The Eyes

The Eyes

Monday, November 9, 2015

Inside Grace Hartigan's Grand Street Brides

Grand Street Brides | 1954
Oil on Canvas | 72 9/16 in. x 102 3/8 in.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Grace Hartigan thought deeply about the colors she would use before she tackled her six-foot-by-nine-foot painting, titled in her journals, Bridal Store Mannequins. She walked around the Lower East Side neighborhood outside her 25 Essex Street studio, taking in the drifts of white fabric, lace, and wispy netting displayed on the dainty mannequins. Hartigan saw them imprisoned behind the glass storefronts on Grand Street, then known as “Bride’s Row.” She purchased a two dollar wedding gown from a thrift store and tacked it to her studio wall, along with photos of the bridal shop windows for further inspiration. Hartigan once said, “It seems ludicrous to me to go through all that fuss,” referring to the fiasco of a wedding in the 1950s. She added that she painted “things I’m against to … give them the magic they don’t have.”

In this post-war world, Hartigan personally smashed the stereotype of the modern American woman—the married, child-rearing, housewife. The tradition that began with a woman floating down the aisle, draped from head-to-toe in virginal white, being handed over to another man by the woman’s father, to be cared for the rest of her life. This ideal couldn’t be more removed from Hartigan’s own personal life. She struggled with her identity in a male-dominated, testosterone-fueled art community in mid-century New York City, even going so far as to sign her early work George Hartigan.  By the time she painted Grand Street Brides, Hartigan had been married twice and had sent her young son to live with his father's parents. She sometimes wrestled with what she needed to do to make her way as an artist versus society's expectations of her as a woman.

Also, a part of her thinking during the time she executed this work would have been the knowledge of the arranged marriages rampant among the immigrant population living in her Lower East Side neighborhood. Note the dead and hollow eyes of the brides in her picture, devoid of love or feelings, yet dressed up pretty and put on display for all to admire.

In a letter to critic Harold Rosenberg in 1954, Hartigan attempted to explain her work: "I think some of my subjects are loneliness, alienation, and anxiety. The figures in my paintings ask, 'What are we doing? What do we mean to each other?' The figures never look at each other, but have some personal meaning." The same year Frank O'Hara wrote of the brides who "face without bitterness the glassy shallowness of American life as their showcase."  Hartigan also makes reference in her journals to Picasso's 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (seen below), which not only parallels the poses of the subjects, but perhaps makes a connection between her impression of what it meant to be a bride and the prostitutes he painted in that work.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon | 1907
Pablo Picasso
Oil on Canvas | 96 in. x 92 in.
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Grace Hartigan's Grand Street Brides: The Modern Bride as Mannequin by Aliza Edelman (2013)
The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Knox Martin's Homage to Jan de Heem

Dutch and Flemish artists took remarkable delight in creating images of the natural world. Gardening and the breeding of beautiful hybrids satisfied their interest in art and in science. The flower paintings of Jan de Heem celebrate the beauty of flora while at the same time exemplify the concept of “art is long, life is short” embodied in 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings. Depictions of striking and exotic flowers also bared their far-flung explorations and their expertise in botany. 

Thirty-one species of plants are portrayed in De Heem’s Vase of Flowers. Poppies, tulips, roses, wheat, and peas reach out in dynamic rhythms, while insects crawl and flutter about the arrangement and glass vase. Reflected in the vase, is the light streaming through De Heem’s studio window. Interestingly, such a composition could not have existed naturally, as his choice of flowers and insects did not flourish and live during the same seasons of the year.

Knox Martin pays reverence to De Heem's Vase with his own monumental canvas, Homage to Jan de Heem. Martin’s use of color and scale is captivating and magical. At nearly three times the size of De Heem’s still life, Martin’s composition is even more fantastical because he doesn’t confine it within the boundaries of the canvas itself. His elements stretch far beyond the borders in such an extraordinary way that you feel like it goes further than your peripheral vision could allow, making it up-close and personal.

Martin mirrors the natural components in De Heem’s work, but with his own exceptional flair. He obliterates the black background and traditional dark colors of Dutch paintings of that time period, and makes it fresh and new with his bright colors and large scale. Martin used dazzling hues of red, blue, purple, pink, green, yellow, and black that are wonderfully dream-like, transporting you to a land filled with enchantment.

Although Martin stayed true to many of the elements in the earlier painting, including the reflection of the window in the vase, he puts his own mark on this tribute piece by placing a lobster in the lower left corner. I’ve been privileged to not only see De Heem’s original painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, but honored to have seen Martin’s stunning work in his studio not long after its completion—a witness to art history.

Homage to Jan de Heem
Knox Martin
Acrylic on linen | 80 in. x 66 in.
©Knox Martin/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Vase of Flowers | c. 1660
Jan de Heem
Oil on canvas | 27 3/8 in. x 22 1/4 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washingt2on