Sanctity, vulgarity, pleasure, and punishment collide in Grace Hartigan's 'Visions of Heaven and Hell'

Paradise and hell are depicted as a dichotomy, two separate worlds, a cause and effect, in Renaissance paintings such Hieronymus Bosch's triptych 'Garden of Earthly Delights.' Good and evil and pleasure and pain are opposing forces. But in Grace Hartigan's massive 1985 painting 'Visions of Heaven and Hell,' displayed in the lobby of MICA's angular glass Brown Center, the line between the grotesque and the glorious becomes unclear, and the narratives of pleasure, sin, and punishment become nonlinear. Hartigan, a key figure of the New York abstract expressionist movement who oversaw MICA's graduate Hoffberger School of Painting for more than four decades, compresses the two themes, taken from their traditional biblical context, into a single frame. Sanctity, vulgarity, pleasure, and punishment overlap and blur, calling into question the nature of sin and desire and where the lines exist, if at all, between heaven, hell, and Earth.

Though the figures covering the 16-foot-long canvas press against the edges of the frame in a tightly condensed composition, the painting moves in sweeping vertical motions; nothing is locked into place. Thin paint drips in long gravitation streaks, often extending beyond the black contours of the figures. The blue skies of paradise bleed into the red of hell. The painting rests in motion, moving not forward or back but up and down. In an artist statement written nearly 30 years earlier, Hartigan writes, "I want a surface that resists, like a wall, not opens, like a gate." The architectural flatness of 'Visions' nearly presses forward in tension, as if in a glass box.

Near the center of the canvas a delicate hand, attached to no visible body, points to the head of a reclined figure, like Adam and the hand of God in the near-center of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, though here the pointed finger nearly pokes the eye of the figure. Next to "Adam" lies an androgenous nude, strangled by a noose or possibly a serpent. Stacked beside the pair are two white robed angels; above them, a seductively posed nude "Eve," entwined with a serpent. To the right, four figures hanging upside down like in Titian's 'The Flaying of Marsyas,' press against two upright lovers in a sensual embrace, highlighted by a cerulean blue streak against the woman's thigh.

'Visions of Heaven and Hell' is like porn for art-history geeks. You can pick out visual references to Michelangelo, Titian, and Courbet and similarities to the paintings of Matisse and Francis Bacon. Hours can go by dissecting the image. But the painting contains a clear eroticism beyond the art-history orgy, as satisfying it is alone to the artists that pass the painting on their way to classes and lectures.

Hartigan plays with the erotic nature of good versus bad, of nature and sin. From left to right, the figures nearly play out a "Paradise Lost" kind of narrative: from Heaven, to the first man and woman in paradise, to their sin and suffering—until the chronology is thrown off by the caressing lovers, who embody love and pleasure though they occupy the same space as the hanging sufferers.

In Bosch's painting, sodomy is shown in one panel as an act of sinful pleasure on Earth, and in another, as punishment in hell. In the compact orgy of Hartigan's image, the figures experience both pleasure and pain in the same space. The lines that form the bodies and faces shift between sensuousness and crudeness from elegant, flowing curves to contorted features and reductive breast lumps. Even the glowing white angels appear grotesque, buzzing and dripping like Bacon's famously demonic study of Velazquez's 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X.' All flattened into the same space, bleeding in and out of their own frames and into the flesh of one another, they seem to exist not on Earth nor in paradise, heaven, hell, or even limbo, but some meeting and simultaneous destruction of these worlds.

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