Grace Hartigan, 1922-2008

By Eilís Doolan 

Grace Hartigan, Pallas Athena—Earth, 1961, oil on canvas, Smithosnian American Art Museum.

Grace Hartigan, Pallas Athena—Earth, 1961, oil on canvas, Smithosnian American Art Museum.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 28th 1922, Grace Hartigan was one of the few women who was accepted into the male-dominated group of American Abstract Expressionists. In fact, she was the only woman included in the New American Painting exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which travelled through major European cities from 1956 to 1958. 

Unable to afford college, Hartigan married her high school sweetheart after graduation, and together, they set off to move to Alaska. But, after failing to make it further than California, Hartigan instead found herself returning to the East Coast pregnant and alone. During the World War Two, Hartigan studied mechanical draughtsmanship and worked in an aircraft factory. After a separation from her second husband, Hartigan moved to New York’s Lower East Side in 1945, as the war came to a close. After attending a 1948 Jackson Pollock exhibition, Hartigan was utterly fascinated by Abstract Expressionism. Thereon after, she followed her own artistic instinct, and even managed to strike up a friendship with Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. She briefly lived with the couple in their Hamptons home. 

Her friendship with the American Abstract Expressionists undoubtedly led to Hartigan rejecting figuration. During the 1940s and 50s, she gradually became more accepted among the established Abstract Expressionists, befriending Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Frank O’Hara. These artists advocated for compositions that were gestural, non-hierarchical, and most importantly, divorced from any reference to reality. Disillusioned by realism, the Abstract Expressionists saw abstraction as the epitome of Modern art. 

Hartigan’s work subscribed to this popular mode of abstract gestural painting. After immersing herself in New York’s Abstract Expressionism, the well-respected art critic Clement Greenberg took notice of her, and together with Meyer Schapiro, selected her to be included in a ‘new talent’ exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in 1950. In the following years, Hartigan’s dramatic and bold paintings were featured at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery several times, hosting seven solo exhibitions of her work. 

To the dismay of her colleagues in New York City, Hartigan’s later work took on a more organic form, and addressed that with which many Abstract Expressionists struggled – the danger that a rejection of representation would lead to a loss of meaning. In this late period, starting in the 1960s, Hartigan shifted towards a pop-minimalist style, the very style which was fiercely opposed by the Abstract Expressionists. An example from this period is Marilyn, which Hartigan completed in 1962, and includes facial features scattered across the canvas. In the following years, Hartigan continued to experiment with the balance between abstraction and figuration, and, though her work largely remained abstract, she gradually introduced more recognisable elements. By integrating references to subject matter or reality into her later work, Hartigan aimed to illustrate that figuration and abstraction did not have to be mutually exclusive. This reintroduction of figurative representation is arguably what paved the way for the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1970s and 80s. 

Completed in 1961, Pallas Athena-Earth is inspired by the Greek mythological goddess of wisdom, war, and strategy. Thick gestural brushstrokes dominate the canvas, creating a sense of the movement and action of the artist’s hand. Rich, earthy tones are spread across the canvas, and though representations are mostly obscured by the violent and expressive movements of paint across the canvas, some figural elements emerge from the composition—such as a face in the top right corner. The jumbled mass at the top of the canvas might be representative of the realm of gods. 

Frank O’Hara 1926-1966 (1966) is a painting that Hartigan completed as a memorial to the poet, critic, and curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Her friendship with O’Hara was fractured in the 1960s, after Hartigan decided to return somewhat to figuration by reintroducing recognisable figures into her work. After being one of the only women to be truly accepted into New York’s avant-garde, her deviation from their established pictorial vocabulary was seen as an absolute betrayal. Here, O’Hara’s figure emerges through the thick gestural brushstrokes. Somewhat ironically, O’Hara himself would likely have opposed the figurative nature of this work. 

Grace Hartigan’s work largely fell from the public eye after her relocation to Baltimore in 1960, after she had married her fourth husband. This is not to say that she did not produce work of significance – Hartigan continued to paint, and even taught an MFA programme at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She remains to be one of the few women artists who gained such exposure within the New York School. Her legacy serves as a reminder of the female influence on the mid-century American arts scene, and allows us to reconsider an era often dominated by male giants. 




“Grace Hartigan.” Guggenheim Museum. Accessed 26 March 2019.


“Grace Hartigan, Shinnecock Canal 1957.” Museum of Modern Art. Accessed 26 March 2019.


“Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed 26 March 2019.


“Pallas Athena—Earth.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed 26 March 2019.


“Grace Hartigan.” Hollis Taggart Galleries. Accessed 26 March 2019.