The fifties, those explosive years that defined my youth, were coming to an end. I’d recently finished college and landed my first teaching job. Now, I thought, would be a fine time to veer from my academic approach to drawing and painting and throw myself into the waves of abstract expressionism. This was my mind-set on that rainy morning in Los Angeles, when I entered the Simone Silva Gallery, a cloud break tapping the roof, not a human visible, just the impact of a single canvas catching my eye in the small space short of the main gallery.
“Who is this?” I asked, meaning: Who created this wonder that seems at once to capture recognizable forms and then shatter them into a mystery? Who is strong enough to go to that point beyond the mind and into the soul? “Damn,” I added, full-voiced. “Who is this?”
I hadn’t looked closely at the only other person in the space, the way she laughed, almost silently. “Who are you?” she asked. “I’m Grace Hartigan.”
Slender, pale, and appearing a bit lost, she seemed to be in stark contrast to the picture exhibited, and two others she would eventually convince Mr. Silva to bring into view. Looking back now, I see myself revitalized after a three year stretch in the army by an art world under siege. It was if a certain freedom had reached a group of American painters and catapulted them into a realm unlike any before them. This sudden phenomenon lifted me. I felt wildly free! And why not? Yes, my home base was Fresno, but that didn’t disqualify me from the revolution.
There would be no more lavender-shadowed still lifes or landscapes for me. Goodbye French impressionists. Hello to the incorrigibles known as the New York School. Forget the tea, unless you could smoke it. Throw out the crumpets and bring on the pork rinds and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Quit trying to capture the nude figure with charcoal sticks, but keep the models around for inspiration. This new tribe of artists, Miss Hartigan would in time inform me, were her personal associates, their names as frightfully foreign as a pro football team’s offensive line—Pollock, Rothko, deKooning, Baziotes—had stormed into view and left the air smelling of wet paint and a noise as American as bebop.
I couldn’t have know much about Grace Hartigan back then, other than she was one of a small group of women painters mentioned along with the men responsible for the burst of abstract expressionism. Television was just a baby, and social media stopped at closing time in the neighborhood bar. We artists across the land knew only what we read in print and what we heard from the few messengers bearing news. The idea of getting rich through painting or sculpting didn’t exist, and becoming famous was a laugh line.
“How do you like California,” I asked her.
She informed me in a New Jersey accent that she once worked “near here” as a mechanic during the war. I realized she meant WW2, and was 10 years older than me. “My husband at the time was in the service and I couldn’t find anything in commercial art.”
We talked a bit more, and then moved into the main gallery to take a look at the work of Rico Lebrun. While observing his large moody figure studies I made a comment that still bothers me all these years later. It came from me without thinking, words praising Lebrun’s “powerful masculine approach” that stretched into unabashed chauvinism. Oh, I got away with it. At least Hartigan allowed me my “enfant terrible” moment by keeping silent. She did tell me later that she’d sold many of her works under the pseudonym of “George” Hartigan, her eyes holding mine to make sure I felt her emotion behind such a decision.
Many times since my brief meeting with Grace Hartigan, I’ve examined Nina Leen’s 1950 Life magazine’s group photo of the “Fab Fifteen,” the culprits she thought best portrayed the “new cutting edge.” We are left now, to wonder how many artists featured in that iconic camera shot actually went on to build a movement destined to shake the art world?. For one thing, the picture is without Franz Kline, perhaps the wildest of the bunch, so it is not complete. And the one woman, Hedda Sterne, seems to have been added to lessen the band’s testosterone level.
I wish Nina Leen had found Grace Hartigan that day in Greenwich Village and shuffled her into the mix. Grace would have been about thirty at the time, but she had her own studio, full of large paintings that exemplified that extra step, that desire in every artist to dare even her own soul.