'A restless spirit'

The Baltimore Sun

Before she passed away Saturday after a long illness, Grace Hartigan was adamant, even imperious about the arrangements for how she would be memorialized. And she will get her way, as Hartigan, a seminal figure in the U.S. art world and a longtime Baltimore resident, usually did.

"There will be no memorial service. She said that her memorial should be more about her body of work than about her physical body. She's always felt that way," says Rex Stevens, chairman of the drawing and general fine arts department at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The 86-year-old painter will be cremated, he said.

Hartigan's friends and former students - and there are legions - can remember her by visiting the five dozen prints, collages, drawings and paintings (including four currently on display) at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Or, if they happen to be traveling out of town, they can check out her muscular, bold, highly colored canvases in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, or in the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Her work is represented in every modern major museum collection of American paintings," says Jay Fisher, deputy director of curatorial affairs for the BMA. "No one would ever consider her a regional artist. She just happened to be working in Baltimore."

Or the painter's fans can rent Shattering Boundaries: Grace Hartigan, the 2008 documentary about her life.

"Grace's influence as a painter is huge and widespread, and it will just continue to grow," says Stevens, who also was Hartigan's longtime personal assistant.

"She and Larry Rivers simultaneously invented pop art. She was on a life's journey to find her own voice, and I think she succeeded. She had a restless spirit, and was quite inventive. A Grace Hartigan painting snapped like a sword."

Before moving to Baltimore in 1960, Hartigan was an intimate colleague of some of the most influential members of the Abstract Expressionist movement: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. She and the abstract artist Franz Kline were lovers for two years.

In her long and restless life, she survived a suicide attempt, alcoholism, the death of her only child, and the long, slow mental and physical deterioration of her beloved fourth husband, the epidemiologist Winston Price.

Hartigan kept a photograph of the Baltimore-born poet Frank O'Hara in the bedroom of her final studio, in Timonium, and he wrote several verses to Hartigan, his close friend. They include this lovely reflection: "Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible."

Though Hartigan never lacked self-confidence, she was a gimlet-eyed realist about her own career. In a 2006 interview, she said that she wasn't a genius on the order of Henri Matisse but was the next best thing: someone who could take a groundbreaking discovery and find in it unexpected ramifications.

"I think that history will place me with Franz Kline and Philip Guston," she said. "I will be considered a major female artist. I'm not enough of an innovator to be ranked with Pollock and de Kooning."

Hartigan's success is especially remarkable considering that she was largely self-taught. She was born in 1922 in Newark, N.J., the eldest of four children. She married for the first time right out of high school and never attended college.

During World War II, she got a job as a draftsman, where she learned the rudiments of drawing, and where, just as importantly, a co-worker introduced her to the works of Matisse. She moved to New York in 1945 and began painting full time three years later.

Her introduction to the world of artistic giants came when she phoned Pollock out of the blue one day to tell him how much she admired his work, and he invited her to visit his weekend home.

Hartigan had her first solo show in 1950, and just eight years later, she was the only woman included in a touring show called the New American Painters that electrified the international art world. She and her work were featured in spreads in Life and Newsweek; in the latter publication, Hartigan's photo was on the same page as an article about Judy Garland.

In 1960, when she was at the height of her career, she fell in love with Price, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, married him and moved to Baltimore.

About that time, her art began to change in significant ways. Previously, she had painted the broad swaths of color that exemplified the second wave of Abstract Expressionism. When she began to add recognizable human figures to her drawings, many considered it heresy.

"She wasn't afraid to stop painting the type of work that was greatly admired by collectors and museums, and move on to a new style," Fisher says. "She worked tremendously hard, and her work continued to change and evolve. That wasn't true of all of her contemporaries."

Hartigan continued painting even after she developed hip trouble a few years ago and spent much of her time in a wheelchair.

Hers was a continual quest for artistic truth. When Hartigan was asked why she stopped creating works in a style that won her so much acclaim, she said that her abstract paintings "came too easily. I hadn't earned them."

For a while, the market for her work seemed to dry up. But, as is often the case, the art world eventually caught up with her. She found herself heralded as a pioneer of pop art - a style for which she had little sympathy.

"She once said, 'I'd prefer to be less of a star in a movement I love [meaning Abstract Expressionism] than a star in a movement I hate," said Costas Grimaldis, who owns the Baltimore gallery where Hartigan showed.

Grimaldis said that Hartigan got a "big chuckle" out of the Neo-Expressionists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who "discovered" that they could combine recognizable human figures in abstract backgrounds.

"Her influence was felt even then," Grimaldis said.

In addition to her painting, Hartigan taught for 45 years at MICA.

"She really built the painting program from nowhere," said Fred Lazarus, MICA's president.

Stevens and Grimaldis say that Hartigan had the rare ability to put aside her predilections and help her students develop their own voices.

Grimaldis remembers with amusement a few painters who, under Hartigan's tutelage, discovered that their truest gift lay in a different genre. "Once or twice," he said, "the student who won the top award in MICA's painting program won it for a sculpture."

Lazarus likes to tell the story about how, when Hartigan was in her early 80s, she asked him to lunch. At the outing, she abruptly asked her boss: "Do you want me to quit? Because I don't plan to ever quit."

At the recollection, Lazarus laughs long and hard.

"That's the way it was," he says. "Grace was one of those people where, if you knew what was good for you, you didn't get in her way."

A few days before she died, Grimaldis visited his friend of 31 years in her bed at the nursing home. In his hand, he held an announcement for a small exhibit of Hartigan's works on paper that will debut at his gallery early next month. Nothing, he says, energized the artist more than a new show.

"She liked the announcement," he said. "This is how Grace would want to be remembered."

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