A Colorful Life

When Grace Hartigan was a little girl, she was bewitched by gypsies.

In the 1930s, the Travelers still roamed the countryside in nomadic caravans, and young Grace would shinny up the apple tree in her parents' backyard in Newark, N.J., to spy on them. She spent hours watching the women in colorful skirts and big hoop earrings telling fortunes, the men sharpening their knives.The gypsies appealed to her boldness, her restlessness, her sense of life as expansive and perilous. Although she never left her yard, that's when Grace Hartigan threw in her lot with the adventurers.

She became a nationally famous painter while still in her 20s and was featured in Life and Newsweek. Her closest friends included such icons of abstract expressionism as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and she had a two-year romance with the painter Franz Kline. Her works are owned by virtually every major art museum in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Hartigan has survived alcoholism, a suicide attempt and the long, slow mental and physical decline of her beloved fourth husband, the late epidemiologist Winston Price.

The Baltimore-born poet Frank O'Hara wrote several verses to Hartigan. They include this lovely and insightful observation:

"Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible."

At 84, she still does.

A show of Hartigan's new paintings is now on view at Baltimore's C. Grimaldis Gallery. All were completed in the two years since the artist moved to Lutherville from her studio and home in a historic building in Fells Point, where she had lived for 35 years.

Hartigan always has been such a city creature that it can be difficult to imagine her in the 'burbs with its slower pace and white picket fences. But as her new show demonstrates, her work is as intense and energetic as ever. She still is experimenting, still pushing boundaries, still trying to solve the aesthetic dilemmas that consume her.

"Painting never gets easier for Grace," says Rex Stevens, a painter, Hartigan's assistant, and chairman of the general fine arts and drawing departments at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "She's always reconfiguring herself, always reanalyzing her ideas, always refusing to be pigeonholed. That's the best thing about her."

In a way, it's remarkable that Hartigan still paints at all; she has been confined to a wheelchair for years (she has no remaining cartilage in her knees), and it's painful for her to stand for too long.

"The thing that keeps me going," she says, "is presenting new problems to my soul. The most wonderful thing is to surprise myself."

Her canvases are big and bold and filled with lush colors, as outsized as the artist's personality. Though Hartigan began her career as a purely abstract painter, in later decades her work has become more figurative -- albeit without such "realistic" techniques as perspective or background.

For the past several years, Hartigan has been working on a series of portraits of women. Her main sources have been the Old Masters, children's coloring books and books of paper dolls, so her work travels freely between the classical tradition and popular culture. On each, she puts her own incomparable stamp.

For instance, Bosch's Women (2005) is an homage to the 15th-century artist who painted ecstatic religious visions.

In Hartigan's rendition, three tough medieval broads muscle their way out of the canvas. You wouldn't want to meet any of these dames in a dark alley, even the one who isn't wearing any clothes. Yet, the women literally are transparent -- the viewer sees through them to the rabbits, owls and other critters that populate Bosch's most famous work. They make the women seem both vulnerable and animalistic.

Needless to say, the paintings based on paper dolls do not replicate the physically perfect -- and blandly generic -- specimens found in children's books. With some "dolls" Hartigan helpfully leaves on the tabs.

Funny lady. But while her paintings may be witty, they also are intellectually rigorous.

"She is one of the seminal figures of abstract expressionism, a real breakthrough artist," says Robert Saltonstall Mattison, a professor of art history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. and the author of books on such groundbreaking painters as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell. In 1991, Hudson Hills Press published Mattison's Grace Hartigan, a painter's world.

"I think her later career actually is stronger than her earlier work," Mattison says. "Starting in the 1950s, she began exploring a whole number of issues that later were taken up by the art world: the tension between low art and high art, and the recreation of old masters in a modern idiom. These are things that Grace pioneered."

While the paintings reveal much about their subjects -- Hamlet's Ophelia, slicing a blood-red pomegranate, or the seductress Mata Hari, arms shackled with bracelets -- they also betray something about the artist. "They're all aspects of myself," Hartigan says.

