The painter Grace Hartigan (1922-2008) was a central figure in the New York School of poets and artists in the 1950s. Particularly close to Frank O’Hara, Hartigan played an integral role in the movement’s heroic period. Fortunately, she is the subject of a new biography by Cathy Curtis called Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, which was published in 2015. The book is part of a recent trend which has brought renewed attention to the wonderful, often overlooked women painters who were affiliated with Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, such as Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher, Helen Frankenthaler, and Hartigan herself.
The current London Review of Books features a great review of Curtis’s biography by Jenni Quilter. Quilter (author of the indispensable New York School Poets and Painters: Neon in Daylight) helpfully traces Hartigan’s career, highlighting her role as one of the few women painters in a mostly-male dominated New York art and literary world. She also gives a good sense of Hartigan’s famously tempestuous personality and crucial yet stormy relationship with O’Hara.
As Quilter notes, “Hartigan was known as a socially difficult person, quick to take and to give offence. She had a reputation for being an aggressive drunk, and a habit of isolating herself. She often felt like the only female painter in the room, even when she wasn’t. She consistently envied her colleagues’ and friends’ successes,” including fellow painters like Joan Mitchell and Jane Freilicher.
Quilter explains the close connection between Hartigan and O’Hara, which burned hotly for several years before coming to a sudden end in the early 1960s:
She was one of O’Hara’s muses, and he dedicated several poems to her, including ‘For Grace, after a Party’, ‘Christmas Card to Grace Hartigan’ and ‘Portrait of Grace’. Receiving this last poem, Hartigan wrote that it ‘makes me feel as though I exist now. I get so confused about myself, as though only the paintings are real. The poem makes me have an existence.’ The gift of attention could be profoundly sustaining – and Hartigan was generous in return. She designed the cover for a collection of O’Hara’s poems (written to accompany an exhibition of hers), and embarked on an ambitious series of 12 paintings based on the prose poems ‘Twelve Pastorals’ in which she incorporated many of O’Hara’s lines. She is the Grace mentioned on O’Hara’s gravestone, in a line from ‘In Memory of My Feelings’: ‘Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.’ And yet in 1960 or 1961 she wrote him a ‘Dear John’ letter, ending their friendship. Her therapist had told her that her attachment to him was stifling other intimacies. O’Hara was wounded; friendships waxed and waned, but declaring a split in this way felt violent.At the very moment Hartigan, O’Hara, and their coterie began to achieve visibility and success, Hartigan left the dynamic yet draining New York scene behind and made the apparently tragic mistake of moving, with her fourth husband, to Baltimore. Hartigan later called this “the disaster of my life.”
In 1960, the snobbish consensus within the New York art world was that Baltimore was another country, despite being only a four-hour drive away. Although many other artists were leaving New York at the time, they went to Paris, or Long Island, well-established alternatives with like-minded communities. Even Vermont, Cape Cod and Maine felt closer; at least people summered there. After moving to Baltimore, Hartigan’s career never recovered.
That may be the case, but while it lasted, Hartigan thrived at the heart of the New York School’s social and artistic world, collaborating with the poets and feeding off of and fueling their work. As Quilter observes, O’Hara addresses or mentions Hartigan in numerous poems, as when he writes of their friendship in “Day and Night in 1952”: “Grace may secretly distrust me but we are both so close to the abyss that we must see a lot of each other, grinning and carrying on as if it were a picnic given by somebody else’s church.”
In another poem not mentioned in the review, the 1959 poem titled “L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là,” O’Hara writes:
to get to the Cedar to meet Grace
I must tighten my moccasins
and forget the minute bibliographies of disappointment
anguish and power
for unrelaxed honesty
The day after writing this poem, O’Hara sent it to Hartigan, along with the following note: which apologizes for his own part in whatever went wrong during the presumably liquor-sodden previous night:
Here’s the poem O’Hara enclosed*:
Quilter points out that one effect of biographies like this one about Hartigan, along with others to come on Ashbery, Schuyler, and Elaine de Kooning — and I would add recent work on figures like Joan Mitchell and many others — will be to quietly “reshape a milieu we think we know.” And that is something to be happy about indeed.
I’ll close with one of my favorite of O’Hara’s poems for Grace Hartigan, “For Grace, After a Party”:
*Obsessive O’Hara readers may notice that the typed version of “L’Amour Avait Passé Par Là” is presumably an early draft, because it differs significantly from the version that appears in O’Hara’s Collected Poems. In O’Hara’s Collected, the poem omits the final 7 lines of the typed version, and instead ends with the lines “it is the great period of Italian art when everyone imitates Picasso / afraid to mean anything / as the second flame in its happy reflecting ignores the candle and the wind.”