New York

Grace Hartigan

Martha Jackson Gallery

Grace Hartigan’s current show at the Martha Jackson Gallery is welcome testimony that the artist has herself well in hand after some mushiness of formal content and thoughtless coloristic forays in past seasons. Now there is again the brisk and jarring presentation of a well thought out composition given just the meanness of palette necessary to remind one of how difficult it is to rassle with a big canvas. The gist of Hartigan’s ideas in this show is that the free invention of abstract form, given a certain cast of mind, results in a bewildering slash of biomorphic and environmental suggestions.

The problem, then, is to bring these into a clear emotive focus without deliberately working up the latent imagery at the expense of structural integrity. In these pictures, the artist has brought it off with the use of meaty dark lines, usually black, which amplify the psychic direction of given forms and again and again assert the fundamentally planar nature of the pictorial field. In this way, the interior painting can have a high degree of expressive variation without being aimless or patchy; contrarily, the rich handling of the “inner“ forms can be and is used to enlarge upon the specific emotional character of each work.

The outstanding works in this group are the Frank O’Hara, willfully hacked out of intractable greys, grey ochre, violet and red, and Female Image, whose lacerated organic forms are barely contained by the network of black lines that operate like the leading in the most sullenly glowing Beckmanns.

What Hartigan’s show represents is the assimilation, by an inventor and participant in the most vigorous phases of Abstract Expressionism, of a subsequent tendency toward more explicit and disciplined structure in painting. To do this effectively the artist could not simply adopt out of hand stylistic formulations postdating her own first artistic maturity, but has been obliged to force such a growth out of herself. This she has done with a thumping success. It is not a cavil to note that the results of this process allude to certain kinds of form in the American abstract painting of fifteen and more years ago—the biomorphic forms of Gorky, the muscular sweeping around curves at breakneck speed of the black and white de Koonings, and the seams and edges of Marca-Relli’s palest collages. Instead, it is a natural evolution revealing an ability to absorb and husband elements of style and configurations which have demanded long maturation before re-emerging with their robustness enhanced. There are few enough painters who have been able to carry forward those standards around which they once rallied with such swagger. Hartigan’s development has never been smooth or without moments of indecision, but she has consistently applied herself to difficult problems, particularly those of scale and imagistic definition. She has never comfortably exploited a manner, but has always been open about her perplexities as a painter. That the present exhibition is dominated by a full majority of solid and exciting successes vindicates her method.

Dennis Adrian