Grace Hartigan - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips
  • Grace Hartigan photographed in front of the present work. Reproduced in Matt Schudel, “Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan dies at 86,” The Los Angeles Times, November 22, 2008. Image: © 2008. Los Angeles Times, Artwork: © Estate of Grace Hartigan

    “[Grace Hartigan] is one of the most personal and talented artists of her generation.”
    —J.T. Soby, Saturday Review, 1957

    Montauk Highway, 1957, seamlessly combines Grace Hartigan’s interest in the landscape and infrastructure of 1950s America with her ceaseless commitment to the vanguard of Abstract Expressionism. The work represents the artist at the peak of her critical and artistic success; it was created the year after her participation in the pivotal Twelve Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the year before her inclusion in New American Painting at the same institution, which traveled to eight European cities and firmly established Abstract Expressionism as the dominant strain of avant garde painting worldwide. In 1997, Los Angeles collectors and LACMA benefactors Sandra and Jacob Terner acquired the painting, where it has remained for almost three decades. This sale marks the first occasion of this important artwork being made available for auction.


    Tony Vaccaro, Grace Hartigan and Montauk Highway, c. 1960. Image: © Tony Vaccaro Archives, Artwork: © Estate of Grace Hartigan


    Hartigan was the only female artist included in these canonical exhibitions, a professional achievement that speaks to the strength of her work in this period. Looking back on this phase of her career, Hartigan projects a confident self-assurance. When Montauk Highway was procured by the Four Seasons restaurant and hung in their famous dining room in the Seagram building, she said she thought “it would be fun to let it compete for attention in that setting,” alongside works by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, among others.i


    Hartigan came of age alongside the second generation of New York-based Abstract Expressionists, finding companionship and inspiration in the vibrant artists’ community of the Lower East Side. In the summer of 1957, Hartigan moved out to Long Island for a year, a geographic shift that would prove essential, and produce some of her best work. Montauk Highway is an early example from Hartigan’s “place” series, a set of large-scale paintings “as big as all outdoors,” in the artist’s words, that are well-represented in museums across the United States.ii Early “place” works, created while Hartigan lived on Long Island, use the landscape of the East Coast as the basis for abstraction, while later works, painted after Hartigan traveled to Europe for the first time in 1959, shift to European settings. Regardless of whether her inspiration was on Long Island or in the United Kingdom, Hartigan was adamant that these paintings were not landscapes: “I don’t see how anyone can paint just landscape. The proper subject of man is man.”iii


    Grace Hartigan, Shinnecock Canal, 1957. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Estate of Grace Hartigan


    Out on Long Island, Hartigan benefited from an abundance of space and solitude that her Lower East Side studio lacked. The openness of the landscape enabled her to “open [her] paintings” more than ever. She became fascinated by the concept of “nature as imposed on by man,” a relationship perfectly encapsulated by the U.S. highway system on Long Island, where Hartigan drove though nature in a man-made machine.iv


    Montauk Highway assembles a series of subjects that interested the artist while driving—billboards, embankments, and the road itself—with the speed and technicolor vibrancy of midcentury American life. For Hartigan, the scenery out her car window became a surreal montage: “in the Four Roses whisky billboards”—which appear as spots of red encircled in goldenrod at top left in Montauk Highway— “a rose is a big as a human head.”She found her impressions on the highway to be “real and pure;” unfiltered by logic or chronology, they were a series of sensations that translated the immediacy of lived experience to the canvas.

    “I wanted every section of the final image to vibrate with life.”
    —Grace Hartigan on Montauk Highway

    Hartigan conceptualized Montauk Highway as an expression of “the soul of a car, so to speak, with emphasis on how the planes fall and are separated, in billboards, for example, and the further reaches of land.”vi Montauk Highway separates spatial planes into bright, rectangular blocks of color—pumpkin orange, sea green, and grey the color of asphalt under the summer sun. In the upper reaches of the composition, these blocks splinter into smaller, multicolor sections, like glimpses of billboards in one’s peripheral vision.


    Hartigan purposefully rejected spatial depth in Montauk Highway; rather, “the idea behind [Montauk Highway] is surface projection,” she said, achieved by working “outward, so that the painting vibrates out, as does the painting of [Willem] de Kooning, [Jackson] Pollock, and [Clyfford] Still.”vii In the present work, Hartigan uses the tension between contrasting colors such as orange and green to create a sense of space that moves outward, towards the viewer, as if one is sitting at the dashboard of a car, with the whole world speeding towards them.


