Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955

My continued obsession with 1950s artists dropped me into Grace Hartigan’s world, captured spectacularly in her journals from the early half of the decade when she’s fighting for money and taking random temp jobs despite having sold paintings to MOMA. Her journal notes the day to day struggle of a working artist, believing a painting to be finished one day and the next attacking it to add something else, then deciding it’s ruined, then loving it again. Cyclical. The importance of having a group of friends with whom to bounce ideas, to deeply discuss the craft and problems encountered. Bravo to her unconventional flinging aside of the claims her young son had on her, thrusting him instead to her ex-husband and her parents to leave herself free to pursue art. She occasionally visits them, such as this note after a week at the beach in 1952 with her son Jeff and family: “Amazing in the American middle-class the worship of the extrovert personality. Mother tries to force this on Jeff when he is a naturally shy and gentle child.”

The constant pressure to get a job to earn money in order to not work for a while and to paint. In May 1953 she gets up in the middle of the night and writes in her journal about her refusal to go into a job she just found: “Something happened tonight and I won’t work tomorrow at that tabulating job for morons. It isn’t that I am such an artist, but that I have value as an intelligent human being, and if I must work and move in the world, then I am capable of being more deeply engaged in what I do. I can give more than automatism, I refuse to submit myself to such degradation.”

Later that summer she’s wondering why John Myers gave her a book on Byron: “I had no feelings of identification with Byron–far more with a spirit like Rilke, shy, but at times powerfully sure, mystical, misanthropic–I feel also for Cezanne, his outward desire to fit into a conservative life, his antagonisms, etc. Or even I’m more like Melville or Hawthorne. I can see in the future more and more withdrawal from everyone but a few trusted friends.”

She embraces her dwindling circle but seems intent on counting the names. The September 9th entry (1953) was particularly great:

Everything changes.

I will be quite alone now. Frank [O’Hara] has moved to Sneedens Landing with Bobby Fisdale–it should be good for him and his work, a kind of isolation he couldn’t do for himself in the city. Larry [Rivers] will spend his first winter in Southampton. Al [Leslie] has been in Hoboken for so long it seems he always lived there. Waldemar doesn’t exist for me any longer, we have nothing to say to each other, he’ll never write a novel, he’s too afraid of failure. Jane [Freilicher] will be returning the end of the month, but I am so embarrassed by the weakness of her painting I can’t bear to see her.

Well, who knows, maybe there are others.

“One must beware of beautiful beginnings and feel free to destroy them. What comes eventually is better and more true.”