What had made Hartigan so irresistible was not merely her art, but her person. She was a previously unheard-of species: A strong, self-made, successful American woman and artist, one who smoked, wore paint-splattered jeans, and spoke with a New Jersey accent. She wasn’t exceptional or a kook, as women who painted or sculpted had been characterized through the ages. Readers and gallery-goers recognized themselves in her, and that made the cutting-edge art she produced seem both more accessible and more daring. Ever attuned to the latest fashion, the market lapped it up.
Hartigan, followed by her peers
, was discovered just as the often-impulsive and fickle art market—the market that we have inherited—was born.
Prior to the mid-1950s, the number of galleries in the United States were relatively few, and the collectors who frequented them were a breed whose taste tended toward European artists. Among the events that altered that landscape was a change in U.S. tax law that made it advantageous for connoisseurs to buy art with the intention of donating it to a museum; a new group of collectors not only wanted to own works by living artists, but hankered to become part of the artists’ exciting lives; and a recognition that the art being created in the United States was not just great, it was revolutionary. Money rushed in, and along with it, confusion on the part of the artists.
Most frequently, the off-canvas struggle described in the story of women painters is the battle for equality and opportunity, recognition and respect. But while Hartigan and her generation confronted those issues, as has every successive generation, they were the first to overcome them and face an altogether different crisis: success.