Hunches, Geometrics, Organics: Paintings by Fredrick Hammersley
“Hunches, Geometrics, Organics: Paintings by Frederick Hammersley,” presents six decades of work. The title is drawn from the artist’s characterization of his mature work as either hunches (1953-59), geometrics (1959-64 and 1965-90s), or organics (1964, 1982-present). This exhibition explores the complex interactions of these distinct but interlocking bodies of work. What unites the artist’s work across these three categories and over half a century is the artist’s profound commitment to and understanding of the logic of intuition and the pleasures of painting and looking.
An early hunch painting “Up Within,” painted while at Pomona College, introduces the exhibition. In the hunch paintings the artist started with an initial color form and intuitively completed the rest of painting, adding more forms and colors. The geometric paintings grew out of a series of small lithographs completed in 1949-50—on view in the South Gallery—in which Hammersley worked within a nine-square grid. Predominantly black and white, geometric paintings develop from decisions the artist makes about shape and color within the grid format. For each of the nine squares, the artist decides whether or not to introduce a color and a diagonal. In the finished compositions, the underlying grid often disappears. Hammersley creates the geometric paintings with a palette knife, producing a smooth and almost flawless surface.
In contrast to the geometrics, the organic paintings employ no rules or straight lines, with curving natural forms and blending colors. Also, in contrast to the geometrics, he uses a brush for the organics, leaving visible brushstrokes. They differ in scale as well; geometric paintings may reach 48” square, while most of the organics are rectangular and smaller than twelve inches. The geometric paintings begin in the artist’s notebooks—where only a few are selected for larger canvases—while the organics begin directly on a canvas as the interplay of drawn shapes call forth other shapes. When he recognizes the balance and relation of shapes as complete, he turns to color, each color determined by the preceding.
The geometric and the organic paintings differ significantly, yet enhance and relate to each other. Both are characterized by openness to where perception leads and the recognition of the “rightness” of the picture. The work proceeds from the accumulated understanding and experience of form and color, balance and scale, which comprises the artist’s intuition. As Arden Reed points out in “Seeing Hammersley Whole:”
…the mainspring of this production has been pleasure…pleasure is discovered and proved by intuition: what ‘feels right’ or ‘feels good’ determines every mark. Corroboration lies in the viewer’s satisfaction, in the sense that the shapes could not be otherwise arranged, and that the colors belong to those shapes, although not in ways we could have predicted.
Frederick Hammersley was born in Salt Lake City in 1919, and moved to Los Angeles at the age of 21 to attend Chouinard Art School. After serving in the Army from 1942-46 and studying briefly at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1946 (where he met Brancusi, Braque, and Picasso), he returned to Los Angeles to complete his studies at Chouinard and Jepson Art School and taught at both schools in the 1950s. In 1953 he joined Pomona College as Visiting Professor of Painting where he taught until 1962. In 1968 he left Los Angeles for Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he taught briefly at the University of New Mexico (his early experiments with computer drawings while at UNM are on view in the Main gallery), and where he resides.
Sarah Rempel and Herbert S. Rempel '23 Director
Seeing Hammersley Whole
By Arden Reed
A living link to a pivotal moment in Los Angeles art, Frederick Hammersley came to prominence in the 1959 exhibition of hard-edge painting called “Four Abstract Classicists”—the title a deliberate contrast with “Abstract Expressionists”—which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Along with Hammersley, the quartet included Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and John McLaughlin.1 Working independently, these southern California painters first discovered each other, and then found in Jules Langsner a curator who grasped their common currency. “Classicism,” Langsner explained in the exhibition’s catalogue, emphasizes form, the “defined, explicit, ponderable, rather than ambiguous or fuzzily suggestive.” A classical composition, he added, is governed by clarity: “clarity in the relation of form to form, form to color, and form and color to space.”2 Reorganized in 1960 by Lawrence Alloway and rebaptized “West Coast Hard Edge,” the exhibition went on to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and Queen’s University in Belfast.
Although he’d already been painting for 20 years, in 1959 Hammersley was the least known of the group; the others all had had previous solo museum exhibitions. During the 1960s, Hammersley, like his three compatriots, was included in thematic shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. Then he largely slipped from the national spotlight.3 This fade-out was doubtless abetted by his leaving Los Angeles in 1968, bound not for New York but for Albuquerque. There the stubbornly independent artist found the freedom to be more productive than ever before, although he would also suspend art-making for long stretches, until the time seemed right to return to the easel.
