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FREDERICK HAMMERSLEY

by Bill Lasarow

(Laguna Art Museum, Orange County) It is rare--especially today--that an artist’s public career begins, rather than culminates, with a landmark museum exhibition. When Jules Langsner included Frederick Hammersley among the Four Abstract Classicists in 1959 that is just what happened. This methodical, analytical artist and teacher, who approached his work in a scientific spirit, thus took a central, if low key, role among the new movements that displaced Abstract Expressionism from it’s unusal perch atop the American art world.

That the rigor and purity expressed in that landmark exhibition brought earlier abstract theses (the Cubism of Braque, the Purism of Ozenfant, the Supremetism of Malevitch, the Plasticism of Mondrian) to bear on the time’s nearly universal angst and theatricality proved more than a reactionary critique. It helped mark the end of the immediate post-war era. The horror of it all now gave way to the impulse towards art for art’s sake. A new generation of local artists would soon invent what became Light and Space art and then Finish Fetish--by turns purist and hedonistic in spirit. In New York, reductivism was simultaneously taking shape into a new Minimalist aesthetic.


"City Limits," oil on linen, 12 x 15", 1991.




Page from a painting notebook.

 

Page from a title notebook.









"Cool de Sac #29," o/c, 14 x 14", 1977.
What remains an anomaly about Hammersley in particular, and his fellow Abstract Classicists by degree, is the intimacy and modesty of his approach. This was and remains true both artistically and personally. We don’t see his paintings exceed four feet, and most often they are under 18 inches. Hammersley for many years did oil paintings six to a page in sketchbooks--and insisted that these were finished works of art, not studies. And while he exhibited regularly at museums (Pasadena, Santa Barbara, La Jolla) and galleries (Heritage, L.A. Louver, and later Modernism) in California he eschewed the New York caldron altogether. Indeed, when he did leave Los Angeles it was to settle into a university position in Albuquerque, New Mexico over thirty years ago.

The analytical character of Hammersley’s work is evident from the start of his career, as Red, Yellow, Black and White [1947] demonstrates. He was among the flood of World War II veterans who entered college in the late forties at a relatively advanced age (late twenties) and with a focus and purposefulness that still sets the war generation apart. That early small still life is realistic, full of dense, considered surfaces. It was then followed by fourteen abstract variations, one more focused than the previous. #14 pays respectful homage to Braque while yielding nothing to the master.

Over the first twenty years of his post-graduate career Hammersley engaged in a lengthy investigation of the organization of flat geometric forms within a square or rectangular format. This was spiced by equally methodical experiments with title ideas (he kept notebooks exclusively for jotting them down), computer printouts combining visual patterns with letters and punctuation marks (think 1970, not 2000), and photography translating aspects of the figure into abstract form.

In 1980-81 this all suddenly came to an end. Returning to the roots of the figure, a small self portrait, About Face [1980] announces the shift both in its straightforward depiction and punning title. The tried and true routine of engaging in figure drawing sessions may have brought Hammersely back to the freshness of organic line, but it served essentially as an ingress into a new series of organic abstractions that continue to the present. Forms remain as flat as ever, but the shapes and compositions are much more playful, rich with reference, and even sexy in their connotations than the earlier generation of works. Interlocking, wiggly-edged forms jostle for position in works such as City Limits [1991]. They grow like plants out of one another in Front and Center [1996]. They read like still life objects, in an homage to Helen Lundeberg, Meeting of Kinds #9 [1990]. And the old days are revisited in Deja View [1996], a metaphorical pair of windows or mirrors that embrace the artist’s past and an implied, affirmative future that begins as Hammersley enters his ninth decade.