By Wesley Pulkka,
March 7, 2004
Internationally renowned abstract artist Frederick Hammersley at 85 is busier than ever. His solo show of new work that blends classical modernism and personal intuition opens Saturday at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art in Santa Fe.
"We will be showing a beautiful selection of his hard-edge paintings, hunch paintings and organic abstractions," gallery owner Charlotte Jackson said. "This is a man who is really about painting. From my perspective he is the root of color-based painting. When he talks about colors in his painting he refers to them as actors that are in a kind of dialogue with one another."
Jackson explained that Hammersley calls his most intuitive works hunch paintings because they are not based on his usually rigorous drawing and planning process. She said in many of his works he treats his paintings as a director treats a stage set. Jackson also mentioned photographer and pioneer computer artist.
Though focused on abstraction, Hammersley's body of work includes many self-portraits, full-figure drawings and still-life renderings that would be the envy of most realist artists. During a recent studio visit Hammersley discussed the importance of drawing.
"If the painter is the king, then drawing is the queen of painting," he said. "Drawing provides the protein in a painting. It's the power behind the throne. It disturbs me that many young artists are not being taught the value of drawing these days."
Though his current exhibitions and interviews consume most of his waking hours, Hammersley says he enjoys all of his activities.
"I used to paint every morning, have lunch, do some shopping and then paint until evening. Now it's upside down. I'm spending a lot of time on daily household maintenance, mailings, slide reproduction and telephone calls. I hardly have the time and energy to paint anymore."
Though management of his personal collection that spans 60 years of continuous production is taking most of his time, Hammersley is still in love with art making. He said he is still learning from the small selection of his works that he keeps at his home in Albuquerque.
"I think to renew interest in a particular painting it's good to put it away for a while and live with something else," Hammersley said.
Former University of New Mexico Art Museum director Peter Walch wrote a catalog essay for "Visual Puns and Hard Edge Poems: Works by Frederick Hammersley," a 1999 exhibition organized by New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts curator Joseph
Walch wrote that Hammersley, Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and John McLaughlin introduced "hard-edge" painting to the world and helped to change the direction of art in America in the late 1950s when the group known as the Abstract Classicists had their first exhibition. Hard-edge painting tends to be geometric abstractions rendered with a sharp, hard edge.
The show opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1959, then traveled to Los Angeles, London and Belfast, Ireland.
Walch said that the group's "finish fetish" approach to art opened the door to artists like Larry bell and others who pursued post-painterly-abstraction and minimalism during the 1960s.
"My hard-edge abstraction was a reaction to what (abstract expressionist) De Kooning had done that left us without a yardstick," Hammersley said. "I was looking for an internal logic and structure that fit in with what I had been taught about art."
In pursuit of meaning, Hammersley developed journals to record his word play and imagery. He used thousands of phrases, geometric shapes and colors as a means to find order and structure in his thoughts. When something clicked, he would note it down and transfer the image and/or phrase to a larger scale notebook where he made final color and shape choices before committing the idea to canvas.
Traugott said over the years Hammersley has managed to distill the essence from words, phrases and imagery in a truly remarkable way.
"One body of (his) work that hasn't been fully appreciated are his computer-based drawings where the words and images are fully integrated," he said. "I think his computer art spurred a deeper search for the integration of words and images that few other artists have achieved. Hammersley uses words as parallel structures with the images in a truly unique way. The words are as profound as the images are. His titles are not tacked on, they complement the image."
Though hard working, dedicated and disciplined, Hammersley has never lost his sense of humor. During a studio visit, Hammersley picked up a painting that he made during his student days that included a penciled grid on canvas. He said he studied the blank canvas until one of the squares looked blue and painted it blue. Another appeared to be yellow ochre and so on until the canvas was covered in colored squares.
I just followed the feeling and made this painting. When I finished I burst out laughing and it was just marvelous. If I could paint without thinking that's for me," Hammersley said.
Hammersley was born in Salt Lake City in 1919 and studied at the University of Idaho, Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and the Jepson Art School in Los Angeles. His paintings have been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum; Museum of Modern Art in New York; SITE Santa Fe; the Albuquerque Museum; the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts; Gary Snyder Fine Art in New York; L.A. Louver in Venice, Calif.; Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque and many other institutions.
He also taught classes at Jepson Art School, Chouinard and the University of New Mexico.
"When you get to be my age you begin thinking in decades. The decade following my move to New Mexico was the most productive ever. I have never regretted moving here and I still enjoy the weather and the quiet," Hammersley said.