Grace Hartigan, A Baltimore Legend: 1922 – 2008

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I just finished reading the Baltimore Sun obituary on Grace Hartigan, who passed away on Saturday, November 15. It was ok.

How do you describe such a lively and forceful person in just a few respectful words? It is impossible. We all know this. I prefer pictures, I guess. And personal stories.

I did not know Grace Hartigan well, but I do remember discovering her as an undergraduate painting student in 1996. I was shocked to discover a muscular and ballsy Ab-Ex painter who was a WOMAN, holding her own with the macho men of the New York School. I wrote a whole research paper on Grace that year, based mainly on ‘A Painter’s World’ by Robert Mattison. I loved her early collaborations with poets, especially Frank O’Hara, and her thickly painted urban scenes, several of which are owned by the BMA.

I only met Grace a couple of times, but she made quite an impression. From what I have been told, this was the norm. She either absolutely loved you or hated you and wasted no time telling you. I had a critique with her in gradschool at MICA. It was memorable and about five minutes long. ‘Why are you messing up your paintings on purpose?’ She asked. ‘You have a lovely sense of color, but you’re ruining it.’ And that was that. No fuss. No muss.

She absolutely loved her students. I am lucky to know a lot of Hoffberger graduates. Whether they graduated last year or twenty years ago, they all tell you the same thing: Grace was tender and nurturing, with a vested interest in their success. At the same time, she was ornery and antagonistic, with a sharp tongue and an equally sharp eye. Hoffberger students’ work grew in this environment, and they were also forced to grow a thick skin, a necessity in the professional art world.

Hartigan’s life was unusually dramatic and vibrant, full of tragedy and triumph that most of us ‘mortals’ will never experience. She was a special person, larger than life. She was exceptionally pretty and liked handsome men. She was a diva, the center of attention, not just because of her natural charm, but also because of her intelligence and ability to live in the present.

Even after the passing of most of her Ab-Ex contemporaries… Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko … Hartigan continued to produce important and moving works of art which were strikingly different than her earlier works. A show of her works on paper has been planned for the project room at C. Grimaldis Gallery next month, a professional relationship which spanned thirty years.

Regardless of whether you had a personal or professional relationship with Grace, and whether she liked you or not, all of us in the arts community here in Baltimore have lost something. The world we share is smaller today than it was yesterday, and a huge void exists where the big personality of Grace Hartigan once was. We have all shared in the feisty and romantic blessings of this sainted and foul-mouthed legend. Baltimore was lucky to have her and she will be missed.

To read a much better Baltimore Sun article, click here.

To read the NY Times article, click here.

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