Grace Hartigan - Biography and Legacy
Newark, New Jersey
Biography of Grace Hartigan
Hartigan was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1922. As a child, she was close to her grandmother and her aunt, both of whom encouraged her creativity with stories and folktales. Hartigan was later involved with her high school drama program and wanted to be an actress. She married at 17 to Robert Jachens because, she claimed, he was the first boy to read poetry to her. Wanting to escape their narrow upbringing, the couple headed for Alaska to homestead. They got as far as Los Angeles before they ran out of money and Hartigan found out she was pregnant with her only child, Jeffrey. She took a few painting classes before they returned to New Jersey. When Robert was drafted to fight in World War II, Hartigan lived with his parents and got a job as a mechanical draughtsman to support herself and her son. She was sent to the Newark College of Engineering for on-the-job training. It was during this period, after she and her husband separated, that a friend introduced her to the works of Henri Matisse and she began taking art courses from a local artist named Isaac Lane Muse.
She and Muse moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1945. They met Milton Avery and, through him, were introduced to Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb and quickly became part of the inner circle of the Abstract Expressionists, socializing with them at the Cedar Tavern. During this early period until 1954, Hartigan signed her canvases with the name "George Hartigan" because she identified with the 19th-century women writers Georges Sand and George Eliot. She and Muse split because of his jealousy over the attention her art received. She officially divorced Jachens in 1947, and her second marriage in 1948 to the artist Harry Jackson took her briefly to Mexico. The attention her work garnered again caused tension and their marriage was annulled in 1949. Hartigan struggled financially after the annulment and had to work odd jobs, even modeling at one point for Hans Hofmann.
In 1950, Hartigan was selected for inclusion in the New Talent exhibition by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro at the Samuel Kootz Gallery alongside Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and other artists. Her first solo show was held the following year at Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Shortly after her second solo exhibition in 1952, Hartigan began to incorporate recognizable imagery from daily life into her abstractions, including fruit and clothing. She said of this change: "I just had to throw in something of the life around me, even if it was just fragments, little memories, little snatches, little wisps of a corner, a piece of fruit, a vendor going by, something." This move was not popular among proponents of abstraction, particularly Greenberg who withdrew his support and never wrote about her work again. Because of her inclusion of items from everyday life, her works are sometimes considered a precursor to Pop art, a movement about which Hartigan was ambivalent, claiming that Pop art was not painting because painting "must have content and emotion."
It was also in the early 1950s that Hartigan began studying the Old Masters and made several paintings after their work. Her Grand Street Brides of 1954, for example, shows the influence of Francisco de Goya. 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." In 1953, Persian Jacket (1952) was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection and Hartigan was commissioned to design a set at the Artists' Theatre.
Around this time, Hartigan had also begun collaborating with several poets such as Frank O'Hara and Kenneth Koch. She created a series entitled Oranges (1952-53) based on 12 prose poems by O'Hara of the same title. By 1954, she was able to support herself through her work and was included in MoMA's 12 Americans exhibit in 1956. In 1958, Life Magazine called her the "most celebrated of the young American women painters" and she was the only female artist included in the traveling exhibit The New American Painting in 1958 that was designed to introduce European audiences to American art. She began another short-lived marriage in 1959 to the collector Robert Keene.
Late Years and Death
In 1960, she married her fourth husband, Winston Price, a collector of modern art who had bought one of her paintings. He was an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and Hartigan relocated with him to Baltimore. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hartigan experimented with various media including printmaking and watercolor, though she continued with her painting practice, often applying thin layers of paint, or stains, to the canvas rather than using thick strokes. Nevertheless, Baltimore was an outpost in the art world and her work did not receive critical recognition after the move. She began teaching in the MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art in 1965 and became director of the Hoffberger School of Painting. Her husband died in 1981 after an adverse reaction to a vaccine with which he had injected himself. Hartigan's failed attempt at suicide the next year led her to give up drinking in 1983. During her 42 years as a college professor, Hartigan became an admired pioneer of feminist art, though she disliked her paintings being judged according to gender. She died in 2008 at the age of 86.
The Legacy of Grace Hartigan
Hartigan is admired 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 future artists, including Neo-Expressionists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel. She made the Maryland Institute College of Art a nationally prominent program and mentored hundreds of students during her tenure there.