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Renowned Abstract Expressionist Painter Grace Hartigan (1922-2008) Mentored Generations of Artists as Director of MICA's Hoffberger School of Painting

Grace Hartigan, who died on Saturday, November 15, 2008 at the age of 86

Posted 11.17.08 by MICA Media Relations

Bosch's Women

During her 60 years as a relentless artistic innovator and more than 40 years of painstakingly overseeing graduate students as director of Maryland Institute College of Art's (MICA) Hoffberger School of Painting, Grace Hartigan, who died on Saturday, November 15, 2008 at the age of 86, cut a huge swath and left a lasting impression.

In his introductory remarks before the premiere of the documentary film Grace Hartigan - Shattering Boundaries this past September at MICA's Brown Center, MICA President Fred Lazarus IV pointed out that Hartigan, the revered painter and educator had indicated that she "was a little embarrassed by being the focal point of a film. But she also came back with a perfect Grace retort: She said, ‘It isn't about me; it's about the paintings. And that's what's really important.'

"And one of the things that I've always appreciated, having worked with Grace in her other role - not as the painter but as the teacher for all these years - is the fact that it's always about the art for Grace. It's about the art she makes; it's about the art that her students make."

"She was the epitome of the American artist who came up through the late 1940s and the 1950s and established herself in New York," asserts Constantine Grimaldis, the Baltimore-based art dealer who has represented Hartigan since 1978, and whose venerable gallery has hosted 18 solo exhibitions of her work. "But Grace was more than a painter; Grace was a mentor. She influenced three generations of artists in her role as head of the Hoffberger School."

"Grace was larger than life in her strength and brilliance," notes Suzi Cordish, chairperson of Maryland Art Place, MICA trustee, and close confidant of - and friend to - Hartigan. "She was gutsy, courageous, and had a ferocious passion for her work."

Rex Stevens -- chair of MICA's drawing and general fine arts departments, Hartigan's studio manager for nearly 30 years, and the person who, with his family, shared a home with Hartigan since 1984 -- saw that passion firsthand. "You want a pioneer who takes painting more serious than anything in the whole world?" he asks rhetorically in Shattering Boundaries. "That's what Grace is. It's the discipline of getting up every day, doing the work, seeing what happens, and taking the journey."

That journey began in 1922, when Hartigan was born in Newark, N.J., the eldest of four children of an accountant father and stay-at-home mother. After graduating from high school in 1941, Hartigan married and had a son with Bob Jachens. The couple took drawing classes together in Los Angeles, and, shortly thereafter, while Jachens served in Europe in World War II, Hartigan studied mechanical drafting and developed an interest in watercolor painting back in New Jersey. Her artistic pursuits grew and deepened when she moved in 1945 to New York City, where, over the course of the next five years, she met and befriended a dizzying array of emerging artists, including Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Harry Jackson (whom she married in 1949 after her 1947 divorce from Jachens), Franz Kline, and Helen Frankenthaler, as well as the composer John Cage, and, perhaps most important, the poet and art curator Frank O'Hara.

A free and fertile exchange of ideas characterized these painters, who would come to be known as members of the New York School, renowned as the progenitors of Abstract Expressionism. Unlike nearly all of them, Hartigan was, for the most part, self-taught. "I didn't choose painting," she told The New York Times in 1993. "It chose me. I didn't have any talent. I just had . . . genius." Hartigan first distinguished herself in the art world when she was included in 1950's "New Talent" show in New York, followed the next year by her initial solo exhibition, held at the groundbreaking Tibor de Nagy Gallery. It was from there, in 1953, that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) bought Hartigan's Persian Jacket, painted a year earlier; it was only her second sale ever.

Although celebrated as an Abstract Expressionist, Hartigan quickly moved on. By 1952, she was successfully incorporating figuration into her work (significantly with 1954's Grand Street Brides) and initiating a long-standing practice of producing canvases inspired by the works of the Old Masters, including Durer, Velasquez, and Rubens. Somewhat shocked, Clement Greenberg, the era's preeminent art critic and a steadfast Hartigan supporter, chastised her for such stylistic drift.

Nonplussed and undeterred, Hartigan continued to follow her instincts, exploring sundry subject matter and various techniques in her work over a half-century. "I'm praised and denounced for the one thing that I question myself about, which is why I'm so restless," Hartigan relates in Shattering Boundaries. "I hate to copy myself. Suddenly, another idea comes in and I jump on that."

Often, she has taken her impetus from the enveloping culture - commerce, coloring books, cut-out dolls, and the cinema - while returning time and again to her artist forebears: Ingres, Bosch, Matisse, Cezanne, and Tiepolo, among others. Not forgetting the influence of literature. Famously, from 1952 to 1953, she collaborated with poet O'Hara, her most cherished friend in the 1950s, to produce 12 paintings based on his "Oranges" series that not only manifested the imagery from his poems, but also included snippets of actual text from each.

