Home   Index

Frederick Hammersely
The Comeback Classicist

<>Elizabeth Cook-Romero
Pasatiempo, The New Mexican, July 7, 2006

Hammersley in his Albuquerque studio, June 2006

Imagine a weird science-fiction novel, with a time capsule that could reinvent itself constantly. And when opened, its ever-changing message would represent the past far more accurately
than any static collection of objects. Frederick Hammersley’s modest Albuquerque house is such a capsule.

Every wall carries an asymmetrical yet oddly balanced arrangement of Hammersley’s work. And because the eye gets jaded and stops looking intensely at an object it has seen too often,
Hammersley explained, he changes each photograph, drawing, and painting every two weeks. On a recent afternoon, the installation included a photograph that the 87-year-old artist took
of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower walking on the Champs-Élysées shortly after the Allies retook Paris during World War II, several photographs of a favorite model’s chubby knees, a
computer-generated abstraction Hammersley made in the late 1960s, spontaneous colored-pencil drawings from the 1950s, tiny and precise black-and-white prints in hand-carved
frames, stark geometric abstractions in primary colors, realistic nudes and still-life paintings from the 1940s, and small biomorphic abstrac-tions he created over the past few years.

When Hammersley shows a visitor around his home, he pauses at every work of art. Like an affectionate father, he seems not to prefer one of his creations more than another. He smiles
and answers every question, providing rich details about all the pieces — even a student drawing made more than a half- century ago of a woman in an elaborate dress. The dress,
Hammersley remembered, was a theater costume borrowed by a model at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. During the 1940s, he lived and studied in France on the G.I. Bill.

By 1959, Hammersley, who was then living in Los Angeles, was among the “Four Abstract Classicists” whose successful show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art heralded a shift
in American art — their cool, flat, smooth paintings seemed the polar opposite of Abstract Expressionism. While he was still in Los Angeles, Hammersley said, he found himself, for the
first time, without ideas for new paintings. The terrifying dry spell passed, he added, but it happened again when he accepted a teaching position at the University of New Mexico in 1968.
After overcoming painter’s block a second time, Hammersley said, he understood that inspiration was not something he could control. It is a magical commodity dispensed by a
temperamental muse that he calls a librarian.

“Painting taught me to trust my feelings; logic has nothing to do with it,” Hammersley continued. “My librarian is working all the time — when I talk to you, when I play with my cat.” She is
gathering and cataloging everything, and occasionally she sends him the composition for a painting, he added.

Shortly after Hammersley arrived in Albuquerque, UNM upgraded its IBM mainframe computer system — a giant that filled rooms and was programmed with punch cards. Hammersley
was invited to make art on the decidedly user-unfriendly machine. He visualized the weight or darkness of each printed keyboard symbol, and he wrote programs that used that lightness
and darkness to make abstractions that look like decadelong charts of moon phases, ellipses of planetary rotation, and woozy musical scores.

Frederick Hammersley: Hard Edge, opening at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art on Saturday, July 8, combines the soft grays of the computer-generated abstractions with the stark and
saturated colors of the artist’s better-known hard-edge oil paintings. A few of his more spontaneous “hunch” drawings and paintings bring the spirit of the show closer to the inclusive
arrangements found in the artist’s home.

Hammersley’s working methods are sometimes direct and some-times painstakingly slow. When he makes “hunch” paintings, he doesn’t like to mix colors because his initial idea loses its
edge during the time spent mixing, he explained. He keeps his paint tubes in neat rows, and above each is a paint chip displaying the color both in an undiluted state and mixed with white.
As a shape enters his mind, Hammersley reaches for the color closest to what he visualizes and paints it quickly with a palette knife.

The hard-edge paintings begin as tiny pencil drawings in note-books. Hammersley calls these thumbnail sketches “thinking out loud.” Each page of a book, only 6 by 8 inches, holds 30
drawings. “I review these all the time,” Hammersley said, pointing to the dates penciled on the first page of one book — early 1960s through 1980. The small, worn volume represents
almost 20 years of thinking.

“If you make a good thing, sometimes it has a long fuse,” he noted. At times he sees elements in decades-old drawings that are so exciting he has to get up and leave the room.

When he sees an interesting aspect of a thumbnail, Hammersley said, he copies it into a book that is just a little larger. The second set of drawings are six to a page and painted in oils. The
paintings in the big book are exactly 4.3125 by 4.3125 inches. Hammersley puts a check mark above the images he has later painted on 45-inch-square canvases. One of the big books
was dated 1979 to 1986. On some pages almost every image was checked; other pages had only one mark; some had none.

“I don’t make a painting unless it feels right,” Hammersley said. “In a good year, I make eight paintings.” After his initial success as one of the “Four Abstract Classicists,” the world forgot
Hammersley. “When I came to New Mexico, there was no gallery pressure, no museum pressure,” he said, so he painted when he had ideas. A 1999 show at the Museum of Fine Arts in
Santa Fe led to a review in the Los Angeles Times and rediscovery. Since then, Hammersley said, he is selling substantial numbers of paintings for the first time. In the art world, he added,
timing is everything, and it helps to live a long time.


Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, Contemporary American and European Art