New York

Grace Hartigan

Gruenebaum Gallery

The fact that flatness and edgeness married New Image and produced renegade punk-cartoonist offspring who are largely unaware of their parentage seems poetic justice for an obsession that took itself so seriously and so certainly. The survivors are truly the murderers. If flatness is “survived by” these practitioners, it is as a literary flatness along the lines of E.M. Forster’s distinction between flat and round characters. To put a figure into a color field painting is to destroy color field painting.

That’s what Grace Hartigan has done in her paintings of “Great Queens and Empresses,” but the way she bleeds her line into the field, or drops the veil of the field over the line so as to minimize the hostility between the two, produces an opposite effect. This retinal tact becomes a gesture of politesse, a gracious acknowledgment that Hartigan has not forgotten earlier acquaintances even if she now has new interests. There’s an air of harmonious synthesis, not only of cartoon figuration (based on a book of paper dolls) and formalism, but also of other possibilites—for example, the extremist images of another friendly influence, Willem de Kooning. In a way, Hartigan’s queens are annotations to de Kooning’s Queen of Hearts, ca. 1943, and other women. Her models have the same heavy-lidded, bulging, crossed eyes that make de Kooning’s models look so demented (hers look goofy or sad, a little like Elsa Lanchester). Hartigan’s line is as imposing and unbroken as that of de Kooning’s women of the ’40s, before he shredded it into a flurry of streamers. Leo Steinberg once said of de Kooning’s woman that “she stands huge, stupid and receptive,” to this primal manifestation of woman Hartigan abuts particularized women in their historical niches.

Despite the fact that Hartigan has claimed that she is “interested in masks and charades—the face the world puts on to sell itself to the world . . . empty ritual,” there’s a strong implication that clothes make the woman in this series. Or, rather, clothes become the robes of investiture: Theodora’s empress outfit (on the left side) waits for Theodora the dancer (right side) to step into it and come into her power. The same is true for Liliuokalani, hula dancer turned ruler. True, the trappings of power are presented as faceless (or “empty ritual”), but only because the woman has not yet assumed them. Once she does, she may change from caterpillar to butterfly, like Elizabeth I, whose elaborate gown sprouts wings. How can one avoid the impression of triumphant transformation? The social role becomes part of character, for tyranny or benevolence.

Late in her career, much like Philip Guston, Hartigan has emerged from a gradual metamorphosis—into a cartoonist. Her paintings are airy while his are claustrophobic, but there’s the same evidence of the lessons of the years having been integrated into a painterly ripeness. And just as Guston’s work is saved from bathos by the strategic humor of his rendering, so Hartigan’s style allows her to be pointed without compromising noblesse oblige.

Jeanne Silverthorne