The Figurative ‘50s--for Sentimental Reasons : <i> Clinging to ‘50s and Exploring the ‘80s </i>

In 1948, when Grace Hartigan was 26, she decided she was going to paint “every day of the week.” So she would have to toss out her old life and invent a new one.

Two weeks later, she had left her artist lover, switched to part-time status at her drafting job, deposited her young son with his grandparents and moved into an unheated $30-a-month loft on New York’s Lower East Side.

Recently, sitting near the balcony of her Newport Beach hotel suite, the painter with the gutsy laugh reminisced about the decade that whisked her in and out of the big-league art world and finally--almost 40 years later--led to the exhibition “The Figurative Fifties” at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

The show deals with artists who reintroduced recognizable figures into their work at a time when abstract art had the force of holy writ.


A high school graduate from a middle-class New Jersey family, Hartigan was unschooled in art except for her exposure to the work of the young painters who were her friends and three years of training from Newark artist Isaac Lane Muse.

“I had the idea, ‘cause I didn’t know any better, that (Muse) was a terrific painter,” she said. “But he was a terrific lover and he taught me more about what to do in bed than he did about painting, actually. He really didn’t know about modern art; he thought he did but he didn’t.

“I started to get interested in (Jackson) Pollock. (Muse) told me he was no good and not to look at him. I thought, ‘Something’s wrong here. I’m curious (about the new directions in painting) and I want more time (to pursue them).’ ”

It was a heady time in American art, the beginnings of a fiercely energetic and emotional abstract style that incorporated aspects of the swift and gritty urban life the New York-based artists shared.

Although Hartigan is generally considered part of the “second generation” of Abstract Expressionists, she considers the distinction an artificial one.

“I’m not making any pretense that I didn’t learn from those people, but we learned from each other and the categories are not really relevant.”

For Hartigan, the learning process yielded measurable results. In 1950, her abstract canvases were chosen by art critic Clement Greenberg and art historian Meyer Schapiro for a new talent exhibit at Samuel Kootz Gallery in New York.

The following year, she had her first one-person show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Sales were not brisk.


“A young man bought a painting for $50, but his mother made him take it back,” Hartigan recalled dryly.

“I had learned very fast a new way to make a painting. I was pretty smart to see it, you know, right away . . . but I hadn’t fought for it and--this was very typical of the way I am--I felt that I had to go through art history and come to my own conclusions.”

Hartigan’s reworkings of art of the past included recognizable figures. The die-hard abstract art contingent roundly condemned her for turning her back on the great breakthrough of Abstract Expressionism.

Yet Hartigan sees no distinction between figuration and abstraction.


“I feel absolutely free to move any way I want,” she said emphatically. ". . . I found that when I don’t use an image at all I don’t do what is most myself.” In any case,

“You don’t live a category. You weren’t an Abstract Expressionist; you were just hanging out with a lot of interesting people. . . .”

One of these people was the poet and critic Frank O’Hara, a key supporter of the figurative wing of Abstract Expressionism. A number of his poems contain references to Hartigan as well as to works by other artists of the era, and several of them painted his compact, intense image.

“Frank made everything so important, so exciting. He couldn’t wait to see the next painting, couldn’t wait to hear the next piece of music, couldn’t wait to see the next ballet. His enthusiasm, his sense of fairness . . . influenced everyone.”


O’Hara’s homosexuality prevented more than a very close friendship, while Hartigan’s romantic liaisons included artists as disparate as Kline and Harry Jackson, a Western-theme sculptor, to whom she was briefly married. (“He has an 800 number actually, if you want to dial and order,” she added impishly.)

In 1953, a Hartigan painting entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The sale meant an end of “living on oatmeal and bacon ends.” By the time Hartigan’s work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1956 exhibit, “Twelve Americans,” she was able to make a living as an artist without having to scrounge part-time jobs as an artist’s model or file clerk.

“But you must understand, I kept living in the Lower East Side. I bought better clothes, probably, but I didn’t buy a better car and I didn’t move out of the studio. The money wasn’t that much--I mean, a major sale was $5,000 and I only did about 12 paintings a year.”

Used to being reviewed in the high-minded prose of the art magazines, she was “stunned” and “confused” to be treated like a celebrity in the quote-tossing (“I hate the past”) pages of popular magazines.


She recalls how peculiar it was to see her photograph in a 1959 Newsweek article, right across the page from a shot of Judy Garland.

But, welcome or not, the blast of public flattery was a fleeting thing. In short order she would step out of the limelight, out of the New York scene entirely. The rapid succession of ‘60s styles--Op, Pop, hard-edge abstraction, Minimalism--would make figurative expressionism seem quaintly old-hat.

“I always intuit when something is going to go off and wrong, and at the end of the ‘50s I had a feeling it was all over,” Hartigan said. “Pollock was dead. Bill de Kooning had moved to the country. (Philip) Guston had moved to Woodstock. Kline had bought a place in Provincetown. Everyone was drinking too much, including me, and I had a sense I had to get out.

“I met Dr. Winston Price, who was a collector and a medical scientist in Baltimore, and (in 1960) I left.


“Marrying Win was isolation beyond belief. . . . (Baltimore) was a poor excuse for a city. . . . But Win in a sense saved my life. He kept me from drinking and gave me love and belief in things when I was being rejected as an artist.

“The thing I experienced and still experience is being ignored. A lot of critics don’t seem to know what to do with me because I don’t fit in any one slot. When people hear of me they think of the ‘50s paintings. . . .”

Moving back and forth between greater and lesser degrees of abstraction, Hartigan’s paintings of the past 20-odd years have frequently returned to the themes of the ‘50s, though in different guises and with different strategies.

Recounting her periods of floundering in search of something to paint, Hartigan said she longs for “the time when artists had subjects they could adore and the world that you lived in gave you images.”


She warmed to her theme with voluptuous oratory, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the glass-topped table next to the sunny balcony of her suite.

“Those images, if they were queens, had more jewels and more velvet and more lace to fill your heart than you could believe! If they were madonnas and saints they had halos and gowns. Look at all the subjects! That were given! To artists! They could go anywhere with them. We’re not given one damn thing to paint! We don’t have any myths, we don’t have any gods, we don’t have any royalty. Our royalty are rock stars, movie stars. . . .

“So what do I choose? I choose people who pretend to be queens--the bride who is queen for a day. I choose environments that are tacky but are supposed to be fantasy time. I go through popular culture to try to find in this trashy stuff something that would be marvelous to paint, and I just do my best, kiddo.”