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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Artist's Paintings Focus on Classic Abstraction

By Wesley Pulkka
For the Journal
    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 sincere.
    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.

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