Grace Hartigan: Two Exhibitions

(retrospective at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, and "A Survey of Five Decades 1950-2000," ACA Galleries, New York City)

by Donald Goddard

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Giftwares, 1955
Oil on canvas, 63" x 81"

Purchase College, State University of New York,
Gift of Roy R. Neuberger

In 1887 John Peto made a painting he titled Ordinary Objects in the Artist's Creative Mind which had several things hanging from a door--a baritone horn, two manuscripts, a painter's palette, three pictures, and a sign saying "At Dinner," all rather tattered, including the door itself--music, art, writing, even architecture and cuisine, or perhaps survival. Everything in Grace Hartigan's painting is like that, only in a constant state of becoming rather than decaying. She likes shops with a lot of different objects in them. It isn't clutter, but just that there are so many different things insisting on their existence. They come from somewhere else, were made by someone else, or came to life somehow and are part of another existence or someone else's existence, but they impinge anyway and are redirected by the artist.

A priori means something like, "Would it have existed if the artist didn't think of it? Maybe." Unlike Pollock and his laminated unconscious, or De Kooning and his manipulation of traditional still lifes, figures, and landscapes, or Newman and his cleft spiritualism, or Rothko and his clouds of unknowing, Hartigan denies neither the inner world nor the outer world. Each is essential to the other.

Even in her earliest work of the late 1940s and early '50s, absorbed in the aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism, of Pollock and her younger contemporaries, Hartigan is engaged in forming things, even as she creates an overall abstract field. Each gesture, each movement of the brush, creates another form, sometimes suggesting three dimensions, that stands in relationship to everything else and is also part of everything else. These movements do not describe anything recognizable, but neither do they belong entirely to an abstract universe. They describe, rather, a definitive universe, one that cannot help but become more recognizable. "We get the sense . . . of new images just coming into being," writes Terence Diggory in his excellent introduction to the Neuberger catalogue.

By 1956, in East Side Sunday, every shape is geometric--triangle, rectangle, rhomboid, circle, etc.--but juxtaposed so dynamically in terms of color and composition that the structure itself seems to create images. The world intrudes in vague human figures and boxes of fruit the way the world and its abstractions, its fragmentations, always intrude on our sensibilities. It is not possible for us to see everything but only to form everything and this is what Hartigan does with her thrusting brushstrokes, colors, and shapes. Geometry literally becomes organic. Shapes necessarily become familiar. It isn't that we see things dimly but that we are pressed to accommodate them all.

The-The #1
The-The #1, 1962.
Oil on canvas, 80 1/2" x 115 1/2".
State of New York, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Albany, NY.

The result is the appearance of a double reality. Some paintings of the 1950s are clearly exteriors, like East Side Sunday and City Life, while others are interiors, like Interior, the Creeks. In the 1960s, there is no distinction; interior and exterior interpenetrate. What is on the street is also in the studio. In The The #1 of 1962, the title taken from Wallace Stevens' poem "The Man on the Dump," the doubling is literal in the title, the repetition of shapes, and the sense of both exterior and interior. The "doubling of forms implies a multiplication of meaning," as Diggory notes. There is a tremendous effort now to define shapes, to outline, to make the surface legible, not as an abstract geometric composition but as a living organism in which everything is characterized by its shape and content in relationship to the rest. Depth exists, but it is the surface that is important, the tension of what is in front of us. The title itself can be taken two ways, with equal emphasis on each word and therefore that there are indeed two of everything, just in case, or as a noun preceded by an article, in which case we are seeing the real "The." I don't know if there is a The The #2.

In the paintings of the 1970s, outlines describe figures. Many of these works--Coloring Book of Ancient Egypt, Have You Ever Seen Spain?, Clarissa's World, Blood and Wine--have a historical context, one in which the subject is immersed in old symbols and/or rituals. They suggest or push toward narrative as earlier paintings had pushed toward figures and objects. Clarissa's World is based on an old coloring book, as are several paintings of this period, this one found by the artist in Maine. But its imagery appears to be colonial and pre-Columbian, a young woman in what actually seems to be 19th-century dress, wearing a cross, and facing an almost naked male dancer crowned by a froglike figure. The confrontation, joined by a vertical yellow volute at the center, describes a kind of sexual entanglement that also represents the historical entanglements of the New World.

Clarissa's World
Clarissa's World, 1974.
Oil on linen, 78" x 88". Courtesy of ACA Galleries.

Entanglements become even more explicit in the entwined figures of paintings like Vision of Heaven and Hell of the mid-1980s. Naked bodies are now seen whole and in full, pink flesh tones, except for those hanging by their feet, which are eviscerated to gray and red. The huge canvas has the measured rhythm of a classical frieze in which the vision of heaven is hell. The doubling is now of bodies, of men and women bound together in desperation. Skeins of paint drain gravitationally downward on the canvas as though to question the possibility of sustaining such a vision through art, and indeed bodies themselves hang upside down at one point in the frieze.

Vision Heavel Hell
Vision of Heaven and Hell, 1985.
Oil on canvas, 108" x 192". Courtesy of ACA Galleries.

In paintings of the 1990s it is as though Hartigan herself has entered the space of the work and populated it with characters originated by other artists--Shakespeare (Lady Macbeth), Sir Thomas Mallory (Le Morte d'Arthur), Jacque-Louis David (Napoleon), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Grazie Rossetti). Dimensions of time and characterization crowd out phenomenology and vision. The present is transparent. We see through the foreground figures to other figures underneath, to other motives, like pentimenti, underdrawing that the artist has had second thought about and has replaced with new configurations.

But, of course, all of these paintings begin in the past, and as meditations in time and space give further scope to human dramas that already have their own associations. Heads and hands fill these canvases (I count 20 hands in Lady Macbeth, 21 in Grazie Rossetti). In the latter, Hartigan pays homage to the gestures and figures of the 19th-century English painter and poet. Heads and hands are those of the model but also of the artist, who perpetuates this historical human space in tones of red, pink, orange, green, and yellow, a field of color in which everything else exists.

Donald Goddard © 2001

Grazie Rossetti
Grazie Rossetti, 1985.
Oil on canvas, 78" x 84". Courtesy of ACA Galleries.

The retrospective was on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, NY 10577-1400.
"Grace Hartigan: A Survey of Five Decades, 1950-2000" was also on view at ACA Galleries, 529 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011.

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