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  • Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter by Cathy Curtis
  • Sandra Lee Kleppe
Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter. By Cathy Curtis. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 420pp.

Grace Hartigan was at the center of the New York City scene of poets and painters in the 1950s, a decade in which she experienced both her breakthrough as a painter and significant national and international esteem as a second-generation abstract expressionist. Hartigan’s other city was Baltimore, where she moved with her fourth husband in the 1960s and remained there as a painter and art teacher nearly until her death at 86 in 2008. The first biography of Hartigan, by Cathy Curtis, is structured to reflect the rise and fall of Hartigan’s star in the art world, with one chapter each on the periods before and after the 1950s, and three chapters focusing on the New York era.

We learn how Hartigan was both self-taught and fiercely ambitious, leaving a job as a drafter during WWII and abandoning her only son in order to dedicate herself full-time to painting. In Curtis’s journalistic narrative of Hartigan’s life and career, these and other personal details—such as clumsy depictions of Hartigan’s many sexual escapades—raise questions that are not answered about the struggles of a woman artist in a male-dominated culture and the contradictory impulses that led Hartigan to her successes and failures in this context. Curtis rightly identifies Hartigan’s hallmark as a brilliant colorist, yet the painter was constantly on guard lest her color schemes be interpreted as sentimental. As Curtis notes about the culture of the fifties, “if a woman artist was a gifted colorist, she was simply expressing her ‘feminine’ nature” (251). Hartigan has said that it was the “vulgar and vital” in life and art that preoccupied her, and the pressures to compete with the best of American artists of the twentieth century pushed her into the edgy, an aspect of her work that she always embraced: “the edge in me—whether or not it interests other people—is the thing that interests me and makes me go on working” (Hartigan qtd. in Curtis 147, 252). [End Page 151]

Readers will likely be familiar with precisely this quality in her masterpieces from the 1950s, such as The Persian Jacket (1952), Grand Street Brides (1954), and River Bathers (1953), the latter included in the exhibition The New American Painting that toured Europe in 1958–59. Hartigan was the youngest artist and only woman to make the cut alongside painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. River Bathers includes a vague portrait of her close friend, poet Frank O’Hara, and is typical of Hartigan’s style, combining both abstract and figurative features bolstered by her colorist strengths. Curtis manages to illuminate how Hartigan was never a pure abstract expressionist or action painter, nor was she ever a Pop artist (a movement she despised for its lack of vital emotion), but she cultivated and even invented some of the best traits of these American styles in the 1950s. Although the biography covers an important and fascinating period in the life of Hartigan and the American art scene of the twentieth century, it is perhaps most valuable for the light it sheds on the long and hitherto somewhat obscure period, beginning in the 1960s, when Hartigan left New York for Baltimore.

Unfortunately, this is also the section of the book, “Part Five: Beginning Again in Baltimore (1961–2008),” where Curtis is at her weakest. Jumping back and forth from year to year, and even decade to decade, with little or no narrative thread to help the reader except the individual chapter titles, this section is a hodge-podge of episodes and anecdotes that only offer glimpses into this 50-year period of Hartigan’s career. The strongest chapter is “Teaching,” where Curtis documents Hartigan’s appointment as an art instructor at The Maryland Institute College of Art and her influence on and relationships with several generations of art students. One of the weakest parts of the book is sadly the closing chapter, “Prevailing,” in which Curtis admits...


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pp. 151-154
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