There is nothing frail about that self. The artist is big-boned and rangy, and while her round cheeks and cloud of white curls might strike some as grandmotherly, that impression is contradicted by the way her eyes narrow and become fixed upon hearing inanities. Hartigan is warm and generous and immensely likable -- her graduate students at MICA rave about her -- but she is as cozy as a peregrine falcon.

She was born in 1922 in Newark, the oldest of four children. Her father was an accountant; her mother, a homemaker. "I owe everything to my father," she says. "When I was very young, he told me that I could do anything, I was so smart."

The Great Depression hit the Hartigan family hard. The family occasionally would go for a week with only cereal for food. "Today, no one knows what it is like to have to put cardboard in the holes of your shoes," Hartigan says, "And how when it rains, your socks get soaked."

There also was tension between the artist's parents. Her mother was an intelligent woman frustrated by the limited roles available to her, and Grace vastly preferred her more supportive father. Even now, in her 80s, she jokes that Athena is her favorite goddess because in the Greek myths, she sprang forth fully formed from Zeus' brow.

"She is the goddess of wisdom, and she didn't have to have a mother," Hartigan says.

In 1941, when she was just out of high school, she married Bob Jachens, a brilliant young college dropout, and the father of her only child, Jeff. It was Jachens who first took Hartigan to the Met, who first told her that she was creative and should pursue painting.

"I owe him," Hartigan says, then seems to reflect that Jachens won't hear her praise. "He's dead," she says. "All my former husbands are dead by now except the most hated one." (This would be husband No. 2, the well-known cowboy artist Harry Jackson.)

Jachens went off to fight World War II, and Hartigan got a job as a draftsman, where she learned the rudiments of drawing, and where a coworker introduced her to the work of Henri Matisse. Hartigan was fascinated by the almost reckless fields of color, and decided, "I want to draw like that."

She wanted it so badly that she allowed nothing to deter her.

She moved to New York with a lover in 1945 and, three years later, decided to try to paint full-time. Hartigan was scratching out the meagerest possible living, painting by day and working at temporary jobs by night. So she sent her young son to live with his grandparents and father.

Perhaps not surprisingly, mother and son have had limited contact ever since. "We're not really in touch," is all Hartigan says now about that relationship.

But during an oral interview in 1979 for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Hartigan described the estrangement as "long and painful," and added: "I had a year of psychotherapy to adjust myself to that loss, to face it somewhat calmly."

In 1948, Hartigan was 26 years old, on her own, and surrounded by artistic giants. The next decade was among the most explosively exciting of her life.

After seeing Pollock's first drip show, she phoned the artist, who was a decade her senior, to tell him how much she liked his work; he invited her to spend the weekend at his home. Through Pollock, she later met de Kooning, Rothko, Kline -- and one important non-painter, the poet Frank O'Hara.

During that time, Hartigan wed Harry Jackson, then a promising young artist enamored with abstract expressionism. The couple were married in 1949 in the de Koonings' home, but the union was annulled a few later years. Hartigan dismisses the union airily: "It wasn't a serious marriage."

Her relationship with her mentors proved far more durable.

From Pollock, Hartigan learned to become passionately absorbed in her painting. "He totally identified with the work," she says. "For him, the creative self and the person are the same thing. The work of art is not held at arm's length. It has a heart that beats."

She also has this vivid memory of Pollock at the seashore: "He was happiest when he was at the beach. He loved to make sand paintings and have them obliterated by the waves."

De Kooning was more articulate than Pollock, better at explaining his techniques. It was he who taught her how to organize her paintings.

As Hartigan tells it, she went to de Kooning's studio one day when he was working on a painting, and was startled to see a realistic skyline floating incongruously above the artist's sensuous smears of color.

" 'Uh, Bill, I hate to ask, but what's the skyline doing there?' " Hartigan recalls saying.

" 'Oh that,' he said. 'That's going to go. But right now, it's how I know where to put everything.' "

In those days, everyone was poor and undiscovered. Hartigan told the Smithsonian interviewer that de Kooning and his wife, Elaine, hid on their fire escape when their landlord pounded on the door, demanding the rent.

"One of my terrible regrets is that Franz, Pollock and Mark didn't live to see the millions that their work would get," she says.

