The late Grace Hartigan – whose work you have 10 days left to see in “Women of Abstract Expressionism” at the Mint uptown – did not mince words. “I didn’t choose painting. It chose me,” she told the New York Times in 1993. “I didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”
Yes, says Charlotte’s Mary Edith Alexander, now a curator for Bank of America.
Alexander interviewed with Hartigan as an aspiring young painter in 1986, hoping to get into Hartigan’s tiny (14-student) graduate program at the well-known Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). She spent hours in Charlotte’s main library preparing for the talk, pulling out ’50s Life magazines and reading up on the artist’s work.
“I thought I was ready, that I was independent and strong enough to be in that program ... but I knew from the minute I stepped into her studio that it wasn’t right.... She took one look at me and proceeded to chew me up and spit me back out.
“She wasn’t mean about it; she was tough, and I thought, ‘Uh oh. I’m not ready to work with you!’ ”
So “off I went to a different grad school” – the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art – “but I appreciated the experience of being interviewed by her.” Alexander later lived in Baltimore and recalls the story of a fire in the building that housed Hartigan’s studio: “She comes running out of the studio in a fur coat, with her paintbrushes in her hand. I love that image: There was a glamour and a tenacity about her.”
As there was among other women at the time: “What those women had to do – this was before Gloria Steinem. This was before everything, before the women’s movement. This was ‘Mad Men,’ when women were secretaries ... and (viewed as) girls, not women.... They were barnstormers: They had to go up against an establishment that wasn’t even interested in them being there.”
Alexander is particularly taken with Hartigan’s “The King is Dead,” done in 1950. “A lot of people call these women second-generation abstract expressionists. They weren’t second-generation: They just got noticed second. Look at the energy and vibrancy of that painting. That holds up to any Pollock, in its density and energy.
“That is a great painting.”
INFO: “Women” runs through Jan. 22; mintmuseum.org.