Grace Hartigan’s “From Maryland to Bucharest and Back” is shown on exhibit at the University of Maryland University College Inn and Conference Center in 2001. (Marie Poirier Marzi/For The Washington Post)

The American painter Grace Hartigan (1922-2008) drank like a fish, cursed like a sailor, slept with whomever she wished and let nothing interfere with her belief that she was a great artist. There would be no leaning in for Hartigan; she barged in. In Cathy Curtis’s new biography, we learn how Hartigan defied the standards for femininity prevalent during the 1940s and ’50s to become a lasting example of the book’s title, restless ambition.

From childhood on, Hartigan knew she was an artist. Rebelling against a cold mother, she married young and had a son, Jeffrey. In 1948, after seeing Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, she persuaded her boss to fire her so she could get unemployment benefits; then she abandoned Jeffrey to her former in-laws, rented a cold-water flat and vowed “to paint every day of my life.”

Keeping that vow established the three main tensions in Hartigan’s life: money worries, the burdens of motherhood, and the unrelenting demands of becoming a great painter. The book is very detailed about the first and the last of these tensions, as every avant-garde painter in New York during the 1940s and ’50s seemed to lead a pauper’s life — burning orange crates for fuel, adding cafeteria ketchup to water to make soup — while feverishly working to create groundbreaking art.

Curtis has less to say about Hartigan as a mother, because the artist quickly and absolutely rejected that role. Hartigan also rejected being a subservient wife, and she waged a lifelong battle against being described as a woman painter instead of just as a painter. Yet she frequently boasted that she was the “ ‘only woman’ in the New York art world of the late forties,” conveniently overlooking her fellow painters and friends Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner.

Curtis thoroughly notes the numerous exhibitions Hartigan had throughout her long career, and it’s thrilling to learn how quickly she was recognized in New York as a new talent. Her first solo show was in 1951 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and a few years later museums began to purchase her paintings.

"Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter" by Cathy Curtis (Oxford Univ./Oxford Univ.)

Meanwhile, she was an awful mother. Decades after abandoning Jeffery, she openly declared that she “hated being a mother,” and didn’t much like her child, either. Though Curtis implies that Hartigan felt guilty about her treatment of Jeffrey, we’re later told that, when Hartigan’s therapist asked her if she felt guilty, she answered no. We should believe her.

Everyone in her New York circle drank and slept around, but Hartigan’s libido was almost nonstop. She boasted to others about her lovers. About her early teacher Ike Muse, she said that after sex with him, “I was aching from head to foot.” Later she met Franz Kline, “the best lover she ever had,” Curtis writes. Married four times and unfaithful to each husband, Hartigan also had strong and lasting friendships with men and women. Her relationship with poet and critic Frank O’Hara was particularly important and mutually inspiring, and though O’Hara was gay, he once asked Hartigan to sleep with him. She answered, “And ruin this? No way.”

Though Hartigan earned her reputation as an abstract expressionist, she soon denied being one, and her work quickly became a fusion of abstract principles and figurative painting, or what Curtis calls her “magpie borrowings.” A famous early work, “Grand Street Brides” (1954), announced themes she would paint until she died, ones that today we’d mark as gendered: shop windows full of dresses; fashion and costumes; mythic and historical women; glamour as ritual; masks; and dolls, including Barbie.

While she hated being categorized as a woman artist, her 1964 painting “Barbie” solidly raises feminist issues. Years later, she characterized her process as “declaw[ing] the terribleness of popular culture and turn[ing] it into beauty or meaning,” describing how she took a commodified image of women and “made it powerful.” She also painted Dido, empresses and queens, and Marilyn Monroe, whom she considered “the last goddess.” Curtis seldom interprets Hartigan’s behavior in a political way, but, for instance, the revelation that she sometimes traded her paintings for designer clothes made me want more along these lines. Such details complicate how we see Hartigan, especially given her lifelong interest in the relation between power and beauty.

For all painters, Hartigan’s most lasting example is her work ethic. Regardless of showing, selling or being in the news, she continued to paint and grow as an artist. In 1957, she sold every painting she had made that year. But whereas Krasner and Frankenthaler had had retrospectives in New York, Hartigan’s 1981 retrospective was at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, in Indiana. Beginning in the 1960s, her job teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore allowed her to keep painting despite low sales. One high point during those years was Mick Jagger’s purchase of her painting “Bacchus” (1985).

When we look at Grace Hartigan’s paintings, we see how power does become a kind of beauty, though not everyone will say that about the artist herself. Perhaps, though, we need to keep looking. This biography helps us do that.

Sibbie O’Sullivan is a writer who teaches in the Honors College program at the University of Maryland at College Park.

RESTLESS AMBITION:

GRACE HARTIGAN, PAINTER

By Cathy Curtis

Oxford Univ.
420 pp. $34.95