Nonob­jec­tive ob­jec­tives

The art of Fred­er­ick Ham­mer­s­ley

Pasatiempo - - Art - Dou­glas Fair­field The New Mex­i­can

Prior to his death last May in Al­bu­querque at the age of 90, artist Fred­er­ick Ham­mer­s­ley was serv­ing as con­sul­tant for his first ma­jor mono­graph, Fred­er­ick Ham­mer­s­ley, pub­lished by Art Santa Fe Presents and re­leased by the Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press on Satur­day, Dec. 12. “Fred­er­ick’s par­tic­i­pa­tion rep­re­sents yet an­other ex­am­ple of his vis­ual acu­ity and artis­tic achieve­ment, without which this project could not have been re­al­ized,” states gallery owner Char­lotte Jack­son, Ham­mer­s­ley’s Santa Fe dealer, in her fore­word to the book. When con­tacted by Pasatiempo, Jack­son added, “I am only sorry that Fred­er­ick didn’t get to see the book com­pleted. I feel it is a very strong over­view of his life’s work.”

Ham­mer­s­ley pos­sessed a gen­tle and man­nered soul. He had a quick wit and was a re­spected ed­u­ca­tor and a pro­lific artist. His artis­tic legacy will for­ever be as­so­ci­ated with hard-edge, nonob­jec­tive im­agery— dis­played in three se­ries of re­cur­ring styles that he de­scribed as “the hunch paint­ings,” “the geo­met­rics,” and “the or­gan­ics,” which came to fruition in 1950, 1959, and 1963 re­spec­tively. In one form or an­other, th­ese sep­a­rate but re­lated styles made up Ham­mer­s­ley’s port­fo­lio through­out his ca­reer. But his sen­si­bil­i­ties to­ward ab­stract de­sign be­gan ear­lier. “Ham­mer­s­ley’s trail to ab­strac­tion be­gan with a few ob­jects that he found in an al­ley. They be­came the sub­jects of a tra­di­tional still-life paint­ing us­ing just four colors,” writes New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art cu­ra­tor Joseph Trau­gott, one of four es­say­ists for the mono­graph. “The re­sults pleased Ham­mer­s­ley, and he pro­ceeded to re­duce the forms into even sim­pler shapes. From First Paint­ing in Red, Yel­low, Black & White, 1947, Ham­mer­s­ley cre­ated 14 other ver­sions of the com­po­si­tion. Each moved far­ther and far­ther from its aca­demic ori­gin.” In the orig­i­nal paint­ing, those ob­jects ap­pear to have been four dif­fer­ent pieces of wood, a brick, and a seg­ment of rub­ber hose.

Trained in tra­di­tional paint­ing tech­niques be­fore and af­ter his mil­i­tary ser­vice in­WorldWar II— at the Chouinard Art In­sti­tute and the Jep­son Art In­sti­tute in Los An­ge­les and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris— Ham­mer­s­ley cited see­ing the ab­stract qual­i­ties in work by Pierre Bon­nard and Piet Mon­drian as mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. “Bon­nard was the sub­ject of a show at the L.A. County Mu­seum years ago. ... I never re­mem­ber want­ing to paint like him and his con­tem­po­raries, I just know they were putting re­la­tion­ships to­gether that were just won­der­ful,” he re­called to writer Sarah S. King in 2008, in an in­ter­view pub­lished in the mono­graph. The artist also con­fessed, “I did care for Mon­drian. I saw a se­ries of early Mon­drian paint­ings at the Santa Bar­bara Mu­seum, a fig­u­ra­tive work that showed cows and the barn and this tree. Af­ter a while, the tree slightly changed, and it got more ab­stract, and then fi­nally be­came an ab­strac­tion; its leaves: a shim­mer­ing mass of ovoids.”

Ham­mer­s­ley moved from his hunch paint­ings— col­or­ful works in­tu­itively con­ceived us­ing geo­met­ric and biomor­phic shapes— to his sig­na­ture, more cal­cu­lated geo­met­rics seem­ingly by ac­ci­dent. As he told King, “One day, I was driv­ing to Pomona Col­lege [where I was teach­ing], and I saw a pic­ture

of an ab­stract paint­ing. Hell, I thought, ‘That’s very nice.’ So, I came home and drew a lit­tle pic­ture of it and put it in a note­book. And then later I said to my­self: ‘Ham­mer­s­ley, that’s kind of ridicu­lous— it only has four shapes!’ So I just let it alone. And about a month later, it turned into a geo­met­ric ‘hard edge.’ It was my fa­vorite paint­ing.” That sem­i­nal piece was Like Un­like (1959), an asym­met­ri­cal com­po­si­tion com­pris­ing two stacked rec­tan­gles— red on top, white on the bot­tom— each con­tain­ing a cir­cle. Ham­mer­s­ley’s pal­ette con­sisted of three opaque colors: red, white, and black.

