A diligent painter, who made a name for herself among the important artists of the 1950s, Grace Hartigan created works of art that combine both the abstract and the figurative. Born in 1922, and raised in New Jersey, her parents could not afford to support her past her 18th birthday. To make money, she worked at an insurance company where she met her first husband Robert Jachens. The adventurous pair decided to pioneer in Alaska, but only got as far as Los Angeles before finances and Hartigan’s pregnancy ended their travels. Jachens was drafted into World War II, where the distance from Hartigan resulted in divorce, and Hartigan moved back to New Jersey with her son. There, she worked as a mechanical draftsman in a Newark war plant, and studied at Newark College of Engineering. During her time at the plant, a fellow draftsman offered her a book on Matisse and introduced her to the artist Ike Muse. Hartigan was with Muse for three years, and in 1945, as a couple, they moved to New York.
Muse held evening drawing classes at his home in New York and it was there that Hartigan met Milton Avery and Sally Michel Avery, and through them Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Hartigan believed in absolute dedication to her art and was welcomed into the fold of Abstract Expressionist artists residing in New York. In 1948, she left Muse and married artist Harry Jackson. Jackson and Hartigan moved to Mexico and lived comfortably, painting every day. After a year they moved back to New York and the marriage was annulled.
Hartigan threw herself back into the New York art world. Influenced by both Pollock and de Kooning, her early paintings were large and filled with both the beautiful and the grotesque, expressive brushstrokes slashed their way across the canvases. At the age of 28, she had her first show at the Kootz Gallery. A few years later she produced a work entitled Persian Jacket, later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. In those same years, Hartigan collaborated with poet Frank O’Hara to combine his poetry and her painting, resulting in an exhibition entitled Oranges at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Despite her success Hartigan felt she was riding on the coattails of her peers, and for a time pulled away from abstract expressionism to discover her own artistic roots and voice. She studied the works of old masters Goya, Velazquez, and Rubens, as well as Matisse and Picasso, reproducing her own versions of their paintings. Her decision to move away from abstraction affected her friendships. While de Kooning never reproached her for placing figurative elements into her paintings, others like Pollock saw it as being disloyal to Abstract Expressionism. Unlike her contemporaries, Hartigan saw Western art as a tool to help further her artistic development, and would continue to include in her work compositional themes, poses, and gestures found in figurative art.
Integrating her lessons from Western and Abstract Art, Hartigan found a new voice, creating large works incorporating components from both. The subject of a painting mattered to Hartigan, and while she stayed true to the Abstract Expressionist notion of being physically connected to the paint and canvas, she chose to reach past her existing surroundings to bring symbols and narratives into her paintings. Hartigan filled many of her paintings with broken images of New York’s city-life, including figures along with still lives into her compositions. She frequently used line in her pieces, drawing out her human shapes in black and using color to describe their form and surroundings.
In 1954, Hartigan returned to the Abstract Expressionist community, all the while holding true to her belief that she was painting in neither an abstract nor realist way; her paintings contained elements of both styles. In 1956, she was the only woman chosen to be a part of the 12 Americans Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York alongside James Brooks, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Larry Rivers. The exhibit presented these artists’ paintings as a series of solo exhibitions, giving each artist their own room in which to show their art. By 1958, her work started to exhibit more powerful signs of abstraction and from 1958 to 1959, the Museum of Modern Art included her work in the New American Painting, a show that traveled through eight European cities, presenting Abstract Expressionism abroad.
The fifties saw Hartigan gain much hard-earned publicity for her work. However, when she moved to Baltimore in 1960 with her new husband Winston Price, Pop Art had taken over New York and her work was no longer appreciated to the same degree. Despite this zeitgeist, Hartigan continued to paint, her lifestyle change having no overall effect on her success as an artist. She taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and in 1967, became director of the Hoffberger School of Painting, a graduate school created around her. At the end of 1969, she moved to a larger studio, which allowed space for her paintings to grow and develop. Hartigan spent the 1970s emphasizing the autobiographical nature of her work. She delved into her art as a way to help carry her through a difficult decade.
After her husband’s death in 1981, Hartigan fell into a depression. Yet her difficulties did not prevent her from taking part in a number of important exhibitions in the 80s. During this period, Hartigan turned to watercolors and returned to painting the figure, stating that man was and should be an artist’s only legitimate subject. She continued to experiment with her painting tools, using wool mitts, rag and stick referring back to her life in the 50s, when she was too poor to buy art supplies and would improvise with such materials. What she had learned from using unconventional painting tools, worked to her advantage. During this decade, Hartigan spent much of her time focusing on the paint itself, using various techniques of scrubbing and splashing to get the desired effect.
Hartigan continued to teach and paint until her death in 2008. This strong female artist found her way to a unique combination of abstract and figurative painting, always maintaining the passionate brushstrokes of the expressionists while simultaneously integrating representational and symbolic subject matter into her art.
