Frederick Hammersley: West Coast Hard Edge Abstraction, Pt3

Frederick Hammersley was perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the first generation west coast hard-edge painters.  Having been one of the four participants in the landmark Four Abstract Classicists exhibition in 1959, his place within the history of the art movement was firmly established.  The show’s organizer,  Jules Langsner coined the term “hard edge” in his essay for the catalogue:

“Abstract Classicist painting is hard-edged painting. Forms are finite, flat, rimmed by a hard clean edge. These forms are not intended to evoke in the spectator any recollections of specific shapes he may have encountered in some other connection. They are autonomous shapes, sufficient unto themselves as shapes.”

Hammersley received art training from an early age and continued through his young adulthood. ‘…he was stationed in Paris near the end of his service (Army Signal Corps, 1942-46), and he took the opportunity to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1945. During this period, Hamersley met Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Constantin Brancusi, visited their studios and made sketches.’ (via wikipedia)

Hammersley divided his art into three categories: “hunches”,”geometrics”, and “organics”.

“Hunch” paintings, produced from 1953 to 1959, start by laying down an initial shape. Other shapes are successively added, and the whole evolves in unplanned ways. Hammersley explained: “My painting begins with a hunch, no plan, no theory, just a feeling to make a shape. That shape dictates what and where the next will go, and so on…”[3] The final canvas may be suggestive of a still-life or a landscape, although still quite abstract. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Miles wrote that “they show Hammersley to have been, from the start, as keen a student of Modernist style as he was of color and composition.”

“Geometrics” are orchestrated compositions of sharp geometric forms, painted from 1959 to 1964, and from 1965 to the mid-’90s. While more rigidly composed than Hunches, they still retain a degree of playfulness. A gridded canvas may have sections divided by diagonals or arcs. The triangles, squares, and other geometric shapes combine to form interlocking relationships to each other, creating a rhythmic composition with interchangeable positive and negative space.

“Organics” consist of freely curving shapes inspired by the natural world. These works, produced in 1964 and from 1982 into the 2000s, also contain interlocking shapes, but, as Miles wrote, they “are more evocative and suggestive, with elements seeming to probe and penetrate, embrace and envelop one another. Particularly effective is the combination of hard breaks between colors from one shape to the next with gradations between colors within a shape. In Comes Out Eden, #8 (1994), shapes seem to fade in and out, to merge, dematerialize or change states – to behave like chameleons and run hot and cold.”– Christopher Miles, Ever True To Forms, Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2007

In 1968, Frederick Hammersley moved from Los Angeles to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico. Soon after his arrival at the university, sculptor Charles Mattox introduced Hammersley to the engineer who was in charge of the university’s new IBM mainframe computer. The possibility of image making facilitated by a computer captivated Hammersley’s imagination, and resulted in a series of over 72 drawings.

“I would write out what I wanted to be done, and then I would go to the computer center and look at the information and then type it out, resulting in the punched cards. I’d give it to the little man behind the door, and five minutes later, I’d get this drawing back. I’d sit down and make a change and give it to him…It was like eating peanuts. I mean, one thing would lead to another, and you just kept on chewing.” – Frederick Hammersley interviewed by Lawrence Weschler, January 2003

Hammersley worked with a wide variety of media over the course of his career, including sculpture, graphic design, lithography, serigraphy, collage and constructions.  A renewed interest in Hammersley’s work (and other Hard-Edge artists) sprouted in the mid-1990s, leading to a number of exhibitions and a degree of commercial success that he had previously never attained in his career.

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