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Grace Hartigan was born on March 28, 1922, in Newark, New Jersey. In the early 1940s she took drawing courses in Los Angeles and during World War II worked as a mechanical instrument drafter in an airplane factory, all the while painting watercolor still-lifes in her free time. At the time, a colleague introduced her to Henri Matisse’s work, which encouraged her to devote her life to painting.
In 1942 she studied painting with the artist Isaac Lane Muse, and in 1945 she moved to New York, just when Abstract Expressionism had started to dominate the art scene. She met Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, whose abstract spontaneity strongly influenced her own painting. In her paintings of that time, recognizable elements mingle with abstract compositions, defined by thick black lines and large shapes. In 1950 she took part in the exhibition New Talent, held at the Kootz Gallery, New York, and organized by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Shapiro, two of the biggest personalities on the New York art scene of the time. The Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, hosted her solo debut the following year. By the end of the 1950s, Hartigan had become broadly well-known and was featured in magazines such as Newsweek and Life. She was also the only woman among the seventeen artists chosen to participate in The New American Painting exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, a prestigious exhibition that toured eight European countries between 1958 and 1959.
As with the other Abstract Expressionists, interest in Hartigan's work declined in the 1960s and 1970s, but her popularity was renewed in the following decades. In 1960 she escaped the New York art scene and went to Baltimore, Maryland, where she was appointed director of the graduate painting program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her work at the end of the 1980s is dominated by a series of large-scale watercolors. She has been the subject of retrospectives at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana, in 1981; at the American University in Washington, D.C. in 1987; and at the Kouros Gallery, New York, in 1989. Hartigan died in Baltimore on November 15, 2008.