Hartigan's "restless" nature, as she termed it, stemmed from her ungovernable urge to express herself creatively. "She's always reconfiguring herself, always reanalyzing her ideas, always refusing to be pigeonholed," Stevens told The Baltimore Sun in 2006 on the occasion of a Hartigan solo show at C. Grimaldis Gallery. "That's the best thing about her."

And yet Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), whose collection includes 60 Hartigan works (paintings, prints, drawings, collages), also detects a consistency - a cohesiveness - in her oeuvre. "One of the constants in Grace's work is the presence of drawing," Fisher says. "The importance of line is always there, even in an abstract composition where it's not so apparent as something literally drawn. I see so much force of emotion and so much audacity in her pictures - not that they weren't conscious, but somehow one feels the emotiveness while never losing the structure.

"Among the Abstract Expressionists," he continues, "she circumnavigated the tension between being representational and abstract. Some artists were either one or the other, or stopped being one, and then became the other, but Grace always seemed to negotiate that [dichotomy] in her own unique way."

Grimaldis succinctly puts it this way: "Grace defied definitions."

Hartigan's reputation as an important contemporary artist increased throughout the 1950s: She was the only woman represented in the MoMA's 1956 show "Twelve Americans"; and her work was an integral part of the "New American Painting" exhibition that toured Europe in 1958 and 1959.

Also in 1959, Hartigan's personal life took a dramatic turn when she met Winston Price, a prominent Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist who had purchased her painting August Harvest. They married in 1960 - Hartigan divorced her third husband, a Long Island gallery owner - and she moved to Baltimore, where in 1962 she began teaching at MICA, hired by the school's then-president, Eugene "Bud" Leake.

"He said he had a few graduate students," Hartigan recalls with a chuckle in Shattering Boundaries. "So I began to see some of these students who were stuck in corners of classes, and the word got around. He rented a building, and then he rented another building. Finally, I said, ‘I don't think I can have more than about 14 or 15 students.' And he said, ‘You know, this is a surprise to me, Grace. I hired you because of your reputation as an artist. I didn't know you were going to be good at it [teaching].'" In 1965, Hartigan became director of MICA's newly founded Hoffberger School of Painting, a post she maintained until this past September, when illness forced her to stop teaching and mentoring graduate students.

"Grace is a remarkable teacher," MICA President Lazarus explains in the documentary, "and I have often said that she's really from a generation of teachers that no longer exists in this country. Grace came out of a tradition where she really understood the importance of sharing, and I think that she's really developed a life where she gets as much satisfaction out of her role as a teacher as she does out of her role as an artist."

A prodigious worker, Hartigan's artistic output never flagged over the years, despite personal setbacks such as the 1981 death of Price, her conquering of alcoholism in 1983, and nagging problems related to several hip replacements. "The thing that's been incredible is that one way or another I've been able to arrange my life so that I could paint every day," Hartigan told The Baltimore Sun in 2001. "And that's been the main thing."

"For Grace, it's always been about the work," Fisher explains in Shattering Boundaries. "It's this drive, this obsession to work, and to keep creating and inventing and thinking about the things that she knows and the instincts that she feels and reforming them in the course of her life, that I think makes her work so vital."

Today, Hartigan's work can be found in the collections of MoMA, BMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and countless other museums and universities, including MICA, whose Brown Center atrium features her mammoth Visions of Heaven and Hell.

"What I think will happen in the breadth of her work is that we'll see a continuity, a vision, a reflection that she didn't disappear after she left New York," Fisher notes, speaking of Hartigan's legacy as an artist. "She continued to play out her own unique vision. It evolved but always remained really strong. When I see the consistency of struggle and advancement and rethinking, but yet a kind of resolution that Grace reaches over the span of her career, I think that it will be seen as remarkable in itself."

Her friend Suzi Cordish, who owns several of Hartigan's works, concludes, "Grace never compromised her vision. She is irreplaceable. Her impact and influence on the art world has yet to be fully realized. As the old saying goes, ‘They don't make them like her anymore.'"

Please read the Baltimore Sun's coverage of Hartigan's passing and impact: Grace Hartigan dies at age 86, Painter Grace Hartigan recalled as 'restless spirit', and Our view: The celebrated painter was New York's gift to Baltimore, and we are grateful.

For more information, please call 410-225-2300.

Founded in 1826, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) is the oldest continuously degree-granting college of art and design in the nation. The College enrolls nearly 3,500 undergraduate, graduate and continuing studies students from 49 states and 52 countries in fine arts, design, electronic media, art education, liberal arts, and professional studies degree and non-credit programs. With art and design programs ranked in the top ten by U.S. News and World Report, MICA is pioneering interdisciplinary approaches to innovation, research, and community and social engagement. Alumni and programming reach around the globe, even as MICA remains a cultural cornerstone in the Baltimore/Washington region, hosting hundreds of exhibitions and events annually by students, faculty and other established artists.