“I can hear my mother ever since I was a child saying ‘Grace you're so dissatisfied—so restless,’” the artist Grace Hartigan recalled. This impulse to search, question, and change is a recurrent theme in Hartigan’s life and work. She alternated between abstraction and representation, flouting the art world’s expectations by embracing subjects deemed anathema in the early 1950s: people, clichés, and snippets from modern life. “I want an art that is not ‘abstract’ and not ‘realistic,’” she wrote, at a time when these choices were seen to exist in opposition.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1922, Hartigan was unable to afford college, so she married at age 17 and had a baby nine months later. When her husband went off to war, she got a job as a mechanical draftsman in an airplane factory, taking night courses at the local engineering college. A coworker showed her the work of Henri Matisse and she was “hooked.” She started studying with Newark painter Isaac Lane Muse, and in 1945 they moved together with her young son to New York. Twenty years her senior, Muse introduced Hartigan to several painters associated with Abstract Expressionism.
Bitterly poor, living on “oatmeal and bacon ends,” Hartigan didn’t let anything get in the way of her work. In 1948 she saw Jackson Pollock’s early “drip” paintings and was “mesmerized.” Taken with Pollock’s scale, process, and approach—“painting was not an activity but a total life”—Hartigan sought out his guidance, along with the help of his wife, the painter Lee Krasner. Likewise, Hartigan was drawn to the de Koonings—particularly the sensuality of Willem’s paintings and Elaine’s expertise as both an artist and a critic. Hartigan would soon be classified as a “second generation” Abstract Expressionist, part of a group of young artists who experienced the impact of World War II, looked to their elders, and reaped the benefits of the emerging American art world.
Hartigan gained recognition for her large-scale, sensuous, abstract paintings in 1950. Uncomfortable with the status quo, in 1952 she embarked on a study of Spanish Old Master painters, including Diego Velasquez and Francisco de Goya. This resulted in works like The Persian Jacket, in which a seated figure, drawn from a female model, is depicted with slashing brushstrokes, bold colors, and strong contrasts of light and dark. Using cheap house painters’ brushes, Hartigan gave the figure weight and volume while denying the illusion of space. “I want a surface that resists, like a wall, not opens, like a gate,” she wrote.
In scenes taken from her life on the Lower East Side, including mannequins posed in bridal shop windows, Hartigan explored contemporary ritual and the societal expectations placed on women. “I have found my ‘subject,’” she declared. “It concerns that which is vulgar and vital in American modern life.” Though she rejected the association, her interest in “low” culture was in line with the emerging Pop art movement. But in contrast with the Pop artists, Hartigan foregrounded her materials. In the almost fully abstract Shinnecock Canal, which she painted after moving to Long Island in the late 1950s, large swaths of color converge in dynamic movement, as if to illustrate her remark, “Yes, we were in love with paint.”
Hartigan used the name George when exhibiting until 1954, later explaining that it was an homage to 19th-century women writers like George Eliot. The choice was practical—men’s work was more valued—but it can also be seen as an expression of her belief that identity is multiple. She cursed like a sailor, often dressed in men’s clothing, and prized work over family life; so if being a woman meant behaving in a certain way, then she was also a man. In 1960 Hartigan moved to Baltimore, where she taught for the next five decades, only regaining recognition late in life. Unlike other painters of her generation, she never adopted a signature style. “No rules,” she demanded, “I must be free to paint anything I feel.”
Romy Silver-Kohn, Research Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021