Sunday, July 30, 2006
Artist's Paintings Focus on Classic
By Wesley Pulkka
The sight of the rubble-strewn
vacant lot where Santa Fe's Sweeney Center once stood gave me
culture shock as I crossed the street to visit Frederick
Hammersley's "Hard Edge" solo show at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art.
But Hammersley's clear-eyed, uncompromising, superbly crafted
paintings and drawings inspired by raw intuition tempered with logic
turned the world right side up again.
Charlotte Jackson satisfied my curiosity about the missing
building, torn down a year ago, by explaining that the project to
build a new Sweeney Center is on hold pending an ongoing and rather
massive archeological dig at the site.
Since no activity was obvious behind the chain link fences, I
opted to focus on the unburied treasures inside the gallery.
Hammersley is a master of what has become known as abstract
classicism. His impulse to codify and restructure abstraction in the
early 1950s was a direct response to the apparent chaos expressed by
Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
"My Hard Edge abstraction was a reaction to what De Kooning had
done that left us without a yardstick," Hammersley said in a 2004
interview. "I was looking for an internal logic and structure that
fit in with what I had been taught about art".
The wisdom of Hammersley and others' restructuring and
recontextualization of painting had a positive impact on younger
California artists like Larry Bell and Judy Chicago who pursued
"finish fetish" abstraction and minimalism during the 1960s.
The Jackson gallery devotes one wall to small colored pencil
drawings from 1950-51 that chronicle Hammersley's search for a new
core understanding of visual expression. "Watutsi," "Group Effort,"
"Pajamas," "By Ear I" and "Abacus" reveal an experimental and
experiential mind at work. My favorite is "Pajamas," a sketch of a
floating disintegrated checkerboard that seems both insouciant and
Hammersley eventually categorized his visual explorations into
notebooks filled with tiny sketches and designs some of which grew
into full scale paintings. His notebooks also acted as repositories
for thousands of color studies that trained and sensitized his eye.
His monkish discipline and years of study are manifested in this
breathtaking show that spans 44 years of work. Hammersley uses a
palette knife and a selection of brushes to maintain crisp edges and
inert surfaces in these geometrically informed paintings. They are
refreshingly as perfect as they need to be unlike much contemporary
art that relies on ideology over craftsmanship.
Unlike Piet Mondrian who moved elements and left the tracks of
those moves behind Hammersley plans and executes his paintings with
strategic precision. But, I don't find his work coldly analytical
like Joseph Albers' endless "Homage to the Square" series.
Hammersley's works like "Hot Cross" from 1994, "Hide and Speak"
from 1973 and "Come and Grow" from 1979 are friendly as well as
smart. This is idea driven art that remains alive through time.
In the midst of nine stalwart paintings and five more whimsical
colored pencil pieces is a large wall replete with 72
computer-generated drawings by Hammersley from 1969 that he created
in cooperation with the late Charles Mattox, who was a well-known
artist and longtime University of New Mexico faculty member.
Hammersley executed his drawings on one of UNM's early mainframe
computers using IBM punch cards to program his design parameters.
These drawings perfectly fit into Hammersley's abstract genre.
The wall is filled with rectangles, spirals, squares and circular
forms that interact with each other creating a low-level vibratory
effect. The compositions made up of repeating characters seem to be
in constant motion.
After long periods of what Hammersley describes as invisibility
he is rapidly gaining stature and recognition as an American pioneer
modernist. He has always taken his work seriously and maintained a
high level of quality in materials and workmanship that now stands
him in good stead.
These works made over four and a half decades are in perfect
condition and are as fresh and innovative as the day they were made.
This is a wonderful show.