The art of Frederick Hammersley
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