Transplanted New York painter Grace Hartigan, who in the 1950s earned a reputation as an abstract expressionist along with such celebrated contemporaries as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, is being celebrated this month in two stunning exhibitions that throw new light on the nature of her achievement.
Grace Hartigan: Painting Art History is a retrospective survey of 15 Hartigan paintings on art-history themes organized by Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. It opens today at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Hartigan has taught since 1962, and runs through Dec. 14.
At C. Grimaldis Gallery, a show of the artist's most recent paintings, a series of 17 whimsical images of objects in her Fells Point studio inspired by Matisse and completed since 2002, is on view through Dec. 6.
On the evidence of these shows, not only was Hartigan one of the most important abstract artists of her generation, but her work can now be understood as an important bridge between late modernism and the postmodernist revolution that followed.
Hartigan today is celebrated as a so-called second-generation abstract expressionist, though the term never quite fit her. (She's also been called a proto-Pop artist, a characterization that once prompted her to remark she'd "rather be the pioneer of a movement I hate than a second generation of a movement I love.")
In fact, Hartigan was only eight years younger than Pollock and 16 years younger than de Kooning. But unlike her older peers, whose signature "all-over" style abstract paintings were largely non-representational, Hartigan's work included recognizable figurative elements almost from the beginning, a practice she has continued.
In one of her earliest works in the MICA show, Giftwares (1955), for example, Hartigan treats the objects seen through an antiques store window as a rigorously organized pattern of colors and shapes bound together within the picture frame by alternating rhythms of complementary hues. The visual rhythms set up by the composition exist completely independently of the objects represented.
Nearly four decades later, in the 1992 painting Dejeuner sur l'herbe (after Manet), all but the two female figures of the painting on which it is based have dissolved beneath the pointillist drips of color Hartigan applied to the canvas to evoke the impressionism of both Manet and Seurat. The work is as abstract as any of Pollock's drip paintings - and as flat - despite its ghostlike female forms.
Hartigan's Ab-Exer practice can be seen in the way she still treats a painting as a flat surface to be acted upon, whether by flinging pigments from her brush onto the canvas to create vibrant fields of color or by sketching the outlines of people and objects inflected by her own graphic sensibility. Her 1985 painting Bronzino Young Man, based on a portrait by the 16th-century Italian Mannerist master, is an altogether contemporary update whose departures from the original deepen the meaning of both images.
To contemporaries such as Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, the intrusion of such recognizable figuration represented an abdication of the non-representational ideal, a pandering to the popular conception of a painting as an image wanting to be recognized.
But Hartigan saw her paintings simply as amalgams of the multiple urban milieus through which she moved: of gestural abstraction, of daily life in Manhattan, of images from art history that her friend de Kooning, alone among her New York peers, encouraged her to explore as a basis for artistic growth.
This sense of an artistic license to borrow from many sources, to mix and match, as it were, from all of "high" and "low" culture, and in doing so map out a new realm of creative freedom, anticipated by more than two decades the concepts of "appropriation" and "pastiche" that would provide the theoretical underpinnings of postmodernism.
Though some of Hartigan's contemporaries may have considered her art "impure," in the sense that it departed from the canons of modernist orthodoxy, in hindsight we can see her rebellion as one of the earliest salvos in the revolt against modernism that began with Pop Art and has been gaining momentum ever since.
In her most recent paintings at Grimaldis, Hartigan has dispensed with recognizable figures almost entirely, allowing the everyday objects in her studio to stand in for the human presence. In this she was partially inspired by Matisse, whose 1911 painting The Red Studio marked a milestone in the development of European modernism.
Hartigan's studio paintings and works on paper are at once a tribute to an artist whose example decisively influenced her own work and a further exploration of the spontaneous processes developed by the abstract expressionists.
Many of these works, for example, incorporate Hartigan's well-practiced technique of flinging and dripping paint onto the canvas, either in thin washes that trickle down the surface or in viscous globs that adhere as circular, pointillist overlays.
The results are deceptively unself-conscious paintings that suggest the spontaneity and playfulness of a child's pastel or crayon drawing.
Both the MICA exhibition and the Grimaldis show should be considered must-see events of the season; the elegance and visual and thematic balance of the MICA installation, in particular, are stunning. Taken together, they are worthy and well-deserved tributes to a singular American talent and one of Baltimore's most distinguished artists and educators.
The Decker Gallery is in the Station Building on MICA's campus, 1300 Mount Royal Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. Call 410-225-2300, or visit the Web site www.mica.edu.
C. Grimaldis Gallery is at 523 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Call 410-539-1080.