his Family (1800). At this time in Europe, aristocratic women were seen as commodities to exchange among powerful families in order to forge financial or political unions between them. Though the geography and time period were different, the brides depicted by Hartigan are also shown as if for sale. Hartigan also appreciated how shop windows frame the scene and "provide a shallow space, and define the back plane." Complexity is achieved through the layering of shapes and rendered objects.