Grace Hartigan went to the Newark College of Engineering where she practiced mechanical drafting and made watercolors on the side. After WW II, she moved to New York and became very interested in Abstract Expressionism, and became even more inspired when she stayed with the artist Jackson Pollock for some time in 1948. In 1951, she had a solo debut at New York's Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Hartigan's paintings were included in 12 Americans at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1956, and in The New American Painting, run by MoMA, which traveled to eight European cities from 1958 to 1959. She was one of the only female painters at the time to have gotten that much press. From 1965 until her death in 2008, she served as a teacher and director at the Hoffberger Graduate School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore.
Her art questioned the relationship between representation and abstraction. Inspired by Pollock's gestural style and large scale, Hartigan explored depicting identifiable imagery into her abstractions to create an intense visual of shapes. Hartigan's art has been in a plethora of shows worldwide, including the Ninth Street Show, New York (1951), the Jewish Museum, New York (1957); Documenta, Kassel, West Germany (1959); Guggenheim Museum (1961); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1989, 1999); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1992, 1999).