Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about sculptor Phyllis Mark’s visit to Fort Wayne in 1979. She was one of a handful of New York women artists who the museum director, James Bell, brought to Fort Wayne to exhibit their work and speak to local art lovers. Second Generation Abstract Expressionist (AbEx) Grace Hartigan was another.
Grace Hartigan: Thirty Years of Painting 1950-1980, proposed, planned, and curated by FWMoA staff, ran from February 6 to March 15, 1981. The museum produced a catalogue with an essay by curator Joseph Kettner II. The exhibit included works borrowed from the Hirshhorn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the American University, private collectors, and the artist. The opening for Hartigan’s exhibit was well attended, and the photographs are evidence of a good time had by all. Even Fort Wayne Mayor Winfield Moses attended, chatted with the artist, and made a few comments to the crowd. After the show closed in Fort Wayne it travelled to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens and to the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was the first retrospective of Hartigan’s work and followed a couple of decades of neglect from the art world.
Hartigan was one of a group of 1950s artists who were later identified as the Second Generation Abstract Expressionists. At the time, not fully conscious of the distinctions between the “generations”, the late-comers were a bit younger, overlapped with, and mentored by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. After the war, the AbEx movement attracted a myriad of imitators and creators of derivative work but also a small group of innovators who ran with what they had observed and learned from their first generation mentors and colleagues. These post-war New York School painters had a fresh vision that expanded and energized American abstract painting, taking the movement to a new level. Several of these innovators were women – Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner. Grace Hartigan was among them.
Grace, born in Newark, NJ in 1922, was a sickly kid who, while isolated at home, found stimulation in drawing and reading. She was in her 20s during the war and worked as a draftsman in an airplane factory. Watercolor became an interest around this time, and she studied with Isaac Lane Muse who, after moving to New York with her, introduced her to Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko. It wasn’t long before she was hanging out with the Cedar Bar crowd and painting seriously. These experiences came with life-changing sacrifices. Grace had married a nice guy, Bob Jachens, at 19 and had a son, Jeffrey. The marriage was a casualty of the war, and, soon after, Grace abandoned motherhood to chase her art dream. She and her son never really got past an awkward, painful, and estranged relationship. The relationship with Muse ended, too, when Grace rejected the role of dutiful female supporter of male artist – a common construct of that time.
Her realization that painting was not just her work but her essence propelled her through a life of hardship and creative intensity in one of the most powerful movements of American art. Life in New York was hard for striving artists who often lacked the funds for rent, heat, and food. Some, like Hartigan, too poor to buy paint and canvas, scrounged the streets for discarded canvases to repair and paint over; coached by the de Koonings, Pollock, Lee Krasner, and encouraged by her growing circle of connections, Hartigan was working hard. Her paintings were large and vibrant, fluidly moving between figuration and total abstraction. This would be her signature throughout her career – the ability to work effectively in both approaches, as long as they contained both “content and emotion”. In 1950 she was one of 23 emerging artists chosen by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro to be included in the New Talent exhibit at the Kootz Gallery at 15 East 57th Street. Have you heard of Ninth Street Women? Hartigan was one of the 72 artists (11 were women) selected by Leo Castelli who made up the groundbreaking Ninth Street show from May 21 – June 10, 1951. Her first solo show was also in 1951 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. In 1953, MoMA purchased her large 1952 oil on canvas, The Persian Jacket. Hartigan’s career took off like a comet. She was on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1957. In 1958, she was the only woman chosen to exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art in The New American Painting, an exhibition that traveled to eight European countries. In 1959 she was on the cover of Newsweek; heady success for any artist not yet 40-years-old.
Hartigan’s work did not just provide fame and praise, it also connected her with her 4th husband, Dr. Winston Price, esteemed Johns Hopkins epidemiologist. An avid art collector, Price met Hartigan in 1959 over her painting, Autumn Harvest, which he had purchased in Washington at the Beati Perry Gallery. They married in 1960, and he swept her off her feet all the way to Baltimore. Baltimore was worlds away from the vortex of American art, and her New York circle was aghast at her decision to leave, warning that she would be forgotten. Hartigan continued to paint, though she longed for the interaction with her artist peers and the stimulation and diversity of the New York art scene. She had also just lost her dear friend, poet Frank O’Hara, to a freak accident. To fill the void and maintain sanity, she sought out painter Eugene “Bud” Leake, president of the Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA) to ask if there was a place for her teaching graduate students. Hartigan was put to work directing and teaching at the newly launched Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA, marking the start of a thirty-year love affair with education. This new-found vocation would also help her through bankruptcy, attempted suicide following her husband’s professional collapse, his death in 1981 (he passed from a debilitating disease just six weeks after Hartigan’s visit to Fort Wayne), and her own physical and mental health challenges, including alcoholism. She stopped drinking in 1983. Hartigan, wheelchair-bound in her elder years, continued to teach at MICA into her 80s and died of liver failure in 2008 at the age of 86.
Looking at the photographs of her opening at FWMoA in 1981, it appears this was a happy event for her during a phase of darkness, trials, and ill health. I hope that the source of her apparent joy was the pleasure and appreciation of the company she was in, surrounded by three decades of her work. Larger than life for a time, we met her here at an important juncture in her personal and professional career.
Of course, Hartigan’s legacy includes the scores of students mentored, coached, and encouraged through her long career as an educator. This spring, FWMoA will exhibit the work of one of her MICA students, William Dutterer.
A Colorful Life, Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun, April 2, 2006
Grace Hartigan, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2001, exhibition catalogue
Grace Hartigan: A Survey, The Butler Institute of American Art, 2008, exhibition catalogue
Hartigan: Thirty Years of Painting, 1950-1980, The Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1981, exhibition catalogue
New Book Traces artist Grace Hartigan’s ‘magpie borrowings’, Sibbie O’Sullivan, The Washington Post, April 10, 2015
Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel, Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Winston Harvey Price Dies at 58; Authority on Infectious Diseases, The New York Times, May 2, 1981