What fol­lowed were scores of such stripped-down, unas­sum­ing for­mal­ist paint­ings — the ma­jor­ity of which were square in for­mat— in which Ham­mer­s­ley ex­plored such com­po­si­tional dy­nam­ics as pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive space, the sen­sa­tion of push-pull via min­i­mal­ist color schemes, and the sus­pended ten­sion cre­ated by piec­ing to­gether a va­ri­ety of geo­met­ric shapes. And be­cause Ham­mer­s­ley’s tech­nique was given to flat, metic­u­lously painted sur­faces and pre­cise, clean lines, one can­not ig­nore process.

As Ar­den Reed, English pro­fes­sor at Pomona Col­lege and es­say­ist for the book, points out, Ham­mer­s­ley typ­i­cally be­gan his hard-edge paint­ings by “draw­ing pen­cil lines on the can­vas, us­ing an alu­minum straight edge to de­fine his shapes. Then, us­ing a pal­ette knife, he spreads his colors one at a time: gen­tly, pa­tiently, grad­u­ally nudg­ing his pig­ment just up to the line.” Ham­mer­s­ley would then care­fully re­move any ac­cu­mu­la­tion of paint without a trace of his in­ter­ven­ing hand. The use of tape was not part of his method, which makes such works as Ex­tra Vert, #2 (1975); Sa­cred and Pro Fame, #2 (1978); and Bat­tery In­cluded, #14 (1992) all the more re­mark­able.

Note­wor­thy in the book are the many re­pro­duc­tions of Ham­mer­s­ley’s or­ganic paint­ings— oils on wood panel and oils on linen mounted on panel— which in­clude the artist’s hand­made frames. Seem­ingly by the na­ture of the or­gan­ics, which are biomor­phic, free-form im­ages rem­i­nis­cent of the

ab­stract sur­re­al­ist con­cepts of Joan Miró, Ham­mer­s­ley must have felt com­pelled to cre­ate less for­mal, even whim­si­cal, fram­ing for this se­ries of works. Each frame is in­te­gral to the over­all piece, adding di­men­sions of cre­ativ­ity and crafts­man­ship to the mix.

Ham­mer­s­ley was a res­i­dent of Al­bu­querque for roughly 40 years, but his artis­tic legacy con­tin­ues to be rec­og­nized far be­yond the bor­ders of the South­west. To la­bel him as strictly a West Coast artist or re­gion­al­ist would be wrong. His pi­o­neer­ing hard-edge con­cepts— along with those of fel­low Los An­ge­les painters Karl Ben­jamin, John McLaugh­lin, and Lorser Fei­t­el­son — were ground­break­ing. In 1959, his work, as well as that by his col­leagues, re­ceived in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion in the ex­hi­bi­tion Four Ab­stract Clas­si­cists, which was organized by the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and then trav­eled to the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art be­fore be­ing shipped over­seas to Lon­don’s In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Art and Queen’s Uni­ver­sity in Belfast, Ire­land.

With nearly 200 color im­ages in the book, in­clud­ing the artist’s lit­tle-known com­puter-gen­er­ated draw­ings, Fred­er­ick Ham­mer­s­ley will stand as the de­fin­i­tive ref­er­ence on the artist for many years to come. As James Moore, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum of Art and His­tory and a long­time ac­quain­tance of the artist, stated in a trib­ute to Ham­mer­s­ley that ran in The New Mex­i­can upon the artist’s death, “Fred was a friend, but more im­por­tantly, he was a great painter, fully en­gaged with the art of our time, and in the van­guard of post-painterly ab­strac­tion. ... He had an imp­ish streak of hu­mor, of­ten ev­i­dent in his ti­tles of his paint­ings, but he knew how to look at pic­tures, and when he talked about art it was se­ri­ous stuff, re­fresh­ingly free of jar­gon and pi­ous lip ser­vice to con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cism.”

Fred­er­ick Ham­mer­s­ley: Red, Yel­low, Black & White, #14, 1948, oil on chip­board, 18 x 12 inches; pri­vate col­lec­tion

Sa­cred and Pro Fame, #2, 1978, oil on linen, 45 x 45 inches; col­lec­tion of the Al­bu­querque Mu­seum of Art and His­tory

Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer, #21, 1987, oil on linen on wood panel, 11 x 9 inches; pri­vate col­lec­tion

About Face, 1980, pen­cil on pa­per, 22 x 17 inches; pri­vate col­lec­tion

Be­side My­self, #5, 1980, oil on linen, 45 x 45 inches; pri­vate col­lec­tion

Artist’s note­book, 1960-1987, oil and graphite on pa­per, 10.75 x 8.5 inches; Fred­er­ick Ham­mer­s­ley Foun­da­tion

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