Grace Hartigan was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist whose strong colorful paintings made her one of the most prominent artists of the 1950s. A brash, self-taught artist, her paintings were alive with movement, rhythm, and vivid color.
She studied mechanical drafting at Newark College of Engineering but moved to downtown New York City in 1945. Living in New York, she became part of the informal group of artists and writers, known as the New York School. She was welcomed as an equal in the inner circle of the major male artists – Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, and Mark Rothko. Hartigan’s first solo show was at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York in 1951. In November 1952, she did collaborative work “Oranges” with her friend the poet Frank O’Hara. For his 14 poems, she created a painting for each, incorporating text from each poem into her design.
One of her first sales was to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1953. In 1956, her work was included in two seminal group shows at MoMA: “12 Americans,” in which she was the only woman showing, and “The New American Painting,” which toured Europe in 1958-1959.
For several years, imitating female novelists George Eliot and George Sand, she signed her early paintings ‘George Hartigan’. Her reputation exceeded those of female painters Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Krasner. What helped put her as the leader of these female painters was her 1950 monumental painting “The King is Dead.” Picasso was the ‘King’ being referenced in this mural-size tour de force whose agitated, whirling red, white, and blue brushwork upended his style of cubism.
In the 1950s, Hartigan began to paint images taken from ordinary street scenes. She began painting figuratively from old master paintings, one of which was her 1953 “River Bathers.” In her 1954 painting, “Grand Street Brides,” she combined the slashing brushwork of Abstract Expressionism with imagery from contemporary life. She based the composition on the shop windows on Grand Street’s bridal row, a cluster of stores near her studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her use of figurative objects was deemed kitsch, and the critic Clement Greenberg insulted her to her face and never wrote about her work again.
In 1964, she became director of the graduate school of painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art where she built one of the most prestigious art programs in the country. Painting daily, she explored printmaking, watercolor painting, Pointillism, and portraiture. She had a 1981 retrospective in Indiana at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. In 1991, she said, “I didn’t choose painting. It chose me. I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”