Uncovering hidden layers of Grace Hartigan

Grace Hartigan, one of Baltimore's most distinguished painters, has been the subject of no less than three important exhibitions this month, at C. Grimaldis Gallery on Charles Street, at the ACA Galleries in New York City and at the Neuberger Museum of Art at the State University of New York in Purchase.

Hartigan, who made her reputation in New York during the 1950s as a member of the abstract expressionist movement, moved to Baltimore in the 1960s and has been living and working here ever since. In addition to painting every day, she also heads up the Hoffberger School graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.Recently we sat down with Hartigan to talk about her work, the continuing influence of abstract expressionism and her view of the direction taken by art in the years since.

After abstract expressionism, there have been many art movements -- pop, conceptualism, minimalism, etc. How do they stack up against America's first important art movement?

I think the short answer is that abstract expressionism has continued to feed art ever since.

Now some of it is misunderstood -- I mean, taking Jackson Pollock as a license to make an installation that's just candy on a floor because Pollock said you should be free is stretching Pollock a bit, I think.

Yes, Pollock was a tremendous, explosive artist. I mean, no one had ever seen paintings made of drips before.

But the formal ideas behind the work, which you can still see in contemporary painting, where everything is on the surface and it's all-over painting, that part is all owed to abstract expressionism.

Why do you paint in layers?

What it is, you know the word pentimento? It's a word from the old masters and what you do is try to see what they did under the finished painting. I'm doing it in a modern way, so that you see through a layer.

If you look at my painting at Grimaldis called Oasis, for example, in the center of the picture there is a whole group of figures that I put a brown wash over. My assistant's son looked at it and said, "Grace, there's people in there!"

I just said, "You ever hear of a sandstorm?" And that satisfied him.

In the past, if artists wanted to make something look as though it was far away, they used perspective. Well, I'm a modern painter, so it's the surface that counts. But I still want the sense that something is behind something else, without going into deep space. So that's my solution.

What I did with the Ingres Bath [in the Baltimore Museum of Art] was I painted a modern sort of corny bathroom with a toilet and a bowl and a potted plant and a tub, and then I painted the figures from Ingres' famous painting on top of it. And that's the joke, of course; it's my sense of humor, or irony.

So how did you feel about pop art, which came right after abstract expressionism?

Here's a catalog of a show some years back called "Hand-Painted Pop." Let me show you the beginning -- there, that's Larry Rivers and me. We were declared the mama and papa of pop art. When I was interviewed by the New York Times about this show, I was quoted as saying I would "rather be the pioneer of a movement I hate than a second generation of a movement I love."

It's the pioneer part I like.

What I didn't like about pop art is -- for example, when I use popular culture in my art, I use it as a metaphor; I don't take it deadpan just the way it is. I want it to exist on many levels.

When I depicted Napoleon, for example, I depicted him as a very big head questioning what he was getting into as the man on the horse. But Larry Rivers did Napoleon and called him the last great homosexual. You get the difference: I'm looking at the kind of man he was and the questions he raised; Larry is camping out. That's the difference. His is ironic, take it or leave it; there's no sentiment, no feeling.

So what did you think about Warhol?

Fortunately, I was here in Baltimore by then and I didn't have to think about it. I moved here in 1961, when pop art exploded. And I knew abstract expressionism was over when I left New York.

The difference is there is hot art and cold art -- art with emotional content and art that is deadpan and ironic, where emotion has no place in it. What you see is what you get. And these two couldn't be more different.

I think pop art has ruined the whole concept of art for a while, as if artists just don't realize that you're supposed to get really emotionally involved in this and that you're not supposed to paint at arm's length.

Are there any great painters working anywhere today?

Not that I know of.

Is there any great art of any kind being done today.

Not that I know of. But I feel fortunate that I was around at a time when there was.

How can you say no great art is being made today?

There have been lulls all through history where there weren't any great artists. I mean, there's always art going on. But when you talk about the great artists, Picasso was a great artist, Matisse was a great artist, Pollock and de Kooning -- those are my nominees for the last whole century.

Today there are lots of good artists, but there are just times when the creative energy in the world is going into science or mathematics or other realms of the creative spirit rather than into art.

I can't explain why there aren't any great artists right now. But I'm not sure we should demand that. It's not like turning out a good car every year; there were times when art treaded water before something would surface.

With technology so prominent now, with technology's tremendously rapid penetration of the whole culture -- I still don't have a computer, for example, or a cell phone, or even a microwave -- I don't think it's a good atmosphere for creative work, which requires silence and contemplation and time.

All this stepped-up communications is not necessarily good for art. I got a letter from Elaine de Kooning once in which she was talking about something and then she wrote, "Oh but I digress." You can't say that in an e-mail! But I believe in digressing.

I once saw Mike Nichols taking about the actors workshop. He said the important question is, "What is really going on here?" Not what the script says, what is really going on? And I thought, isn't that marvelous, it's a really wonderful idea.

For example, look at a Mondrian, an original. ... His paintings aren't done like linoleum, he didn't do them with masking tape, he didn't do them fast. He fought, stroke by stroke, for where that black was. ...

I've cried in front of canvases. And they're just a piece of cloth with color on it. Isn't it magical that can happen?

You knew Jackson Pollock well in New York. Do you think the movie Pollock did justice to him as a pioneer of abstract expressionism?

I went to see some clips, yes. And Ed Harris has nothing more to do with Jackson Pollock than -- who was that idiot who played Michelangelo?

Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy?

Yeah, him. Nothing to do with Pollock, nothing to do with Lee Krasner, nothing to do with their relationship -- plus it made Peggy Guggenheim look like an idiot, and she was a real smart woman.

I mean, it was a total simplification for Hollywood consumption and it made me so mad I almost cried.

I was interviewed for a Pollock biography on A&E. Wonderful young people came, very idealistic, and I said, "I'm not going to give you any gossip about this man." He was a terribly suffering, sensitive man; he once told me he was a clam without a shell.

He somehow didn't know how to sit in the world. The only time I ever saw him at peace was by the sea, or in his own studio. He didn't know how to deal with anyone.

Have the ab-exers become the victims of their own myth?

Yes, but the paintings are there. You forget all about the mess and everything when you look at the art. What does the rest matter? That's why I can't get too upset about it. When I get upset about it I just look at a Pollock, like that silkscreen on the wall there.

How do you see your own place in the art of that period?

I am an important American painter. I've got a little blurb from the New Yorker magazine that calls me an "underrated American treasure." And it's true.

My dealer came here earlier and pulled out all these books for me to show you. I said, "I'm not going to shove all this stuff under the man's eye." He said, "Oh, but he should know all this." I said, "No, let's just play it by ear."

Well, he's my dealer and he wants all this stuff that's happened around me to be known, he wants to change the fact that, whether it's fair or not -- and life isn't fair -- that I had tremendous recognition and attention during my career and also tremendous neglect. And that's the way it was. That was my karma, how the cards fell out.

There's no reversing that history now. I'm 79 years old. I have great plans to live at least as long as Georgia O'Keeffe [98]. There's a lot of work I still want to do. But the thing that's been incredible is that one way or another I've been able to arrange my life so that I could paint every day. And that's been the main thing.

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