Art

Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun, Two Unorthodox Abstract Expressionists

Part of the movement’s second generation, the artists embraced personal sentiment in their references to nature and popular culture, resulting in abstractions that are simultaneously experiential and devotional.

Helene Herzbrun, “Aeroplat” (1970), acrylic on canvas, 70 3/4 × 74 1/2 × 1 1/4 in., image: 70 × 73 3/4 in. (Courtesy the American University Museum)

WASHINGTON, DC—In its formative years, Abstract Expressionism was a leap into an abyss. American artists — predominantly based in New York — took great strides to interpret the indeterminacy of postwar life. Despite its heady origins, the movement became more structured in its second generation, with painters from outside the city applying their innovative methods to increasingly tangible subjects.

A new exhibition at the American University Museum demonstrates how two artists — Grace Hartigan (1922-2008) and Helene McKinsey Herzbrun (1922-1984) — contributed to this paradigm in Baltimore and DC, respectively. Billed as a reevaluation of the genre, the show exemplifies the artists’s divergence from Pop Art and Neo-Expressionism in favor of stylistic independence. Hartigan and Herzbrun embraced personal sentiment in their references to nature and popular culture, resulting in abstractions that are simultaneously experiential and devotional.

Grace Hartigan, “Reisterstown Mall” (1965), oil on canvas, 80 × 102 in. (courtesy the Perry Collection)

Originally based in Manhattan, Hartigan was closely associated with Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner — collectively known as the “Ninth Street Women.” Early on, she challenged the conventions of Abstract Expressionism by painting scenes from life, as in the kaleidoscopic “Summer Street” (1956). Her distorted, colorful style led to features in LIFE Magazine and Newsweek, but she drifted from the limelight after a falling out with Clement Greenberg and a caustic review from New York Times critic John Canaday. 

Hartigan relocated to Baltimore in 1960 following disillusionment with the critical community. In the years after, her paintings became more cohesive. She took the disparate contents of her surroundings — bodies, buildings and vehicles — and eased them gradually closer with higher resolution. In her breakthrough “Reisterstown Mall” (1965), she replicates the cacophony of suburban shopping. Cars and pedestrians appear as jagged pieces in a diverse color palette, much like stained glass. Based on a real mall in northern Maryland, the spacious scene is nearly impossible to take in as a whole; instead, it lures the viewer to each curve and incongruence.

Helene Herzbrun, “Autumn Landscape” (1957), oil on canvas, framed: 49 1/2 x 56 1/2 in. (courtesy Private Collection)

Herzbrun’s landscapes similarly draw attention to individual patches of color. Focusing on negative space, she brought atmosphere to the forefront by depicting only the essential tones of each scene. Thin, scrawling brushstrokes overpopulate her “Autumn Landscape” (1957), with shades of yellow, green and brown zigzagging across the canvas like leaves in the wind. Notably, her early landscapes were products of postgraduate studies at American University, where she later managed the Watkins Art Gallery — a predecessor to the Katzen — and chaired the university’s art department. 

Herzbrun avoided association with the male-dominated Washington Color School, which she viewed as rigid and emotionless. Her freeform style became progressively geometric through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hazy landscapes cleared into groups of small and defined figures, as in “Like Thunder” and “Storm Altered (Colorado Series)” (1965). Separate tracts of paint assume bolder colors that play off each other haphazardly. In “Aeroplat” (1970), stacked streaks of blue, red, green and yellow cut diagonally like technicolor contrails. Part of her “Color Sweeps” series, the painting muses on the theme of flight through a mixture of heavy brushing and staining, with bright tones producing a sharp and euphoric air.

Helene Herzbrun, “Stones at Sounion” (1976), acrylic on canvas, framed: 53 1/4 × 54 7/8 × 1 1/2 in., image: 52 1/4 × 53 7/8 in. (courtesy the American University Museum)
Grace Hartigan, “Beware of the Gifts” (1971), oil on canvas, framed: 79 3/4 × 103 × 1 1/2 in., image: 79 1/4 × 102 1/2 in. (Courtesy the American University Museum)

With similar color palettes, Herzbrun’s dimensional studies complement Hartigan’s busy figurations in unusual ways. Shades of sapphire, dark blue, white, and black comprise Hartigan’s “Beware of the Gifts” (1971) and Herzbrun’s “Stones at Sounion” (1976) — both inspired by ancient Greece. The former’s title makes two mythological references: Cassandra foreseeing Troy’s destruction in the wooden horse and Prometheus anticipating Pandora’s chaos. Sets of eyes, crooked smiles, gangling plants and campy vehicles crowd the entire canvas, with gaps of sharp white providing depth. The latter painting portrays Herzbrun’s own experience at the remains of a classical Greek temple, where she carved her own sacred space. A beam of sunlight cascades through a gap in centuries-old marble, casting a bright strip of pastel blue across the navy background.

Both artists expressed hesitance to identify as feminists, yet Hartigan still painted her own tributes to powerful women throughout history — from gods and saints like Athena and Joan of Arc to modern icons like Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. She and Herzbrun never formally met despite proximity and brief correspondence, but there is a clear through line in how they leveraged their autonomy. Free from critical expectations, they forged their own paths at a time when straying from trends was quite unorthodox.

Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun: Reframing Abstract Expressionism continues at the American University Museum (4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through October 20, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Norma Broude.

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