FH with sketchbooks croppedFrederick Hammersley, 2004 © Dan Barsotti
Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009) first gained critical recognition in 1959 as one of the "Four Abstract Classicists" along with Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin, whose paintings were featured that year in an exhibition of the same name. Curated by critic Jules Langsner and organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the exhibition opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland.

Four Abstract Classicists” has since been recognized as an important factor in putting West Coast abstraction on the map and as a significant counterpoint to Abstract Expressionism then particularly prominent on the East Coast. Langsner explained in his catalogue essay that as self-described “classicists” and in contrast to “expressionists,” these artists aspired to “balance—thought and feeling, intelligence and intuition, reason and emotion.” Feeling, far from absent in their art, is “distilled, rather than transferred in its primal state."frederick hammersley four abstract classicists cropLeft to right: Jules Langsner, Karl Benjamin, John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson, May 10, 1959

“Four Abstract Classicists” is also credited as the source of the term "hard-edge painting,” which Langsner used in the catalogue to describe the artists' use of flat, colored shapes applied to the canvas with sharply delineated edges. Abstract Classicism shared with Abstract Expressionism and other painting at the time a focus on abstraction and the modernist attitude toward flatness of surface, the absence of illusion, and the purity and independence of the medium of painting. As Langsner further noted in his essay:

Abstract Classicist painting is hard-edged painting. Forms are finite, flat, rimmed by a hard clean edge. These forms are not intended to evoke in the spectator any recollections of specific shapes he may have encountered in some other connection. They are autonomous shapes, sufficient unto themselves as shapes.

Hammersley had been well trained in traditional painting and drawing, studying in Los Angeles at Chouinard Art Institute from 1940-42 and 1946-47 and at Jepson Art Institute from 1947-50. While serving as an Army sergeant in World War II from 1942-45 he was stationed in Paris and after he was discharged in 1945, took the opportunity to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. He also visited the studios of Picasso, Brancusi, and Cezanne. During this time he began experimenting with abstract imagery and by the late 1940s after returning from Europe, he had begun systematically reducing traditional imagery into simple, flat, colored and patterned shapes. Upon his return to Southern California, he also taught at Jepson from 1948-51, at Pomona College in Claremont from 1953-62, at the Pasadena Art Museum from 1956-61, and at Chouinard from 1964-68.

Hammersley’s experiments with abstraction evolved into his “hunch” paintings, some of which were included in the “Four Abstract Classicists” exhibition, and which completely eliminated all representational imagery. Starting with a shape for which he intuitively chose a color, he would then proceed to complete the work by adding shapes and colors by "feeling," or "hunch." As he was quoted in the catalogue essay:

frederick hammersleyFrederick Hammersley, ca. 1959 with Shapescape, 1958 (Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) At first I would paint a shape that I would 'see' there. That one coloured shape in that canvas would work, or fit. The next shape would come from the feeling of the first plus the canvas. This process would continue until the last shape completed the picture.

The structure making is of prime importance. Until this is right nothing further can be done. After the picture works in line the shapes 'become' colours. I answer the hunch as it comes.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Hammersley transitioned to works composed almost exclusively of circles and straight lines and which evolved more obviously from the shape of the canvas—the geometric hard-edge paintings for which he eventually became best known. In contrast to the “hunch” paintings, the “geometrics” developed from linear compositions and color schemes systematically tried out in sketchbooks. He mapped out on canvas the compositions he chose to execute and painted them with a palette knife, never using tape to create their precise hard edges. Beginning in 1959 Hammersley recorded almost every painting he made through 2008 in his series of “painting books” which document in detail the materials and processes he used for each one.

Hammersley considered titles an important part of each work and began recording possibilities for them as well, writing down stream-of-consciousness phrases that often were double entendres, puns, or other witty plays on words. Over five decades he accumulated over 100 loose-leaf “title pages” from which he continually drew for the names of his paintings. The titles often inform the interactions and relationships of forms within the painting or drawing, providing the viewer with verbal insight into his non-objective compositions.

