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CHAPTER 10 (from Tracking the Marvelous by John Bernard Myers)

“Did Grace Hartigan really look like the photograph Cecil Beaton took of her?” I was asked recently. Yes, she did. I was cross the day I first climbed the stairs to her studio on Essex Street. Oh God, I was saying to myself, another female painter whose talent will belie her appearance. There Grace was at the top of the stairs, waiting for me: tall, as “fresh as the month of May,” with what people used to call clean-cut American good looks. She smiled and put out her hand to pull me up the last step. The studio occupied the top floor of a three-storied building. On the ground floor was a shop that sold pickles and other delicatessen foods; there were barrels of pickles both outside and inside the store and the smell of vinegar, dill and spices permeated the building pleasantly. It was the heart of the lower east side; Orchard Street ran parallel two blocks to the west. The streets below the studio were full of pushcarts, trucks, hucksters, merchants of every sort shouting their myriad wares.

“Isn’t it a heavenly spot to live in!” cried Grace. “Have a dill pickle.” The studio was divided in two—the rear half was the work space of her friend Alfred Leslie, who soon made his appearance. He was six years younger than Grace, about twenty then; they were very fond of each other… I liked them and they liked me and I knew I had two more recruits for my gallery before the visit was over. Their pictures entered my brain so immediately and I felt such enthusiasm for who they were as people that I was certain their art would arouse other people in the same way.

Grace painted large canvases in big, strong patches and swerves of color. The paint strokes were relaxed and swift, wide and narrow, since brushes of varying widths had been utilized. Like others of her generation, Hartigan believed in flat surfaces and “all-over” filling out.

Alfred Leslie had been born Alfred Lipitz in the Bronx. During his high school days he was a body builder, and by the time he was eighteen he was crowned Mr. Bronx… He and two friends decided that they didn’t like their names and should go as a threesome to have them legally changed at City Hall. Alfred was furious when the other two didn’t turn up and defiantly went ahead and changed his without his friends. He had already decided that he would become a Great Artist. Indeed, his drawings done during his adolescence indicated a large natural talent. He could draw like an old master—a fact I would not have believed if Alfred hadn’t shown me his earliest efforts.

Alfred Leslie absorbed what was going on with gleeful enthusiasm. Making it new was attention-getting; Alfred’s narcissism shifted from the muscle-building Mr. Bronx to where the action was: Abstract Expressionism. He was particularly affected by the authority and sweep of de Kooning, and for several years his work reflected the influence of de Kooning’s middle period. Alfred was not alone in doing this—Michael Goldberg, Milton Resnick, Grace Hartigan, Paul Brach and many other young artists were equally dazzled. The new painters were not in revolt against their elders–many of the Second Generation were enchanted by Jackson Pollock and argued continuously as to which, Pollock or de Kooning, was the greatest master. (Bernard Myers, John. Tracking the Marvelous. New York: Random House, 1981. 125-128)

Grace Hartigan and Frank O'Hara

Nix on Nixon, 1960. Alfred Leslie.

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Allison Power edits books at Rizzoli Publications and writes poems that are sometimes published places. Her friends call her Ali.

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