Written by Kira Romano
1922 Born March 22 in Newark, New Jersey
1941 Marries Robert Jachens, moves to Los Angeles where she begins painting
1942 Returns to East Coast with newborn son, Jeffrey; husband drafted; starts studying painting from Muse and working in Newark war plant
1945 Hartigan and her son move to New York with Muse
1948 Leaves Muse to live alone
1949 Marries artist Harry Jackson and moves to Mexico for a year
1950 Marriage to Harry Jackson annulled; Clement Greenberg and Meyer Shapiro select Hartigan for the exhibition New Talent at Kootz Gallery, New York
1951 First solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
1954 Son moves to California to live with his father
1958 First trip to Europe; marries Robert Keene
1960 Divorces Robert Keene; marries Dr. Winston Price and moves to Baltimore
1962 Starts teaching as the Director of the Hoffberger Graduate School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art
1981 Husband dies
1982 Begins recovery from alcoholism
1983 Holds Avery Chair at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
2008 Dies November 15th
1987 “Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts,” Women’s Caucus for Art
2001 Lifetime Achievement Award
2006 Governor’s Award, Baltimore, Maryland
1951 Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York (1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957, 1959)
1955 Vassar College of Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, New York
1960 Gres Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1962 Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
1963 University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
1964 Franklin Siden Gallery, Detroit
1967 Martha Jackson Gallery, New York (1970); University of Chicago; Maryland Institute Gallery, Baltimore; Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore
1968 Gertrude Kasle Gallery, Detroit (1972, 1974, 1976)
1975 William Zierler Gallery, New York; Watkins Gallery, Washington, D.C.; American University, Washington, D.C. (1987)
1977 Genesis Galleries, New York (1978)
1979 C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore (1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989)
1980 The Baltimore Museum of Art; Myers Gallery, Plattsburgh; State University of New York; University of Maryland Art Gallery
1981 Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana; Hamilton Gallery, New York
1983 Van Wickle Gallery, Pennsylvania
1984 Gruenebaum Gallery, New York (1986, 1988); Dolly Fiterman Gallery, Minneapolis
1987 Watkins Gallery, The American University, Washington, D.C.
1989 Kouros Gallery, New York
2001 Neuberger Museum of Art, New York
1950 Kootz Gallery, New York
1953 Stable Gallery, New York (1954, 1959)
Museum of Modern Art (1956, 1959, 1969)
1955 Whitney Museum of American Art (1974, 1989)
1956 Museum of Modern Art
1957 The Jewish Museum, New York
Museu de Arte Moderna, Sao Paulo
Fourth International Art Exhibitions, Japan
Third International Art Exhibitions, India
1958 Universal and International Exhibition, Brussels
1958-59 The Museum of Modern Art traveling exhibition
1959 Fridericianum Museum, Germany
Tibor de Nagy Museum, New York
1960 Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
1961 Guggenheim Museum
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
1963 Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois
1964 Museum voor schone Kunsten, Belgium
American Federation of Arts
1975 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Edinburgh Festival, Scotland
1976 Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art
1980 The Baltimore Museum of Art (1982)
Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Hamilton Gallery of Contemporary Art, New York
1982 Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston
1983 Bard College, New York
1984 Newport Harbor Art Museum, California (1988)
1985 Birmingham Museum of Art
1988 James A. Michener Art Center of Bucks County
1993 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1999)
Works by the artist may be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Brooklyn Museum, ALbright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hirshorn Gallery of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Smith College Museum of Art.
Mattison, Robert Saltonstall. Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World. New York: Hudson Hills, 1990.
Hirsh, Sharon L. Grace Hartigan: Painting Art History. Carlisle, PA: Trout Gallery, Dickinson College, 2003.
Grimes, William. “Grace Hartigan, 86, Abstract Painter, Dies.” The New York Times, 18 November, 2008.
Oral history interview with Grace Hartigan, 1979 May 10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Web. 13 June 2013.
Puniello, Françoise S., and Halina Rusak. Abstract Expressionist Women Painters: An Annotated Bibliography: Elaine De Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Ethel Schwabacher. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996.
Nesmer, Cindy. Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975
O'Hara, Frank. Standing Still and Walking in New York. Ed. Donald Allen. Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox, 1975
Barr, Alfred H., Irving Sandler, and Amy Newman. Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. New York: Abrams, 1986.
Ross, Clifford. Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics: An Anthology. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990.
Rosen, Randy, and Catherine Coleman. Brawer. Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970-85. New York: Abbeville, 1989
Schimmel, Paul, and Judith E. Stein. The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism Organized by Paul Schimmel and Judith Stein; Essayists, Klaus Kertess ... [et Al.]. Newport Beach, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988.
Goldberg, Vikki. "Art; Grace Hartigan Still Hates Pop." New York Times, August 15, 1993.