Frederick Hammersley at the Huntington

By Stefanie SobelleDecember 29, 2017

Frederick Hammersley at the Huntington
THE ABSTRACT ARTIST Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009) spent his career in Los Angeles and Albuquerque teaching at Chouinard Art Institute, Pomona College, and the University of New Mexico. His works are in the collections of many museums, including the Victoria and Albert, National Gallery of Art, and Menil Collection. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is currently featuring an essential introduction to his work, the exhibit Frederick Hammersley: To Paint without Thinking, running from October 21, 2017 to January 22, 2018, and then traveling to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, where it will be on display from May 26 to September 9, 2018. In November, I had the opportunity to see the exhibit with one of its curators, James Glisson, who also edited a beautiful accompanying exhibit catalog, and we were joined by a friend who was conducting research at the Huntington, where I too am a reader. We discussed Hammersley’s process, his interest in systems, his humor, the abundance of archival materials through which the curators sifted, and — maybe because it was just before Thanksgiving — wondered at the many references to food and eating in his titles. Paint and text seemed to be consumable, in a sense, for Hammersley, the act of viewing his art a kind of devouring.


STEFANIE SOBELLE: For readers who have not heard of Frederick Hammersley, or who do not know much about him or his work, what should they know before coming into the exhibit?

JAMES GLISSON: Hammersley is best known for exhibiting in Jules Langser’s show Four Abstract Classicists in 1959, and for his crisply painted geometric abstractions, which are now in many public collections beyond California and New Mexico, the two states in which he lived. He makes elegant and often slightly playful abstractions that nonetheless have a gnomic, impenetrable quality, as non-objective abstraction often does. Laconic is the word I end up using to describe a lot of his work. It has a withholding quality — what possible relationship can titles like Love Me, Love My Dog, Mutual fund, Power steering, or For awhile have to their paintings? — but the effect is one of a paradox to savor. Hammersley was never an ideologue or a theorizer; he is no Malevich or Mondrian contemplating a fourth dimension or the absolute. With his playful titles and jaunty colors, he made abstraction less serious. He compares looking at paintings to eating, of all things.

How did you come to curate this exhibit? What was your selection process? 

In doing a little information gathering on a Hammersley work given to the Huntington in 2013, I visited the Getty Research Institute and paged Hammersley’s sketchbooks, illustrated inventories, color swatches, and sheets of titles. That body of materials placed Hammersley’s hard-edge abstractions in the camp of rule-based practices, and his unusually disciplined archiving offered a rare window into the messiness and disorder at the core of creating anything. I knew then that I wanted to design a show of his work built around these materials. The temptation with the voluminous amount of Getty materials — hundreds of items — was to coat the walls to convey quantity. I rejected that approach in favor of a few selections to illuminate for the visitor aspects of Hammersley’s art-making/record-keeping — just enough to have a sense of his process.

© The Huntington

Although the show is about revealing the complexities of creating the geometric paintings, my goal was to deemphasize them in favor of works on paper and other areas in which he experimented. There are only five paintings in the exhibition, all in stunning condition — one of which hasn’t been displayed since the 1960s, and another, Like unlike, from a private collection, that Hammersley said was his most important.

You co-curated this exhibit with Alan Phenix, is that correct? Could you tell me a bit more about that collaboration?

Alan is a perfect collaborator; he brought his background as a chemist and paintings conservator to enrich the exhibition profoundly. Alan was involved at an early stage, and we traveled together in New Mexico for research. He is trained as a color scientist, and his understanding of the subtle shifts in the color spectrum is amazing. More to the point, he knows more about Hammersley’s artist materials and methods than anyone else. Alan calls Hammersley’s notebooks the mother lode for a conservator. Like a ship’s logbook or a scientist’s laboratory notes, they document each step of a painting’s construction, with dated entries and formulas for stretching, priming, painting each coat, and varnishing. Besides being much faster than laborious technical analysis, the notes alerted Alan to some odd materials, including an industrial-grade vinyl paint that Hammersley used as a primer.

Tell me a bit about the title of the exhibit, To Paint without Thinking — from where does that title come and what does it reveal about Hammersley’s work?

To Paint without Thinking comes from an interview with Hammersley published in 2009. The phrase “without thinking” peppers other interviews too. He did not mean something truly autonomous — like a generative algorithm, machine learning, or AI — rather art-making in which thinking is entrusted to process. Decisions were limited but not predetermined by constraints and rules. Rather than being intimidated by a welter of choices, he narrowed his options and within those got down to work. I have noticed in talking about constraints that people assume the art becomes mechanical or predetermined, but that is a misunderstanding. