Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan were close friends in New York’s postwar art scene. She was a young painter finding her way among the giants of abstract expressionism, and O’Hara was a poet, critic, and later a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Like O’Hara, Hartigan looked for everything that was “vulgar and vital” in American culture to fuel her abstract paintings. In the early 1960s, however, the two parted ways over Hartigan’s decision to include recognizable figures and symbols in her work. This was considered an act of betrayal in their avant-garde crowd, and the two were estranged for several years.
Hartigan and O’Hara had recently reconciled when the poet was killed in a beach accident, and Hartigan painted this work as a memorial to him. The hot and cold colors and slashing black lines capture the tangled emotions of their friendship and the tensions of the creative world they shared. O’Hara may have believed that painting should be purely abstract, but Hartigan had the last word. She included a figure of the poet, striding through the thicket of strokes on the canvas.