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Grace Hartigan: Reluctant Feminist

Portrait of Grace Hartigan in Life Magazine, May 13, 1957.jpg
Hartigan in LIFE Magazine, May 13, 1957

Critical reappraisals of women artists continue unabated, as they legitimately challenge historical omissions and, in some cases, neglect.
In this environment the American University Museum in Washington DC mounted, in fall 2019, an exhibit of so-called ‘second generation’ Abstract Expressionist artists, Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun. (This review concerns Hartigan only.)
It would be hard to argue that Hartigan has suffered neglect. Nevertheless, past focus has been on her work from the 1950s. The AU show was a corrective, including mostly post-50s works that were done after Hartigan had left New York and settled in Baltimore. The show also attempted to bolster Hartigan’s feminist credentials.
Hartigan is an ideal subject for a revisit. She emerged in the late 1940s and early 50s, among a mostly male peer group that included Pollock, deKooning and Newman, as an artisto be reckoned with. She defied Clement Greenberg’s orthodoxy about pure abstraction versus representation (she eventually successfully fused the two in her work), and was stung by his belittling of female artists (Greenberg nevertheless included her in the significant New Talent exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in New York in 1950).
It is understandable that Hartigan would be placed under the feminist umbrella, with such works as Pallas Athena-Earth (1961), Joan of Arc (1973) and Marilyn (1962), all of which reference powerful female icons.

Billboard, 1957

Writing in the catalog for the AU show, art historian Norma Broude points out that Hartigan saw Marilyn as embodying both the private and public sides of the actress, as well as suggesting the dangers of fame. Her Marilyn is a counterpoint to Warhol’s silkscreens, which seemed novel at the time, but now look transparently empty. De Kooning’s 1954 painting of Monroe, stylistically akin to his other paintings of women, also falls short, giving the viewer no real insight into the subject. In contrast, Hartigan’s Marilyn shows empathy, complexity, nuance and depth.
Broude describes the ambivalence Hartigan felt about feminism, however. Hartigan was wary of the attention of feminists and refused to be categorized. But she is, Broude argues, an artist feminists can claim as one of their own. Broude goes further and suggests that Hartigan’s continued importance in art history may very well depend on the role of feminists in championing her work.
Maybe, maybe not. Hartigan’s work measures up as well as any of the Big Boys of her generation. What’s more, she was receiving a great deal of recognition even in the pre-feminist period.
It would be fair to say that Hartigan, a gutsy artist who followed her own path—not one laid down by critics or the New York art market—identified with historically important women of might, courage and grace because that’s who she was. Labels won’t suffice. Hartigan was one of a kind.

James Cassell

Volume 34 no 3 January – February p 25

Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun: Reframing Abstract Expressionism, September 3-October 20, 2019 American University Washington D.C.

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