New York

Grace Hartigan

Gruenebaum Gallery

Neo-Expressionism, the style widely touted as the zeitgeist only a few seasons ago, has lost much of its cachet of late, and the word around town is that it has peaked. For many people, particularly the young art professionals who grew up with neo-Expressionism, a very important moment is at hand. They are about to witness for themselves a popular style’s passage from wild fad to the merely familiar. Since the 1880s new “isms” have risen and declined like clockwork, but each time this happens it’s still a bit of a shock for all concerned. After all, no one expects the party to end. So what’s an artist to do?What usually happens is that some artists reject the now-passe look outright and go on to the next trend , while others continue working in the style that initially brought them varying degrees of attention in the art world. Grace Hartigan, long considered a leading second-generation Abstract Expressionist, belongs to the latter category. Her career of the last 30 years demonstrates how much an artist can grow if one stays in tune with one’s roots.

It is Hartigan’s roots in Abstract Expressionism that fairly thunder through this display of recent oil paintings. Curiously enough, all of them deal deliberately with art history, and are inspired by Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque painting. Esthetically, then, Hartigan’s figurative paintings, with their quotes from and references to art history, are diametrically opposed to the wipe-the-slate-clean sensibility of the Abstract Expressionists. Yet Hartigan succeeds in making Abstract Expressionism and the art that preceded it compatible. The ways in which she builds her compositions from counterbalanced tones and values, the startling intensity of the colors, and the active gestural drawing are all suggestive of Abstract Expressionism, as are the drips of paint that cover the figures like so many veils. Other aspects of the paintings point to the artist’s astute understanding of the game of art-historical quotation, which she has played enthusiastically since the early ’50s, first with the paintings of Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco Zurbarán, and Henri Matisse. Not one to be swept away by the more sensational aspects of this game, Hartigan uses quotation to remind us of simple of truths, such as the fact that standards really change. Regardless of its art-historical context, the quality of a painting is determined largely by the degree to which it is convincing.

The many levels on which a painting can and should be convincing are best indicated in Hartigan’s painting Renaissance Card Game, 1985. It is believable as a composition and as a concept because everything about it looks right, due mainly to the harmony of its formal and figural elements. The painting is dominated by five large figures, three men and two women, either standing or seated around a green gaming table; behind them is a red wall, and an open window. The stately bearing of the figures is heightened by the architectonic shapes of their robes and hats, making one think of an abstraction of the figures of Piero della Francesca. But Hartigan does much more than quote early Renaissance painting. She animates her figures and causes the whole painting to glow with monumental grace through a device that may seem unusual in this context: she drapes the figures with loose, expressive drips of paint. The drips personalize the composition and particularize Hartigan’s concept; besides grounding the figures in the shallow pictorial space of the painting, they create an allusive atmosphere full of narrative possibilities.

Ronny Cohen