Grace Hartigan was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1922. She was the oldest of four children and created art as a teenager. She was unable to attend a traditional college, but did attend Newark College of Engineering at night and was eventually able to work as a draughtsman. She did study art briefly with Professor Issac Muse, but is basically self-taught. Grace Hartigan married very young and had a child. On a romantic whim, she and her husband headed for Alaska to live as pioneers, but only made it as far as California, where, with her husband’s encouragement, she began painting. In 1940, she left her husband and child and moved back to Newark.
Hartigan moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1945 and became part of the postwar New York artistic scene, forming alliances with the Abstract Expressionist painters such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and others. Her first paintings were influenced greatly by de Kooning and Pollock. In 1950, she was selected for the New Talent exhibition by the famous Art Critic, Clement Greenberg and Art Historian Meyer Shapiro. Her first solo show was held in the following year at Tibor DeNagy Gallery. She became known as a brilliant colorist and for being a central member of the New York School. Shortly after, her painting entitled “Persian Jacket,” was purchased for the Museum of Modern Art by Alfred Barr.
Living in New York, Grace Hartigan enjoyed studying the masters, and made several paintings after some classics. Moreover, she observed daily life on the city streets, and began incorporating it directly into her work. Her early work was purely abstract and heavily influenced by Pollack and de Kooning, but she gradually introduced images into her work. In 1952, Hartigan began incorporating into her paintings recognizable items and characters from the media. The work during this time is considered a precursor to Pop Art. She continued to use figuration and abstraction throughout her long career.
Grace Hartigan said she was always interested in “the face the world puts on to sell itself to the world.” She also collaborated with several poets such as Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch to become more engrained in the New York artistic community. She began to create her own mythology through subject matter. In the early 1960s, she explored how to visually communicate ideas about nature and Classical goddesses through paintings. Examples of this exploration can been seen in her “Pallas-Athena” series. Her interest in the sublime and in spiritual matters would increase in coming years.
Grace Hartigan believed that painting must have “content and emotion”. Even though her paintings had pop tendencies, she disliked the idea of mass manufacturing that Pop Art glorified. Her work suffered critically when Pop Art and Minimalism became popular, and she moved to Baltimore to escape the current painting trends and continue on her own creative path of expression. After she left New York, Hartigan began teaching 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 continued to work and paint there until 2007. Grace Hartigan passed away in 2008.
The notion of impulse was of primary concern her paintings, which exhibit confidence and commitment to the creative process. Grace Hartigan considered the creative process as intuitively linked to mysticism. Her styles varied widely but she consistently experimented with vibrant palette as a means to express diverse emotions. Like de Kooning’s paintings, one critic noted, Hartigan’s paintings can be both “romantic and vulgar.” She once said about herself “I didn’t have talent, I just had genius”.