    She credits this innovation in outward space to Willem de Kooning, a friend and mentor, who also summered on Long Island in the 1950s. He created his own painting titled Montauk Highway in 1958, the year after Hartigan painted the present work. As Cathy Curtis argues in her biography of Hartigan, de Kooning’s Montauk Highway is “totally abstract,” with its golden rendition of the blurred scenery and curves of the road. In contrast, Hartigan’s Montauk Highway retains the grittiness of everyday life, rearranged into a “rhythmically persuasive picture. With its bravura juggling of planes of color and small eruptions of linear brushwork, Montauk Highway is one of [Hartigan’s] masterpieces.”viii


    Willem de Kooning, Montauk Highway, 1958. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image: © 2024 Museum Associates / LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    “Our highways are fantastic,” Hartigan explained in a 1957 interview, a statement which evokes the highway as a unique environment full of possibility and adventure.ix Hartigan cleverly taps into the zeitgeist of midcentury America in Montauk Highway, rendering the distinctly American fantasy of the open road in visual terms through the juxtaposition of color, line, and plane. Her techniques parallel the literary achievements of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, perhaps the most iconic novel to come out of the Beat Generation, which was published in the autumn of 1957 (Montauk Highway was painted that summer). Hartigan’s sense of montage and the imposition of advertising on nature predates the work of Pop artists like Robert Rauschenberg, and Wayne Thiebaud’s highway paintings of the 1970s. In these respects, Hartigan is ahead of the curve, and it is this modern sensibility that elevates Montauk Highway above its exceptional abstract qualities to a plane of historic and symbolic resonance. The work makes a strong argument for Abstract Expressionism as a distinctly American style, and Montauk Highway as the type of painting that could only be made in America. Montauk Highway paints a world of post-War optimism and endless possibility, thick and bright and fast as the scenery of the open road.


    i Grace Hartigan, quoted in Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Grace Hartigan: a painter’s world, New York, 1990, p. 43.

    ii Ibid.

    iii Ibid., p. 42.

    iv Hartigan, quoted in James Thrall Soby, “Interview with Grace Hartigan,” Saturday Review, vol. 40, issue 40, Oct. 5, 1957, p. 26. Accessed via Internet Archive.

    v Ibid.

    vi Ibid., p. 27.

    vii Ibid.

    viii Cathy Curtis, Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, New York, 2015, p. 158.

    ix Hartigan, quoted in Soby, p. 26.

    • Provenance

      Signa Gallery, East Hampton
      Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., New York
      William Zierler, Inc., New York
      Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston (acquired by 1984)
      Collection of Dr. and Mrs. James Christensen, Buchanan, Michigan (acquired by 1990)
      Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles
      Jacob and Sandra Terner, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in May 1997)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      East Hampton, Signa Gallery, Second Exhibition, July 28–August 10, 1957
      New York, Seagram Building, Four Season’s Restaurant, 1957 (on loan)
      New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1957 Annual Exhibition, November 20, 1957–January 12, 1958, no. 92, n.p.
      Boston, Institute of Contemporary Art, Corporations Collect: Art in the Business Environment, January 9–February 21, 1965, no. 14, n.p. (installation view illustrated)
      Santa Barbara Museum of Art; Amarillo Art Center, American Abstract Expressionist Paintings from the Collection of Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, February 4–May 8, 1983, n.p.
      Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955-60, June 28–September 9, 1984, no. 16, pp. 33, 84-85 (illustrated, p. 85; detail illustrated on the cover)
      México, D.F., Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, Fundación Cultural Televisa, Pintura Estadounidense: Expresionismo Abstracto, October 11, 1996–January 12, 1997, no. 32, pp. 378-379, 569 (illustrated, pp. 378-379)

    • Literature

      James Thrall Soby, “Interview with Grace Hartigan,” Saturday Review, no. 25, October 5, 1957, pp. 26-27
      Charlotte Willard, “Women of American Art,” Look Magazine, vol. 24, no. 20, September 27, 1960, p. 72 (the artist with the present work illustrated)
      The James Thrall Soby Collection of works of art pledged or given to The Museum of Modern Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961, p. 47
      Charles Moritz, ed., Current Biography Yearbook: 1962, New York, 1963, p. 194
      Robert Saltonstall Mattison, “Grace Hartigan: Painting Her Own Story,” Arts Magazine, vol. 59, no. 5, January 1985, pp. 69-70
      East Hampton Avant-Garde. A Salute to the Signa Gallery 1957-1960, exh. cat., Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton Center for Contemporary Art, East Hampton, 1990, p. 16 (Signa Gallery, East Hampton, 1957, installation view illustrated)
      Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Grace Hartigan: A Painter's World, New York, 1990, pl. 16, pp. 6, 43-44 (illustrated, p. 44)
      John Mariani and Alex von Bidder, The Four Seasons: A History of America’s Premier Restaurant, New York, 1994, p. 70
      Françoise S. Puniello and Halina R. Rusak, Abstract Expressionist Women Painters: An Annotated Bibliography, Maryland and London, 1996, p. 224
      Matt Schudel, “Grace Hartigan, 1922-2008. Abstract Expressionist Painter,” Los Angeles Times, November 22, 2008, p. B7 (the artist with the present work, 1984, illustrated)
      Cathy Curtis, Restless Ambition. Grace Hartigan, Painter, New York, 2015, pp. 157-158, 192, 343, 409
      Sarah Boxer, “A Studio of Her Own. The Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan battled with every canvas: ‘I beat it up and it beats back,’” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2015, online
      Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women, New York, 2018, pp. 645, 906

Property from the Terner Family Collection, Los Angeles


Montauk Highway

signed, inscribed and dated "Hartigan '57 E.H." lower right
oil on canvas
91 3/8 x 128 1/8 in. (232.1 x 325.4 cm)
Painted in 1957.

Full Cataloguing

$700,000 - 1,000,000 

Sold for $927,100

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024