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March 14 - May 2, 2009 at Couturier Gallery
and Denenberg Fine Arts, both West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

Early California Modernist Edward Hagedorn (1902-1982) is seen in a wide-ranging display of 75 works created over a twenty-year period from the 1920s through the 1940s. Hagedorn’s media, like his images, were diverse and include paintings on paper, drawings and prints. At a time in the early 20th century, when most California artists were creating landscapes and coastal views, Hagedorn embraced Expressionism and Surrealism to create work that was highly charged with chromatic boldness or cartoon symbolism. Though he exhibited regularly in joint exhibitions from the 1920s, Hagedorn remained an obtusely individual artist throughout his career, spending most of his time sequestered in his studio producing work. He was monetarily independent so he was free to pursue his own artistic vision in an eccentric procession of paintings that ran the gamut from formal studies of nudes to graphic political iconography.

In 1927, when Hagedorn exhibited a painting of a female nude at the Oakland Museum, his censorious Prussian father disowned him for the public showing. This was an event which undoubtedly contributed to Hagedorn’s obdurate pursuit of his solitary vision. He was working at this time with his friend Paul Carey out of a studio on the legendary “Monkey Block” of Montgomery Street in San Francisco. In describing his colleague, Carey remarked that “Ed was an outsider, a ‘loner,’ a tall thin man with a hooked nose who walked the street looking like a question mark; he had no use for success.”

All of Hagedorn’s work exhibits a striking boldness. The 1935 oil-on-paper painting of a “Female Nude” reduces the human form to a tumbling simplicity with wide black lines enclosing ochre skin tones. The need to render a head atop these reductive circularities is dispensed with completely. Hagedorn cut to the essence of representation with renditions that are always purely graphic in both his paintings and his drawings.

Two landscape paintings on paper are no less reductive. “Bare Trees, Blue Mountains” is sculptural in its elementary rendering of a few simple volumes with primary colors. The chromatic elements inhabit a bounding line. Flat splashes of color are held within the highly-controlled mastery of a graphic infrastructure.  Two simple blue trees standing in front of childlike triangle mountains look as if they had been cast in bronze after first being stripped of most of their leaves and limbs.

"Female Nude," 1935, oil on paper.

"Anxiety," graphite and
gouache on paper.

"Night Attack," 1925, graphite
and gouache on paper.

"Green Mountains, Pale
Lightning," oil on paper.

The painting titled “Green Mountains, Pale Lightning” is even more reductive. A dark blue jangle of triangle mountains rests beneath a solid black sky shot through with a single jagged stroke of flat, white lightning. This work is a minimalistic marvel in the way that so few elements have been arranged to convey so much. The intensity of the imagery is almost solely derived from its simplicity.

Hagedorn’s black-and-white graphite and gouache drawings on paper prove how superfluous the use of color in graphic design can be. The highly symbolic drawing titled “Anxiety” is one of the most visually complex among the works on view. In this vaulting allegory, a hapless group of individuals are seen about to be buried in an avalanche of falling cubes. Similarly, the drawing “The Web” depicts a giant spider approaching a few poor souls trapped within its design. The drawing “Night Attack” depicts a lone soldier traversing across a nocturnal battlefield with a single stride against a landscape which is almost totally black and punctuated by only a few moonlit fence posts in the background.

Despite his solitary activity, Hagedorn did receive acclaim in his lifetime when Galka Scheyer, founder of the Pasadena Museum, invited him to join the “Blue Four” group of artists. Perfectly in character, he rejected her offer. But he continued to produce work of stunning power right up to his death in 1982. As the history of California art continues to be written, this exhibition argues that the work of Edward Hagedorn should find a place of increasing significance within it.