It wouldn't be long before Hartigan herself struck it big. She had her first solo show in 1950, and three years later, her first major sale, when the Museum of Modern Art bought her Persian Jacket.

In 1957, she was featured in a Life photo essay under the caption "the most celebrated of the young American women painters." The following year, Hartigan was the only woman included in a touring show -- called The New American Painters -- that galvanized the international art world.

The year after than, Newsweek devoted much of its art section to Hartigan, noting that she received "the most fervent praise" of the 17 American artists represented in the touring show, according to Mattison. The feature ran next to an article about Judy Garland.

Hartigan was 37.

"I was a household name," she says. "For the next few years, I sold practically everything I could paint."

During this heady period, she became involved with Kline, a painting genius and an alcoholic. Hartigan remembers a mutual friend asking Kline: "What do you do when you're not painting? Oh, that's right. You drink."

So, for that matter, did Hartigan. Those years were, literally, intoxicating. For better or worse, they didn't last.

In 1959, an art collector who owned one of Hartigan's paintings called and asked to see other work. The man was Winston Price, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

The two fell in love virtually at first sight. "I thought scientists were little men with pointy heads," she says. "He was tall, handsome and prematurely gray. We spent the next two days together. He was very romantic, and filled my apartment with freesias. That was it."

Both left their respective spouses -- at the time, Hartigan was wed to her third husband, bookstore owner Bob Keene -- and married in 1960. Hartigan moved from New York to Baltimore, and promptly fell off the art world map.

"She dropped off their radar," says Mattison, the Lafayette College professor. "Our telecommunications then were not what they are now, so being face to face meant a whole lot. That's what hurt her career -- not her art, but not being on the scene."

In addition, Hartigan's relocation alienated some old and dear friends. The rift with Frank O'Hara was especially painful. In the early 1950s, the poet and the artist had embarked on a collaboration, in which Hartigan illustrated O'Hara's 12 Oranges poems -- a collaboration later celebrated in prestigious art exhibits, and in a scholarly article by Terence Diggory, an English professor at Skidmore College, titled Questions of Identity in Oranges by Frank O'Hara and Grace Hartigan.

The poet and the painter spoke on the phone nearly day, according to Mattison. O'Hara had become accustomed to being the great love of Hartigan's life, albeit a platonic love. When she met Win Price, all that changed.

"Frank was very rare as a homosexual, because he had intense loves for women," Hartigan says.

Or as O'Hara wrote, in a poem titled, For Grace, After a Party:

"You do not always know what I am feeling. / Last night in the warm spring air while I was / blazing my tirade against someone who doesn't / interest / me, it was love for you that set me afire..."

Fortunately, the two reconciled just months before O'Hara's sudden death in 1966, when he was run over by a dune buggy on Fire Island. Now, Hartigan keeps a photo of O'Hara in her bedroom.

Perhaps the transition from freewheeling, integrated New York to staid Roland Park would have been less difficult had Hartigan found other like-minded young artists.

"The move was a culture shock beyond belief," she says. "I left people like John Cage and Merce Cunningham. For someone from New York who had black friends and Jewish friends, Baltimore was very segregated."

After about two years of this isolation, she phoned the landscape painter Eugene "Bud" Leake, Jr., who then was Maryland Institute College of Art's president, and asked if he had any graduate students whom she might teach. That was the beginning of the Hoffberger School of Painting, where Hartigan discovered her second great calling.

"She's highly enthusiastic about painting," says Rex Stevens, the MICA professor and Hartigan's assistant. "She's never distracted from that mission, and that's the best thing she can pass onto her students."

Since January, Hartigan has been recuperating from her third hip replacement surgery. As soon as the students heard she was on the mend, they began voluntarily trekking over to the house one or two at a time, eager to show Hartigan their latest work. Within a week, Hartigan had met with the entire class.

"You couldn't keep them away," Stevens says.

On a recent November morning, Hartigan wheeled around MICA's vast gallery space, critiquing the work of her second-year students. Her progress was at times impeded by the gallery's mascot, a shaggy chocolate-colored dog sporting a festive bandana.

