Grace Hartigan, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist whose gestural, intensely colored paintings often incorporated images drawn from popular culture, leading some critics to see in them prefigurings of Pop Art, died on Saturday in Baltimore. She was 86.
Skip to next paragraph Marty Katz/baltimorephotographer.comGrace Hartigan in her studio in 1993 with her painting “Junk Shop With Egyptian Violet.” Grace Hartigan/Corcoran Gallery of Art"Summer Street," 1956.
The cause was liver failure, said Julian Weissman, a longtime dealer of hers.
Ms. Hartigan, a friend and disciple of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, subscribed to the Abstract Expressionist notion of the painterly brushstroke as existential act and cri de coeur but, like de Kooning, she never broke entirely with the figurative tradition. Determined to stake out her own artistic ground, she turned outward from the interior world sanctified by the Abstract Expressionists and embraced the visual swirl of contemporary American life.
In “Grand Street Brides” (1954), one of several early paintings that attracted the immediate attention of critics and curators, she depicted bridal-shop window mannequins in a composition based on Goya’s “Royal Family.” Later paintings incorporated images taken from coloring books, film, traditional paintings, store windows and advertising, all in the service of art that one critic described as “tensely personal.”
“Her art was marked by a willingness to employ a variety of styles in a modernist idiom, to go back and forth from art-historical references to pop-culture references to autobiographical material,” said Robert Saltonstall Mattison, the author of “Grace Hartigan: A Painter’s World” (1990).
Grace Hartigan was born in Newark in 1922 and grew up in rural New Jersey, the oldest of four children. Unable to afford college, she married early and, in a flight of romantic fancy, she and her husband, Bob Jachens, struck out for Alaska to live as pioneers. They made it no farther than California, where, with her husband’s encouragement, she took up painting.
“I didn’t choose painting,” she later told an interviewer. “It chose me. I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”
In the mid-1940’s she left her husband, placed their son, Jeffrey, in the care of his parents and moved back to Newark, where she trained in mechanical drafting and took painting lessons with Isaac Lane Muse. After moving to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1945, she became part of the postwar New York artistic scene, forming alliances with the Abstract Expressionist painters — although de Kooning reduced her to tears by telling her she completely misunderstood modern art — and poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.
Ms. Hartigan won fame early. In 1950, the critic Clement Greenberg and the art historian Meyer Schapiro included her in their “New Talent” show at the Kootz Gallery, and a one-woman exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery soon followed. “Persian Jacket,” an early painting, was bought for the Museum of Modern Art by Alfred Barr.
Barr and the Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller included her in two important shows, “12 Americans” in 1954 and “The New American Painting,” an exhibition that toured Europe in 1958 and 1959 and introduced Abstract Expressionism abroad. In 1958, Life magazine called her “the most celebrated of the young American women painters.”
After starting out as a purely abstract painter, Ms. Hartigan gradually introduced images into her work. It was O’Hara’s blending of high art and low art in his poetry that influenced her to cast far and wide for sources.
In 1949 she married the artist Harry Jackson, “not one of my more serious marriages,” she later said. The marriage was annulled after a year. In 1959 she married Robert Keene, a gallery owner, whom she divorced a year later. In 1960 she married Winston Price, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who collected modern art and had bought one of her paintings. After injecting himself with an experimental vaccine against encephalitis in 1969 and contracting spinal meningitis, he began a long descent into physical and mental illness that ended with his death in 1981.
Ms. Hartigan is survived by a brother, Arthur Hartigan of Huntington Beach, Calif.; a sister, Barbara Sesee of North Brunswick, N.J.; and three grandchildren. Her son, Jeffrey Jachens, died in 2006.
Ms. Hartigan’s move to Baltimore coincided with a drastic shift in artistic fashion, as Pop Art and Minimalism eclipsed Abstract Expressionism. Out of the spotlight, Ms. Hartigan embarked on what she later recalled as “an isolated creative life.” For decades she painted in a loft in a former department store and taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The college created a graduate school around her, the Hoffberger School of Painting, of which she became director in 1965. She taught at the school until retiring last year.
As historians and curators reassessed the history of postwar art, she experienced a resurgence of sorts. Her use of commercial imagery led her to be included in “Hand-Painted Pop,” a 1993 exhibition at the Whitney Museum, despite her loathing for the movement.
“Pop Art is not painting because painting must have content and emotion,” she said in the 1960’s. On the other hand, she reflected at the time of the Whitney show, “I’d much rather be a pioneer of a movement that I hate than the second generation of a movement that I love.”
Her work was exhibited as recently as May at the Jewish Museum in New York, in “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976.”
On an artistic path marked by twists and turns and restless experimentation, she maintained a fierce commitment to the modernist agenda and a belief in art’s near-magical powers.
“Now as before it is the vulgar and the vital and the possibility of its transformation into the beautiful which continues to challenge and fascinate me,” she told the reference work “World Artists: 1950-1980.”
“Or perhaps the subject of my art is like the definition of humor — emotional pain remembered in tranquillity.”
More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on November 18, 2008, on page B14 of the New York edition.
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