When Grace Hartigan was a little girl, she was bewitched by gypsies.
In the 1930s, the Travelers still roamed the countryside in nomadic caravans, and young Grace would shinny up the apple tree in her parents' backyard in Newark, N.J., to spy on them. She spent hours watching the women in colorful skirts and big hoop earrings telling fortunes, the men sharpening their knives.The gypsies appealed to her boldness, her restlessness, her sense of life as expansive and perilous. Although she never left her yard, that's when Grace Hartigan threw in her lot with the adventurers.
Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and she had a two-year romance with the painter Franz Kline. Her works are owned by virtually every major art museum in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Hartigan has survived alcoholism, a suicide attempt and the long, slow mental and physical decline of her beloved fourth husband, the late epidemiologist Winston Price.
The Baltimore-born poet Frank O'Hara wrote several verses to Hartigan. They include this lovely and insightful observation:
"Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible."
At 84, she still does.
A show of Hartigan's new paintings is now on view at Baltimore's C. Grimaldis Gallery. All were completed in the two years since the artist moved to Lutherville from her studio and home in a historic building in Fells Point, where she had lived for 35 years.
Hartigan always has been such a city creature that it can be difficult to imagine her in the 'burbs with its slower pace and white picket fences. But as her new show demonstrates, her work is as intense and energetic as ever. She still is experimenting, still pushing boundaries, still trying to solve the aesthetic dilemmas that consume her.
"Painting never gets easier for Grace," says Rex Stevens, a painter, Hartigan's assistant, and chairman of the general fine arts and drawing departments at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "She's always reconfiguring herself, always reanalyzing her ideas, always refusing to be pigeonholed. That's the best thing about her."
In a way, it's remarkable that Hartigan still paints at all; she has been confined to a wheelchair for years (she has no remaining cartilage in her knees), and it's painful for her to stand for too long.
"The thing that keeps me going," she says, "is presenting new problems to my soul. The most wonderful thing is to surprise myself."
Her canvases are big and bold and filled with lush colors, as outsized as the artist's personality. Though Hartigan began her career as a purely abstract painter, in later decades her work has become more figurative -- albeit without such "realistic" techniques as perspective or background.
For the past several years, Hartigan has been working on a series of portraits of women. Her main sources have been the Old Masters, children's coloring books and books of paper dolls, so her work travels freely between the classical tradition and popular culture. On each, she puts her own incomparable stamp.
For instance, Bosch's Women (2005) is an homage to the 15th-century artist who painted ecstatic religious visions.
In Hartigan's rendition, three tough medieval broads muscle their way out of the canvas. You wouldn't want to meet any of these dames in a dark alley, even the one who isn't wearing any clothes. Yet, the women literally are transparent -- the viewer sees through them to the rabbits, owls and other critters that populate Bosch's most famous work. They make the women seem both vulnerable and animalistic.
Needless to say, the paintings based on paper dolls do not replicate the physically perfect -- and blandly generic -- specimens found in children's books. With some "dolls" Hartigan helpfully leaves on the tabs.
Funny lady. But while her paintings may be witty, they also are intellectually rigorous.
"She is one of the seminal figures of abstract expressionism, a real breakthrough artist," says Robert Saltonstall Mattison, a professor of art history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. and the author of books on such groundbreaking painters as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell. In 1991, Hudson Hills Press published Mattison's Grace Hartigan, a painter's world.