Obituaries

Grace Hartigan; Influential Painter and Educator

Abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan, 86, was considered the leading female artist of her generation and led the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to prominence.
Abstract expressionist painter Grace Hartigan, 86, was considered the leading female artist of her generation and led the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to prominence. (1965 Photo By William L. Klender -- Baltimore Sun)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

Grace Hartigan, an abstract expressionist painter once hailed as the leading female artist of her generation and who later turned to teaching and led a Baltimore art school to national prominence, died Nov. 15 of liver failure at Lorien Mays Chapel nursing home in Timonium, Md. She was 86.

Ms. Hartigan was a brash self-taught artist who began painting in the late 1940s, when the abstract expressionist movement, led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, was reaching its height. From her first solo exhibition in 1951, she was considered an important artist, and her work sold briskly throughout the decade.

The Museum of Modern Art bought one of her paintings in 1953, and she was regularly featured in the news media and in major exhibitions. In 1957, Life magazine called her "the most celebrated of the young American women painters."

Her paintings were alive with movement, rhythm and vivid splashes of color. A 1960 Time magazine article said "her strokes seem committed out of rage; the effect is one of extraordinary power."

By then, she had left New York for Baltimore and had begun a long descent into critical neglect. She had also begun to include recognizable figures in her paintings, which was seen as a betrayal of abstract expressionist principles.

Inspired by what she called the "vulgar and vital in modern American life," Ms. Hartigan introduced elements from pop culture and classic art into her paintings. Somewhat to her chagrin, she became known as a founder of pop art, a 1960s movement led by Andy Warhol that emphasized detachment and irony.

"Pop Art is not painting because painting must have content and emotion," Ms. Hartigan once said.

Still, she enjoyed the recognition: "I'd much rather be a pioneer of a movement that I hate than the second generation of a movement that I love."

Grace Hartigan was born March 28, 1922, in Newark and grew up in rural Milburn, N.J. She taught herself to draw as a child but had little formal training in art. She first married at 19 and worked as a draftsman for a factory during World War II. When she saw the work of Henri Matisse in a book, she decided to become an artist.

She settled in New York in 1945 and became part of the inner circle of three of the era's major artists, Pollock, de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

Ms. Hartigan was a regular at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village and had a two-year affair with painter Franz Kline. She became a close friend of poet Frank O'Hara's, who wrote several poems about her, including the words used as his epitaph: "Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible."

For several years, she signed her early paintings "George Hartigan," as a tribute to 19th-century female novelists George Eliot and George Sand, and her reputation exceeded those of such renowned female painters as Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner. She was championed by the kingmaking critic Clement Greenberg.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company