Exhibition Curated by Norma Broude Highlights Life and Career of Two Significant Abstract Expressionists With Ties to Washington, DC

When asked why she chose to curate an exhibition based on the work of Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun, curator and American University Professor Emerita of Art History Norma Broude said she hoped it would challenge the bias that ignores careers and legacies of artists like these two. 

During Broude’s gallery talk, which took place at the American University Art Museum on Friday, September 6th, she highlighted these artists’ resentment of the label “female artists,” which they both fought against as an adjective for them and their work, wanting instead to simply be called “artists.” As Broude mentioned, there was a deep masculinization of the art world in the late 1950’s (specifically within the Abstract Expressionist group), so being described as a “female artist” was akin to being described as an inferior artist in general. Dr. Broude’s deep admiration for these two artists was deeply personal; she got to know the two as colleagues and friends while they lived and worked in the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area. 

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Norma Broude at the AU Museum on Friday, September 6

While the work of Hartigan and Herzbrun was very different in both style and subject matter, their motives were in many ways aligned, specifically in the ways they both resisted the pressure from the art world to being defined solely by their gender. As Dr. Broude pointed out in her lecture, specific works in the galleries support this claim. Hartigan’s large-scale painting style focused largely on strong female archetypes, metropolitan life, bold line, and bright color. In Hartigan’s painting of Marilyn Monroe, present in AU’s exhibit, the painter re-invented the star and shifted away from the typical figurative and hypersexualized image of Marilyn Monroe that was so pervasive in American pop culture of the 1950’s and 60’s and instead abstracted Monroe’s face and figure into an almost unrecognizable form landscape of line and color. Rather than continue the impersonal way Monroe was usually represented (as seen in Andy Warhol’s static and “deadpan” version), Hartigan’s version shows the star as a real woman. Many of Hartigan’s other works utilize this emotional and personal element, while making statements about gender, metropolitan society, and a sense of self. 

On the other hand, Herzbrun’s poetic and lyrical “color sweep” paintings are bold sensory statements of the effects of color and light, and point to more personal feelings of nostalgia and memory. One of Herzbraun’s works in the exhibition, Roses Past (1981), depicts a vase of roses, turning the banal still life subject into a haunting, nostalgic image of dying roses in their vase. Herzbrun’s artistic flame never left her- she was known to have resorted to collage in the last years of her life. As Dr. Broude mentioned, Herzbrun said to “trust your intuition…that’s all you get with time.” By working outside of the commercial capital of the artworld, New York City, these two artists created new dialogues within the style of Abstract Expressionism that broke narrative and gendered barriers of the time. Although Hartigan and Herzbrun explored vastly different artistic styles, Broude proved in this exhibition just how significant and exciting their legacies are within feminist art history. At the end of the talk Broude opened up the floor to the audience (many of whom knew the artists personally) and invited them to share stories or anecdotes of the two women. While audience members were given the chance to learn about their art during the talk, the stories told by friends of the artists highlighted the two artist’s creative passion, love for life, and exemplary work of Grace Hartigan and Helene Herzbrun. 

Norma Broude’s exhibition catalogue gives further insight on the lives and practices of Hartigan and Herzbrun, and gives us a glimpse of some of the rarely seen work of two artists that have changed the way we now think about Abstract Expressionism. Be sure to see this exhibition before it closes on October 20, 2019.

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