Grace Hartigan: New York School painter who later rejected Abstract Expressionism

Monday 08 December 2008 01:00
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In August 1958, the outraged critic of a Spanish newspaper huffed that two canvases in the "New American Painting" show, touring Europe that year, had been so big that the lintel to the door of Madrid's National Museum of Contemporary Art had had to be sawn through to get them in. One of these cultural titans was by Jackson Pollock. The other belonged to the only woman artist in the show, Grace Hartigan.

In the decade to come, Hartigan would turn against the hairy-chested giantism of the Abstract Expressionist school, bewailing its lack of emotion. By then, though, the damage was done, and she would be known for the rest of her life as an ex-abstractionist, an apostate from the orthodoxies of the critics Meyer Shapiro and Clement Greenberg.

Wrapped up in this belief was another, that women had no business in what was by rights a man's world, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, all-male milieu of the New York School, centred on the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. Here, from 1945, Hartigan set about proving her mettle, painting Matisse-derived, loose-limbed pictures with names such as Persian Jacket which were bigger than anyone but Pollock's, and drinking the likes of Guston and Ginsberg under the table.

In the course of this, Hartigan's emotional life suffered: she was divorced three times by the age of 30 and afflicted by alcoholism which she would only come to control in old age. In spite of all this, Hartigan incurred the wrath of Sixties feminists by refusing to rail against male chauvinism. "I find that the subject of discrimination is only ever brought up by inferior talents to excuse their own inadequacy as artists," she sniffed.

Hartigan's story is, perhaps, that of many women growing up clever but poor in pre-liberation America. Born in Newark, New Jersey, the child of an unsuccessful accountant, she was of the generation of girls who didn't go to college. Instead, Hartigan effected her escape from home by marrying at 19, although this marriage, to Robert Jachens, ended in divorce five years later when she moved to New York to paint. In the next five years, she wed an artist, Harry Jackson – "not one of my more serious marriages" – and a gallery owner, Robert Keene, although neither union lasted more than a few months.

Disliking other women and variously let down by the alpha males of the Abstract Expressionist group, she turned for friendship to homosexual men (although Hartigan sometimes claimed to have signed her early pictures "George Hartigan" in homage to Mmes Sand and Eliot, she later said that all her gay friends had had female names and she "thought it would be fun to have a man's name" in return.)

Prime among these was the poet Frank O'Hara, with whom she enjoyed a tempestuous eight-year relationship until marrying her fourth and last husband, the epidemiologist Dr Winston Price, in 1960, and moving with him to Baltimore. This dual defection, Hartigan said, "earned the wrath of the New York gay community", and ended her friendship with O'Hara. They were reconciled shortly before his death; she always maintained that the epigraph on his tombstone – "Grace / To be born and live as variously as possible" – referred to her.

She was away from the epicentre of American art and wary of its beliefs, and Hartigan's painting career went into a slow decline. For nearly 50 years, she taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art's postgraduate Hoffberger School of Painting, serving as its director from 1965 until her retirement last year. Her own work, prised from the Greenbergian armlock, became ever more figurative. Pictures such as Reisterstown Mall (1965) celebrate what Hartigan called the "vulgar energy" of American culture in their use of a flashy, commercial imagery of rednecks and white goods.

A predictable result of this was that the one-time apostate from Abstract Expressionism was quickly re-pigeonholed as an inventor of Pop Art, although Hartigan hated the second tag even more than she did the first: "Pop Art is not painting, because painting must have content and emotion," she said. This did not, though, prevent her from taking part in an exhibition called "Hand-Painted Pop" at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1993. Ever pragmatic, Hartigan reasoned that she would "much rather be seen as a pioneer of a movement that I hate than in the second generation of a movement that I love," and bit the bullet.

Hartigan's final period, marked by a series of works called American Places, saw her synthesising the trashiness of Pop Art with a late return to post-Pollock action painting. Six decades after her Cedar Tavern days, in an interview at the age of 85, she remarked, "I still consider myself, in formal terms, a New York School Abstract Expressionist." A quarter of a century before, in 1981, her last husband had died in agony after accidentally infecting himself with spinal meningitis during an experiment. In anguish, Hartigan took an overdose of sleeping pills, but survived. Loyal to his memory and to her students, she stayed on in Price's home town for the rest of her life.

Charles Darwent

Grace Hartigan, artist and teacher: born Newark, New Jersey 28 March 1922; married firstly 1941 Robert Jachens (marriage dissolved; one son deceased), secondly Harry Jackson (marriage dissolved), thirdly R obert Keene (marriage dissolved), fourthly 1960 Winston Price (died 1981); died Timonium, Maryland 15 November 2008.

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