In the late 1940s, Grace Hartigan joined the inner circle of New York–based Abstract Expressionist painters. During this time, she often questioned her compositional approach, uncertain if she should favor an all-over or a centrally weighted composition and expressive gesture or evocative color. Initially, she chose to pursue the complete abstraction of her peers, but in 1952, Hartigan began exploring more representational imagery. When several of her contemporaries denounced her new approach, she explained, “I had found that my best work had some roots in the visual world.” When the Raven Was White features a quirky color palette of pinks, blues, and greens. Discrete shapes across the canvas fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Many of these forms are recognizable—flowers, a bird’s head, and an ear. Others are less specific. Hartigan created this painting as a memorial to Martha Jackson, who ran a prominent New York gallery. Hartigan explained that the work’s title “refers to the old myth that the raven once was white and displeased the gods, who turned the bird black forever.” The bird in the upper-left corner is actually a parrot, however, and undoubtedly represents Jackson's beloved pet, Chuckie.
Label from Menagerie: Animals on View, March 11–June 4, 2017