Lately, the painter has attracted considerable notice: two large and glowing Hammersleys from the 1970s beckoned to visitors entering the 2001 SITE Santa Fe Biennial organized by Dave Hickey, “Beau Monde,” in which this oldest artist in the show looked more vital than many of the 20-somethings. Hammersley’s work in “Beau Monde” was singled out for praise by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker (August 13, 2001) and pronounced a “show stealer” by Michael Duncan in Artforum (October 2001). Claudine Humblet’s new survey of American abstract art accords Hammersley pages and illustrations equal to those for Rothko, Louis, Reinhardt, Kelly and Stella.4 Lawrence Weschler has taped a series of interviews with the artist for the UCLA Oral History Program.5
Born in Salt Lake City in 1919, Hammersley moved to L.A. at age 21 to attend Chouinard Art School. Between 1940 and ’42 he studied fine and commercial art from academic nudes to lettering. This training fostered a love of legibility that served him well in the Army (1942-46), where he designed posters, pass cards and signs. In 1946 Hammersley studied for a term at the Ěcole des Beaux Arts in Paris, during which he met Picasso, Braque and Brancusi. He returned to L.A., completing his studies at Chouinard and Jepson Art School. A rite of passage from figuration is marked by a suite of 14 still lifes (1947-48) that, much like the four bronzes in Matisse’s “Backs” series, grow progressively abstract. Abstraction is likewise evident in a series of small checkerboard-patterned lithographs and self-portraits of 1949-50. Over the following years, Hammersley taught at Jepson, Pomona College, Chouinard and the University of New Mexico, where a brief period of experimentation with photography and computer drawings reflected the formal concerns of his paintings at that time.
Hammersley’s mature oeuvre comprises three distinct categories, which he refers to as the “hunch” paintings (1953-59), the “geometrics” (1959-64, 1965-mid-1990s) and the “organics” (1964, 1982-present). This essentially abstract enterprise is punctuated by regular returns to figuration with self-portraits, still lifes and life drawings. All the “hunch” paintings were launched without a plan. Hammersley would lay down an initial colored form and successively add as many as 15 to 20 more shapes, each in response to the preceding one. Most “geometrics” are based on a nine-square grid, a format Hammersley retained from the 1949-50 lithographs. For each square, he makes two decisions; whether or not to introduce a new color and whether or not to introduce a diagonal. These choices yield surprising variety by producing different forms within the finished composition—rectangles, parallelograms, equilateral triangles, squares, L-shapes, etc.—so that the underpinning grid disappears. By contrast, Hammersley’s “organics” obey no such rules, and hardly ever employ straight lines.
While the “geometrics” and “organics” differ significantly, they also complement each other, engaging in a fruitful dialogue. “Geometrics” may be up to 45 inches square, while “organics” are typically rectangular and measure less than 12 inches on the longer side. Most “geometrics’” are straight-lined and straight-laced (circles appear on occasion), and as a group they look self-referential; the “organics,” in comparison, invite associations with morphing natural forms. Shapes and colors are neatly segregated in the “geometrics,” while they sometimes blend in the “organics.” Hammersley’s palette is restricted in the “geometrics,” multihued in the “organics.” The palette knife used for the “geometrics” produces a smooth and gestureless finish, while the “organics” display visible brush strokes. Finally, the artist began his “geometrics” as notebook sketches and later transferred them to canvas; the “organics,” by contrast, are never premeditated.
Hammersley refers to the “geometrics" and "organics” as “brothers.” If one brother is dressed for church and the other for the playground, they share a common gene pool. Granted, the “geometrics” look disciplined and the “organics” playful. But the “geometrics” can be waggish in their offbeat titles and optical games. The moniker To (1962), for example, refers to two blue circles stacked vertically on the picture plane. Seen in isolation, the disks would appear to be stationary and equidistant from the viewer. But attached to emphatic diagonals, they look like the ends of filter-tip cigarettes, thrusting up and down.
Correspondingly, the apparent freedom of the “organics” rests on the artist’s rigorous training and exacting craft. Picnic (1990), with its fluid, Miró-like shapes on a flat gray background, exemplifies Hammersley’s playful rigor. From the lower right a wiggly triangle, bisected into black and white zones, leads up to a yellow and white vertical blob on the right, then over to interlocking black, white, red and blue shapes at center left, above which float black and white ovals connected by a green patch. While these shapes seem improvisationally disposed, analysis reveals the underlying tactical decisions. For example, each of the four colors—green, yellow, red and blue—bleeds into a larger adjacent area. The four white areas function alternatively as forms and absences of form; of the three black shapes, one is self-enclosed, one invaded by a red glob, one twinned with a white shape. The composition even hints at Hammersley’s nine-unit grid.
