“I would rather the house/ burn down than our flames go out,” wrote Frank O’Hara in a poem he titled “Christmas Card to Grace Hartigan.” Hartigan was one of the biggest stars in the firmament of New York’s downtown art scene in the 1950s. She painted “Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966,” which she gave to the Smithsonian American Art Museum after O’Hara died at 40 after being hit by a jeep on a Fire Island beach.
O’Hara burned brightly. A poet, playwright, critic and curator, he was also, in the words of art critic Peter Schjeldahl, a “universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America.”
Hartigan, too, unleashed extraordinary vitality into post-war American art. Fierce and resplendent, she had an aura of supreme confidence. Her “willpower,” wrote Jenni Quilter in the London Review of Books, “was a thing of terrible beauty.” She married for the first time at 19 and gave birth the following year. But having decided, at 26, to become an artist, she left her boy with her in-laws, moved to downtown New York, and didn’t see her son again for 30 years.
Her relationship with O’Hara, beautifully described in Mary Gabriel’s “Ninth Street Women,” was one of the most fascinating and intense in the annals of post-World War 2 New York. “Grace,” wrote Gabriel, “would have many men in her life – a few of them she would even marry – but the man, the love of her life, would be Frank O’Hara.”
The author of indelible poems that spike everyday happenings with flashes of hot feeling, O’Hara also wrote art criticism and championed his favorite artists. “If you were close to him,” said his friend Michael Goldberg, “Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity.”
He met Hartigan in 1951, the year he moved to New York and found clerical work at the Museum of Modern Art. It wasn’t until the following year, after the death of O’Hara’s beloved aunt (also called Grace) and a crunching break with his mother, that the poet and painter truly bonded. “We fell in love,” explained Hartigan. “If a homosexual and a heterosexual could be in love, it was a falling in love.”
Hartigan wanted what most artists want: for art and life to intensify one another. She hated second-handedness. “One of the most difficult things of all,” she once explained, “is not to have the painting be a depiction of the event but the event itself. That is the difference between great art and mediocre art.”
“Frank O’Hara, 1926-1966” is definitely an event. Measuring 6.6-by-6.6 feet, it is full of compressed energies, rhyming forms and an overall sense of energetic entanglement. Which only seems fitting. Just as O’Hara – the striding, twisting figure on the right – wrote poems about Hartigan, he was her favored model. They even collaborated, on a project called “Oranges” – 12 texts by O’Hara incorporated into paintings by Hartigan.
Everyone in the downtown art scene in those days was reading the existentialists. If the struggle to live authentically was unrelenting, it was particularly acute for women, who fought hard to be taken seriously – and on their own terms – in settings that churned with noxious machismo. After reading one of O’Hara’s poetic tributes, “Portrait of Grace,” Hartigan told him: “I get so confused about myself, as though only the paintings are real.” O’Hara’s poem, she continued, “makes me have an existence.”
The confidence with which O’Hara stood on his own shadow rubbed off on Hartigan. In the flush of their burgeoning friendship, she came into her own as an artist.
In 1953, Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, walked into Hartigan’s third solo show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, took one of her paintings off the wall and returned with it to MoMA. O’Hara, who happened to be working at the museum’s front desk, witnessed this momentous avowal, and made sure everyone heard about it. With O’Hara’s support, Hartigan, wrote Gabriel, “reached a level of notoriety few artists of either gender ever achieved.”
But about six years before O’Hara’s death, Hartigan was encountering headwinds. She had decided to marry a young associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and move to Baltimore. Baltimore was where O’Hara was born; it was also where Hartigan’s reputation more or less flamed out. Her therapist thought her relationship with O’Hara was bound to undermine this latest marriage, so Hartigan – burning down the house – wrote him a Dear John letter. Adios.
Poet and painter had only recently reconciled when he was killed on Fire Island. Hartigan painted this picture in his memory. O’Hara’s Long Island gravestone is a few feet away from Jackson Pollock’s and includes a line from his poem, “In Memory of My Feelings”: “Grace/ to be born and live as variously as possible.”