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ahead of his time - The Art of Frederick Hammersley

Ashleigh Morris, Hollis Walker, Santa Fean magazine, September, 2004


Extremely orderly, Frederick Hammersley stacks his paintings in his studio by year and, within each year, by size. On the end of each canvas, he makes a small sketch of the image in miniature, for reference. His trademark notebooks-works of art themselves-are filled, six images per page, with his small-scale explorations of color and shape. He uses these as studies for full-size paintings, eventually transposing his favorites into oils with a palette knife. In another book, he free-associates words in long, finely scripted lists until a certain combination seems to fit a particular work, resulting in playful titles-such as Batteries Included or Add Less-To identify the strongly geometric paintings he creates.

Hammersley's methodical approach to art and organization isn't surprising. The 85-year-old painter is one of four artists whose landmark work in 1950s Los Angeles came to be known as the school of Hard-Edge Painting. In contrast to the ideas of the contemporaneously developing New York Abstract Expressionists-whose work relied, in part, on spontaneity and chance (think of Jackson Pollock's splattered canvases)-Hammersley and his cohorts intellectualized the interplay of geometric forms and colors. What is surprising is the level of renewed interest in Hammersley's work, which hasn't changed significantly in almost half a century. "Geometric paintings were unpopular. I was unpopular-invisible--for years,' Hammersley says. Not anymore.
Hammersley gained critical acclaim early on. In 1959, Los Angeles Times art critic Jules Langsner saw the connections among him and his West Coast contemporaries-Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin-and culled their work into the show Four Abstract Classicists, at the Los Angeles County Museum. The exhibit traveled to San Francisco, Belfast, and London- where Hammersley recalls one of his paintings selling for $500-but his work attracted little attention at the time. "It was so brand-new I assumed people couldn't relate to it," he says.

The buzz is different these days. "Now people are saying, - Remember those guys who were painting back in the '40s and '50s in California? They were fabulous," says Charlotte Jackson, owner of Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, the Santa Fe gallery where Hammersley shows.

Jackson isn't the only supporter. 'He's a very serious, witty, and cerebral artist," says Joe Traugott, curator of 20th-century art fir New Mexico's Museum of Fine Arts. "He's also content to hang out in his studio in Albuquerque, never needing any more exposure than that." Traugott, a self-confessed Hammersley admirer, wouldn't let that happen. Instead, in 1999, Traugott organized a one-person retrospective, Visual Puns and Hard-Edge Poems. The show helped re-ignite the contemporary art world's interest in the octogenarian. "Some art folks from California saw the exhibit here, which led to other shows," Traugort says. The work also caught the attention of Dave Hickey, curator of SITE Santa Fe's 2001 biennial, Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism, who included Hammersley's work.
Following his own technique. which he calls "hunch painting," Hammersley stares at a canvas until a form or a hue begins to appear in his mind. He then draws or paints what he sees, waiting for another flash of intuition before adding to the work. The result: visually striking contrasts that seem to resonate with the viewer.

Raised in the tiny town of Blackfoot, Idaho, Hammersley served in World War II, then attended Chouinard and Jepson art schools in Los Angeles on the GI Bill. After college, and for most of his career, Hammersley went his own way, eschewing New York for California. He supported himself by teaching art at colleges in the Los Angeles area before raking a job at the University of New Mexico. He taught in Albuquerque for three years, then quit to focus on painting. The shift paid off: In the 1970s he received a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.
Although he hasn't painted regularly since 1996, the artist's days are far from empty. All of a sudden, there's this fame-and-fortune thing," says Jackson. "At 85, it's appropriate that Frederick Hammersley is finally reaching stardom."