Finally, the two genres are mutually supportive: individual works stand alone, but our fullest sense of either group remains impoverished without the experience of the other. When, after five years of making “geometrics,” Hammersley “exhausted his fund,” he took a year off in the mid-1960s to make “organics.” The subsequent “geometrics” emerged newly energized; “I felt like I’d been given a big fat paycheck,” he recalls.6After working on both series through the mid-‘90s, Hammersley suspended the “geometrics” in 1997. The “organics” continue.
Hammersley’s eccentric characterization of his “geometric” and “organic” paintings as “brothers”—borrowing the language of human relationships to characterize abstract work—is telling. Language matters deeply to the artist: “Painting is another form of talking,” he maintains.7 More than figures of speech, I think, his metaphors suggest that Hammersley imagines shapes and colors as characters enmeshed in graphic dramas. Similarly, he compares the human body’s articulations to the composition of his “organics”: “That toe is like an element in an organic painting, I follow the curve of the bottom, fleshy part of the toe to its neighbors until it stretches over the ankle and then the softer parts of the calf.”8 Such a corporeal element appears in Picnic, where the red shape resembles a fist.
Essentially, Hammersley regards his abstractions in terms of personifications, and, in complementary fashion, he perceives the formal in his figurative work. Witness the self-portraits from 1950 that resolve into circles, wedges and intersecting planes. In Self-Portrait on White (1950, 26 by 17 inches), a triangle descends from the forehead to the tip of the nose. The shape is echoed and inverted in the neck of the sweater, while a flat, abstract, branching form defines the shadows around the chin and Adam’s apple. Earlier still, Hammersley understood Alphabet Design (1942), an art school assignment to create an alphabet, to be a pure exercise in line and form. “Seeing shapes in reality,” he explains “stimulated me to see shapes in themselves.”9 Hammersley’s turns of phrase signal a fundamental unity in his imagination that is borne out by the work, particularly in moments of transition between the representational and the nonrepresentational. For example, the nonobjective “hunch” paintings originated with the intention of making a self-portrait. Preparing to draw his head, Hammersley ruled the canvas into 16 squares. But when he looked at a certain square, he “saw” blue, and filled the square with that color. To his eye, the blue looked right, and that color prompted him to paint a neighboring square yellow ochre, and so on. “It just flowed, and that started the whole business.”10 Later on, around 1980, when Hammersley “exhausted” the “geometrics,” he returned to self-portraits, which in turn led him back to the “organics.”11 Perhaps this cross-fertilizing oscillation between representational and nonobjective is what Dave Hickey was referring to when he said that Hammersley “comes right out of Van Doesburg and Dutch painting.”12 Abstractions evince real-world roots in Swedish Accent #2 (1994), a “geometric” that reworks the colors and shapes of that nation’s flag, and in Field Ration (1992), an “organic” whose olives and grays forge a military link.
Hammersley’s distinctive ways of signing and naming his works contribute to his oeuvre’s integration. When he finishes a canvas, he incises his name directly into wet paint in regular but loopy characters. The signature is legible but unobtrusive, never interrupting the painting’s rhythm. The artist thus introduces his identity into a nonrepresentational space; yet we also know that he has always viewed letters in formal terms. So while Hammersley imports language inside the frame, that signature also functions imagistically.
Titles may be drawn from notebooks he fills with hundreds of groaningly bad puns (Four Play, About Face, which is a self-portrait, Hap and Stance, Connect Shun, Black and Forth, Sacred and pro fame, or Need less to say). More often, though, titles arise as Hammersley dwells with the finished work, and words come to mind by free association. After the accumulation of many phrases, one will ring true.13 Apropos of Basic Training (1985), an “organic” composed of one black vertical shape against a two-tone background in a narrow color range, Hammersley reports, “there was just one guy, and the diet was very limited, and that’s basic training.”14 The interplay between composition and title is at once recherché and slapstick, as if orchestrated by a spirited boy poking fun at his own neat and sober side.