Hartigan singles out two energetic and aggressively colored works by graduate students Jeriah Hildwine and Ramsey Barnes for praise: "Both these pieces are the subject," she says. "They're not about the subject."

The men look gratified and relieved. Hartigan notoriously doesn't mince words when she's displeased.

"She's looked at things I've done, and said, 'It's awful,' " says Hildwine, 26. "You have to have the confidence to say, 'OK, Grace, how do I make it less awful?' I'm very careful to be receptive to what she has to say. Fifteen minutes with Grace is worth more than several hours with my peers. I can spend my own time coming up with reasons why I disagree with her."

And Hartigan's occasional abruptness never disguises her concern for her students.

"She takes you under her wing like you were her own child," says Lauren Sleat, a graduate student and Hartigan's teaching assistant. "I'm 41, and she asked me one day if I've had a mammogram. I said, 'No,' and she said, 'I'm making an appointment for you, and I'm paying for it, and you're seeing my doctor."

Though the market for Hartigan's work dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s, the artist discovered she loved being a teacher. And, for the first time, Hartigan's personal life settled down. Her marriage to Price was deeply fulfilling.

But in 1969, he injected himself with a vaccine that he was testing for encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain -- a common procedure in those more reckless times. "I was going to take the vaccine after Win took it, but my dealer told him: 'You can experiment with yourself, Win, but Grace is a great artist. Don't you dare.' "

Instead of discovering a cure, Price fell ill with spinal meningitis, a disease related to encephalitis in which the membranes around the brain become inflamed, and that can cause severe mental deterioration. Hartigan's brilliantly creative husband began a long, slow decline. Ultimately, Price falsified a scientific paper and lost his job. The couple also were deeply in debt.

When Hartigan realized how bad the situation had become, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Price found her and got her to the hospital before the overdose killed her. "It wasn't characteristic of me," she says. "I was boxed in. I couldn't leave, and I couldn't stay."

In 1982, the year after Price died, Hartigan acknowledged that she was an alcoholic and sought help. "My physician said if I didn't stop drinking, I had only a couple of years to live," she says.

She hasn't had a drink since 1983.

Though Price's death left Hartigan broken-hearted and bereft, for the past 26 years, she's had another man who has served as her mainstay: Rex Stevens.

It is he who arranges the myriad details of Hartigan's existence, from driving her to the doctor to readying her canvasses for shows. He, his wife, Regina, and their son, Ryan, live with Hartigan in the Lutherville home.

"I've dedicated my life to Grace," he says. "In many ways, my wife has to share me with another woman. But it has worked out great for me. I benefit in the long run. When else would I get a chance to hang out with a master painter?"

There are signs that the art world is beginning to rediscover Hartigan. Sotheby's recently sold a painting of hers for $66,000, Hartigan's top price to date.

Hartigan's assessment of her own place in the pantheon is typically candid: "I think that history will place me with Franz Kline and Philip Guston," she says. "I will be considered a major female artist. I'm not enough of an innovator to be ranked with Pollock and de Kooning."

Not that that particularly bothers Hartigan. She has more important things on her mind, such as helping her students get ready for their graduation show.

After that, she's eager to get back into the studio that Stevens converted from their home's three-car garage. She's eager to get back to the paint-spattered walker on which she leans when she's working, eager to mix paints on the worktable she has had since the 1950s. On its surface are the pigments that Hartigan has rubbed off her brush. Over six decades, the wafer-thin layers have accumulated into multicolored mounds several inches high.

Future scholars could excavate these lumps like Indian burial mounds: down here is where she painted Persian Jacket. In the middle is when her work started to become more figurative. Closer to the top are the colors she used in her paper doll paintings.

But it will be some time before art historians have a chance to examine that table.

Hartigan isn't finished with it yet.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Grace Hartigan

Age: 84

Occupation: Painter

Alternate occupation: Teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art

Home: Lutherville

Raised: Newark, N.J.

Most famous private collector of her work: Mick Jagger

Education: High-school graduate. She mostly taught herself how to paint.

Number of honorary degrees from universities: Six

Early mentors and friends: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, Philip Guston, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank O'Hara

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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