How One Female Artist Made Her Mark in Postwar New York

When a young Grace Hartigan arrived in New York at the end of WWII, she was already embarking on a second life. She had left behind a son and a husband—who had encouraged her to take up painting in the first place—and landed at the center of the city’s avant-garde scene. Success found her almost immediately. “I didn’t choose painting,” she once said. “It chose me. I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”

A rare female presence in New York’s explosive postwar creative circles, she quickly befriended the leading first-generation of abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and the other intellectuals of the Cedar Tavern scene. Hartigan, a natural colorist, taught herself to draw, and embraced the movement’s push towards abstraction. An early studio visit with de Kooning changed her life, however, when the older artist said her work showed a “complete misunderstanding of modern art.” She began to focus less on geometry and more on imbuing her work with emotion, creating all-over compositions that appear to emerge from the surface rather than recede into perspective. 

Her virtuoso use of paint quickly earned her attention, and she was included in such era-defining shows as the “New Talent” exhibition organized by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro at the Kootz Gallery and MoMA’s decisive “Twelve Americans” show of 1956. Like de Kooning, she never completely abandoned representation, finding inspiration in the city and pop culture around her, and often painting strong female figures like the Greek goddess Athena, who sprang fully-formed from the mind of Zeus, or African brides dressed in their wedding finery. 

Hartigan has been categorized as belonging to a second generation of abstract expressionism or as a precursor to pop art, though neither classification particularly pleased the painter. “I’d much rather be a pioneer of a movement that I hate than the second generation of a movement that I love,” she once said. In fact, Hartigan fought to avoid labels; she despised being called a “woman artist,” and rejected even the term “artist” itself. Instead, Hartigan wanted to be remembered as what she dedicated nearly her entire life to being: a painter.     

Heather Corcoran

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