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Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
By Grier Horner
September 20, 2014
Susan Hartung's Pulse, acrylic on canvas, 23" x 28", 2004. Photos by Grier Horner
A great retrospective of Susan Hartung's work opened at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy on Thursday, but she did not live to see it. Susan, who had fought cancer for 30 years, died of it September 6.
A crowd flocked to the auditorium where the 74-year-old Housatonic artist would have spoken about her decades in art and poetry and how those pursuits had blended together. Speaking in her place, and in praise of her work, were Peter Dudek, a Berkshire artist who curated the show, and Tara Fracalossi, director of the large school's two-story Teaching Gallery. (You can study gallery operations and curating at the school.)
This is part of the crowd in the auditorium at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, for a presentation about Susan Hartung's work.
"One day you're in the Midwest far from the center of the art world, the next thing you know you're in a loft in downtown Manhattan and meeting major figures in American art. Or at least it was that way for Susan," Dudek says in the catalog for the exhibit.
She married one of the artists she met there, sculptor Antoni Milkowski, and Ms. Fracalossi hailed their perseverence and production.
"Through jobs, and chores and children, and all that life sends one's way," she said, "there is the work, amazing, beautiful, difficult work."
"Together they raised two children in an old farmhouse in New Lebanon," the Chatham Currier said in its obituary, "tapping maple trees, growing vegetables and making art in a studio they shared. Hartung worked as an editor and later taught English and third grade at Berkshire Country Day School." Eventually they divorced and Susan lived in Housatonic and painted in a light-filled studio in Pittsfield.
Restless Inquiry, 2, graphite on paper, 22" x 30", 1993.
Her drawings, like this one, suggest things - trees? dancers? Or are they simply restless lines. You can see here why the show is called Following a Line.
One thing Susan Hartung returns to again and again is the grid. Sometimes her work within the grid is loose and gestural as in Restless Inquiry and the one below, which is a favorite of mine.
Beaufort Series, Fivefold, 1997, reed pen on paper, 22" x 30".
But in others it adheres to the grid more formally, as below:
Barney Edwards, left, and me in front of one of Susan Hartung's larger paintings, Good Measure, one I like a lot.
Now let me show you a little more of the activity at the opening.
This is the gallery lobby looking down from the upstairs balcony.
The painting in the gallery stairwell is Morning Stand, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 56", one of the largest in the show.
The size of the paintings above is more common in the artist's practice.
This Untitled painting, my wife Babbie's favorite, is 5" x 7".
"Much of what Susan has made is measured in inches, not feet," Dudak said. "...size reinforces an intimacy."
Susan and I, friends for the last dozen years, shared a ponytail moment during the installation of a show in Lenox.
For all or most of the 21st century, Susan and I have been in the same art group. In the process of meeting monthly, I came to value Susan's friendship and to admire not only her art but her courage, her intellect and her humor.
Not long ago she told me, half jokingly, "I don't understand how I can have breast cancer again when I have no more breasts."
Rosemary Starace, left, a close friend of Susan's who worked hard on the exhibit, and Susan's daughter Anna Milkowski wrapped the 53 paintings in the show so they wouldn't be damaged in transit to the college. Babbie and I lent a hand.
This is Susan's son Stefan Milkowski with one of her works at the exhibit. He lives in Alaska.
I'll leave you with a small photo of footprints in the snow that Susan was working on a couple years ago. Julio Granda, a Pittsfield artist I talked to at the show, told me he thought in her later years Susan started looking at the microcosm instead of the macrocasm. And he thought photos like this one illustrated that.
Like Julio and many others, I will miss her, but at the same time feel enriched by having known her.
Oh, I forgot. I wanted to include a piece of her poetry that Peter Dudak used in the catalog, pointing out how the art and poetry were interrelated:
I'm feeling no I'm not leaving yet and
how strange that is. Thursday,
I don't remember Thursday. Friday I
painted the studio floor,
buttercup yellow. Saturday watched
Wings of Desire with Stefan.
I too have felt touched by angels, have
the possibilities of observing against
plunging right into the thick
of messy thumping life.
I keep adding things, and would like to include more.
Sebastiao Pereira hit things right on the head when he made a comment today on facebook. "I found Susan's work very refreshing. A high school student of mine once said that 'anybody can draw a line. But to be able to draw a line which tells a story is magic.' Susan was a magician."
Her great work goes on and on. The one above is Forest for Trees, Trees for Forest. It is dark and dramatic and large (32" x 48") and seemed a fitting reminder that this fine artist will no longer be Following a Line. The show is up through October 25.