While remaining alert to the major movements in 20th-century art, Hammersley has always focused on articulating his own body of work, leaving him often, in his own words, “in left field.”15 The mainspring of his production has been pleasure. For him, pleasure is discovered and proved by intuition: what “feels right” or “feels good” determines every mark. Corroboration lies in the viewer’s satisfaction, in the sense that the shapes could not be otherwise arranged, and that the colors belong to those shapes, although not in ways we could have predicted. The orange and blue funnel-like forms in Paired (1961) are secured in opposite corners by two sets of white and black rectangles. The oblique edges of the richly colored funnels have an electric encounter at the center—enacting the “seductiveness” of the diagonal, as John McLaughlin once characterized it to Hammersley—before angling away to form an extended letter Z.
Poles a Part (1980) dramatizes Hammersley’s wedding of logic and emotion. The composition results from his choosing one of three options—all black, all white, half and half—for each of the nine squares in the foundational grid. But such logical permutations hardly explain the work’s effect. What we see are two large shapes that jostle each other—the white jagged peak thrusts up and the aggressive black valley plunges down—even as each shape is invaded by a small triangle of the opposite color. Restricting himself to black and white demonstrates, in the artist’s words, “the visual shock…combined with the surprise in getting pleasure from such limited means.”16
For over 65 years, the self-directed Hammersley has turned “inward, into worlds of imagination” as William Blake put it. The paradox of Hammersley’s intuitive MO is that nobody is more exacting. Indeed, the more subjective the process, the greater his display of rigor.17 Thus Hammersley’s palette knife shapes the hard edges of the “geometrics” without aid of masking tape, at once freehand and astonishingly precise. Leavening exactitude with spontaneity lends an element of surprise. Take, for instance, Love Me, Love My Dog (1972), selected by Hickey for “Beau Monde.” A dark band runs horizontally across the canvas’s middle third and rests on a square of the same color centered below, creating a giant T-shape. Given that the topmost band and the lower-right square of the canvas are painted in a homemade-mayonnaise hue and function as “ground,” we might expect the lower left corner to follow suit. Instead, Hammersley paints the lower left square an acid egg-yolky color. This new hue is related chromatically but it’s unexpected—and unerringly right.
Author: Arden Reed is the Arthur and Fanny M. Dole Professor of English at Pomona College and the author of Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Constance De Jong: Metal (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).
1. McLaughlin’s work, reflecting his long stays in Japan, is meditative and uncluttered to the point of austerity, its palette restricted. Feitelson (who from 1956 to 1963 hosted a Sunday morning NBC television program broadcast from L.A. called “Feitelson on Art”) reached what he called his hard-edge “magical space forms” via “post-surrealism”; thereafter straight lines gave way to organically inspired, sensuous curves. Benjamin began by painting symbolic landscapes, which turned into interlocking abstract forms—bars, grids, shapes suggestive of nature—in surprising, sometimes outlandish colors.
2. Jules Langsner, Four Abstract Classicists, exh. cat., San Francisco, Koltum Brothers, 1959, p. 8.
3. Not that he disappeared altogether. In the 1960s, Hammersley had solo shows at the La Jolla and Santa Barbara museums, in the 1970s at the University of New Mexico (he also won a Guggenheim Award in 1973), in the ’80s at Cal State Northridge, and at the Mulvane in Topeka in the ’90s. He appeared in group shows at the Corcoran and LACMA in 1977.
4. Claudine Humblet, La Nouvelle Abstraction Américaine 1950-1970, 3 vols., Paris, Skira, 2003, vol. 1, pp. 423-67.
5. Interviewed Jan. 15 and 16, 2003, for the UCLA Oral History Program, Department of Special Collections, Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Hereafter cited as “Weschler interview.”
6. Interview with the author, Nov. 7, 2003.
7. Weschler interview, p. 219.
8. Interview with the author, Oct. 9, 2003.
9. Interview with the author, Nov. 7, 2003.
10. Weschler interview, p. 75.
11. Ibid., p. 214.
12. Dave Hickey cited in LA Weekly, July 30, 2001, p. 32.
13. Interview with the author, Jan. 10, 2004.
14. Weschler interview, p. 196.
15. For Hammersley’s views on many 20th-century American and European artists, see Weschler’s interview, passim. For Hammersley’s distinctiveness see Kathleen Shields, “Paintings from Left Field,” Art in America, January 1991, pp. 124-27, 153.
16. Frederick Hammersley, Poles a Part: An exhibit of black and white paintings March-April 1984, Albuquerque, Hoshour Gallery, 1984, pp. 5-6.
17. In his 1959 catalogue essay, Langsner wrote, “An Abstract Classicist painting . . . represents a rational crystallization of intuitive experience.” See Langsner, p. 9.