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Spotlight, FREDERICK HAMMERSLEY

“Painting is just like living. After you make the first move, every other move is related to it,” Frederick Hammersley once remarked. In his life, as in his work, one thing has just seemed to lead to another. He describes the beginning of his artistic career, when he was still in his teens, as a stint painting signs for a movie theater, for the princely sum of a dollar for an afternoon’s work. After he received encouragement for this work, art school was the logical next step.

Hammersley subsequently attended Chouinard and Jepson in Los Angeles, and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, with time out in between to run the art department of the Information and Education Section Office of Military Government in Frankfurt and Berlin, during and immediately following World War II. The combination of classical art training and the opportunity to study at first hand the great works housed in the museums of Europe developed both his hand and his eye. It only remained for Hammersley to find his own individual vision. "I was painting art school studies, but I didn't really know why. At a certain point I just couldn't do it any more."

The resolution to this dilemma came about quite by accident, to hear Hammersley tell it. In fact it was a prime example of his willingness and ability to wait for the next "move" to appear, and to grasp the opportunity when it arose. He had decided to paint a self-portrait and had divided the canvas into 16 rectangles as a basis for the composition. Then, as he considered the next step, a solid blue shape presented itself to his mind as the "right" thing for one of the rectangles -- a shape and color having nothing to do with the painting of his face that he had planned. He vacillated, unsure of which course to pursue, but ultimately decided to paint the square as he saw it in his imagination. As soon as the new shape and color (or colorform, as the elements in his paintings later came to be called) were down on the canvas, an adjacent square attracted his attention. With less hesitation, he followed his impulse and filled in the "right" color and shape; before long, the empty canvas had become a painting and Hammersley had found the direction he had been seeking.

This direction has provided a rich field of inquiry. Hammersley has been particularly interested in resolving oppositions between contrasting colors and shapes. In pursuing this goal, he has developed a process that involves a notebook of initial ideas with rudimentary drawings and another notebook with more detailed drawings of ideas that appear promising; these notebooks are in themselves works of art. Once he has settled on an idea, Hammersley applies one colorform at a time to the canvas, waiting as long as it takes for the next one to appear clearly in his imagination as "right" for the painting. He calls these "hunch paintings" and compares the process to the structure of a pinecone, in which the shape and placement of each element is dependent on those that surround it.

This analogy applies equally to the course of his career. By paying attention to the immediate next step in developing his art, Hammersley has created a body of work that has been exhibited in major museums and is represented in important collections. He takes it all in stride, confident that his intuition will continue to supply him with the right next move.