Hammersley at SBMA 1965 croppedFrederick Hammersley, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1965As Hammersley continued to explore possibilities for his geometric paintings in the 1960s, the first phase of “organic” paintings emerged. Unlike the “geometrics,” the compositions of these paintings were comprised of organic shapes hand drawn directly on chipboard panel with pencil or charcoal and painted with a brush in flat unmodulated color.

This first phase of “organics” was twofold and short-lived, a first group produced in late 1963 and early 1964 and a second group in January and February of 1965. Hammersley challenged himself to make each painting in one day and cut up some of them into squares or rectangles and reassembled them in a grid format, integrating the organic and the geometric into completely new, complex compositions.

While Hammersley explored a range of media and approaches to making art during the 1960s, including drawings, collage, prints, mosaics, and photography, his painting production decreased in the late 1960s and in 1968 he made no paintings at all. In the same year he moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico where he was introduced to Art1, one of the earliest programs for making art using a computer, and from late 1968 to early 1970 made hundreds of computer-generated drawings. In 1969 he wrote about his experience in an essay published in the journal Leonardo:

This happened to coincide with a time in which I had painted myself out, so I welcomed this new experience. I was shown how to prepare a computer program and how to transfer it to an IBM punch card by machine. The alphanumeric characters we could ‘draw’ with were: the alphabet, ten numerals and eleven symbols, such as periods, dashes, slashes, etc….It took me some time to get used to this medium. What I intended to make did not always correspond to the program I thought I had punched in the card. I made many mistakes which the computer, in its logical way, would not print. The intricacies and possibilities seem endless and I have spent a great deal of time simply trying to master the mechanics of this particular technique.

Making computer drawings was not completely unlike painting for Hammersley. Although he was not making the drawings with his hands, he was stimulated by the seemingly endless possibilities as well as the limitations the medium offered. And, as with his paintings, he was challenged by finding “a kind of marriage of opposites” in the images he produced whose “elements must occupy the entire working area.”

frederick hammersley UNMAMFrederick Hammersley, A Retrospective Exhibition, University of New Mexico Art Museum, 1975In 1971, recharged with ideas from these other activities, Hammersley resigned from the university to devote himself full time to making art. The next decade was one of his most prolific as he produced a large number of geometric paintings—mostly square, based on an implicit grid, and of varying scale but no more than 45 by 45 inches—as well as numerous prints and drawings, thanks in part to a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA grants, and invitations from Tamarind Institute.

The second phase of organic paintings began in the early 1980s and was produced concurrently with geometric paintings. Smaller than the first phase and rarely larger than 12 by 14 inches, they were painted on wood panels, masonite, or rag paper or linen on wood panels and are more intimate and complex in form than the early organics. Some also include rare gradations from one color to another within one shape. Each painting is mounted in a unique, wooden frame which Hammersley crafted using hand tools, specifically for each painting and posing a balanced contrast to the clean, hard-edge painting it holds. Hammersly portrait organicsFrederick Hammersley, ca. 1989Like each work’s title, each frame lends an additional element to the work. By the late 1990s his painting activity had shifted almost exclusively to these tactile, small-scale works.

Hammersley experimented with a wide range of media throughout his long career, including sculpture, graphic design, lithography, serigraphy, collage, constructions, and even sun prints. He consistently drew from life, especially the figure, as well as from the Masters whom he studied in depth, indicating that although abstraction fascinated him, he always stayed grounded in looking at the world around him and maintained his ability to render what he saw. Even his non-objective drawings and abstract portraits are enriched by the sense of touch of his hand and the deep source of his imagery.                     

Beginning in the mid-1990s a renewed interest in Hammersley's work, as well as in the cultural milieu in which hard-edge painting was formed, resulted in a number of significant exhibitions and a commercial success he had enjoyed only intermittently during his career.

Although his health had been failing for several years before he died in 2009, he continued to paint and draw whenever possible until the day before his death. He left a rich legacy of artwork, students, colleagues, and friends, and a vibrant attitude toward life that carries on in his paintings, drawings, and writings.