energy: Hartigan’s Bestiary (1974).
Hartigan: A Survey
Gallery, through Oct. 19
Grace Hartigan began her painting career as a successful abstract
expressionist in the 1940s, but has changed, chameleonlike,
ever since. There are stages of her work, which has evolved
over decades—she was born in 1922, and paintings on display
date as recently as 2002—but it is impossible to pin the artist
down to any one movement or ‘ism.’ Her sometimes intimidatingly
large canvases of 6 or even 9 feet pose beneficial challenges
in an age of thumbnail characterizations and postpop art,
when everything is supposed to be fast, easy, and brandable.
Hartigan reminds us that art doesn’t have to be instantaneous:
It can be difficult, ever-changing, and still meaningful.
This survey at the Opalka Gallery does justice to Hartigan’s
wide-ranging trajectory, although paintings from the late
’50s and early ’60s—an important phase—are not represented.
Two medium-sized early abstract works (Donna and White,
both from 1951), marked by a mastery of composition and a
color scheme with lots of gray tones, join a wonderful small
yellow, white and black collaged painting (Untitled,
1949), to introduce her as an important abstract expressionist.
Hartigan rubbed elbows with Willem de Kooning and Jackson
Pollock and was close with poet Frank O’Hara. In 1956, the
Museum of Modern Art staged Twelve Americans, an exhibition
that hailed the second generation of abstract expressionists;
Hartigan was the only woman chosen for the show. Nelson Rockefeller
bought one of her oils, City Life (1956). She was celebrated
in the pages of Life magazine and in Newsweek.
Her fame ebbed quickly, but this exhibition demonstrates a
restless imagination constantly reinventing itself. Rockefeller
Center (1990), could be by an entirely different artist
from the creator of the ’50s paintings. Gone are the carefully
networked abstract schemes of swooshes and crosses (gone,
too, are the thick black outlines she favored in the ’60s
and ’70s). Rockefeller Center instead creates open planes
that clash with riotous splotches in bright red, blue, and
white with rubbed-out areas, so that one gets the visceral
sense of participating in a splashy (or bloody?) frenzy of
One theme uniting her work is its preoccupation with symbols
of American identity. An example here, Hollywood Interior
(1993), poses vacuous women on the telephone, one of them
a hot pink silhouette. Some of her early paintings delighted
in American consumerism; this era of her work is not represented
in this survey, which is unfortunate, because it is one of
By the 1960s, she had moved to Baltimore, where she remains
today. She has had fairly tumultuous relationships, marrying
a few times and going through treatment for alcoholism, and
her work’s evolution reflects an up-and-down pattern. Paintings
from the ’70s such as Have You Ever Seen Spain? (1974)
and Bread Sculpture (1977) vacillate between a manic
energy with hot colors and an empty, depressed mood transmitted
by the eyes of cartoonish characters. Her ’70s work, read
by some as aligned with pop art (although she rejects pop
art’s ideology), appears deliberately ugly. Dolls (1976)
follows a trend in Hartigan’s painting of ironically depicting
femininity in naïf tableaux that can be aptly compared to
street mural art. The darkly colored Male Image (1966)
also has something to say about gender. It is a wall of paint,
a labyrinth of phallic shapes with dead ends. Much of her
work presents this kind of barrier to visual entry with a
flattened, warped perspective and jarring colors.
Making yet another total turnaround, paintings in the ’80s
and beyond celebrate color and texture: Gondolas and
Towers, Venice (both 1990) are in watercolors, while
Greuze’s Woman in White (2002) highlights simple, striking
pinks and grays.
of 1934 (1989) summarizes for me Hartigan’s many contradictions:
It juxtaposes four large, cartoonish female figures on a beautiful
splattered-pastel ground of light blue, darker purple, pink,
and gold. The lovely splashes and gradations of color seem
to contrast with the crudely drawn women, but their comical-sad
figures give the painting form and life.
Hartigan’s large-scale paintings must be seen from a distance,
and the Opalka Gallery, which is one big airy room, makes
an ideal space for viewing. There isn’t much curatorial guidance—one
short textual summary hangs on a wall, although a brief film
clip and some books on display help.
At various times in her career, male mentors gave Hartigan
advice: Isaac Lane Muse, also a painter and her partner in
the late 1940s, told her not to paint abstractly, while the
critic Clement Greenberg told her, when she had begun a series
interpreting old master paintings, to return to pure abstraction.
Yet she insisted on her diverse modes. Combining an abstract-expressionist
style with a sometimes creepy primitivism, her crowded, boisterous
canvases stubbornly and, sometimes delightfully, persist in
being what they are.