The Visual Poetry of Grace Hartigan

The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division.

Still Life in Primary Colors, 1953. Color serigraph. Printed by Floriano Vecchi at Tiber Press. Used with permission of the Grace Hartigan Estate.

Encounters between poetry and visual art comprise a rich vein of creativity in the collections of the Library of Congress—home to the Poetry and Literature Center and world class collections of artists’ prints and books, as well as recordings of poets’ readings in the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Connecting to all of these are several jewel-toned screenprints made by New York School Abstract Expressionist artist Grace Hartigan and featured in Folder—a literary and art journal published between 1953 and 1956 and printed at Floriano Vecchi’s Tiber Press. The cover for Folder’s inaugural issue announces “Three Original Silk Screen Prints by George Hartigan,” a pseudonym she adopted in homage to novelists George Sand (Aurore Dupin) and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). The issue also showcased poems by such New York School poets as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch; a “playlet” by James Schuyler; and short stories by Frederick English, Giusseppe Patroni Griffi, and others.

The Persian Jacket, 1953. Color serigraph. Printed by Floriano Vecchi at Tiber Press. Used with permission of the Grace Hartigan Estate.

The journal’s co-publisher, Daisy Aldan, also contributed her own poetry. In fact, Aldan’s living room was the venue for a 1953 recording of readings by Folder poets, along with commentary by Hartigan, preserved in the Library’s Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Within their circle, Hartigan and O’Hara famously developed a particularly close friendship and created mutually-inspired works of art and poetry. Hartigan’s cover for Folder’s third issue evokes her Oranges series of paintings (exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1953) based on O’Hara’s eponymous series of twelve poems.

In her journal, Hartigan described making the Folder silkscreens (a.k.a. serigraphs) at Tiber Press studio, beginning with Still Life in Primary Colors: “…I’ve started a ‘still-life’ in primaries, and I have experimented with opaque white on top of the third color, which is red. It seems to work well.” When looking at the original print, the white seems to float crisply above Hartigan’s layers of brush-like curves and sweeps in an image that dances between representation and abstraction. The same is true for the next two prints, The Persian Jacket and Pastorale, both related to her earlier paintings. The New York Museum of Modern Art’s acquisition of The Persian Jacket painting in 1953 helped cement Hartigan’s reputation as an artist.

Pastorale, 1953. Color serigraph. Printed by Floriano Vecchi at Tiber Press. Used with permission of the Grace Hartigan Estate.

Some years later in 1960, Barbara Guest’s poem “The Hero Leaves His Ship” provided the inspiration for a series of four lithographs, including the pictured example (bottom right), printed by legendary master printer Robert (Bob) Blackburn and published by Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). Hartigan applied watery lithographic tusche in strokes, daubs, and brush-like sweeps that suggest a ship in motion. Though the word “ship” appears only in Guest’s title, its presence is conjured with words like “sea,” “salty,” “shore,” “tide,” and more directly, “fleet.” Hartigan’s marks, both bold and delicate, are made in shades of black and gray. Guest’s poem pulses with sound and color, as in this excerpt:

Beckoning songs as if the earth

Were rich and many warriors coming out of it,

As if the calm was blue, one sky over

A shore and the tide welcoming a fleet

Bronzed and strong as breakers,

The Hero Leaves His Ship IV (Ship), 1960. Lithograph. Printed by Robert Blackburn, published by Universal Limited Art Editions. Used with permission of the Grace Hartigan Estate.

By early October 1961, as Hartigan began working on a further series of lithographs responding to Guest’s Archaics poems, Guest wrote: “I feel your painting so acutely that often when I write a poem I begin to see it as you would paint it . . . How well you understood the poems.”

These extraordinary confluences of art, poetry, and creative collaborations are available for exploration in person and online, along with numerous other examples and related special Library of Congress collections.

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Selected Library of Congress Collections & Resources:

Prints & Photographs Division:

Rare Book & Special Collections Division:

More Art + Poetry & Literature blog posts and webcast series:

Additional Resources:

Imagine! Painters and Poets of the New York School (Syracuse University Libraries)

Aldan, Daisy, et al. Folder. Tiber Press, 1953-1956.

Hartigan, Grace, et al. The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955. Syracuse University Press, 2009.

Curtis, Cathy. Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Guest, Barbara, et al. The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

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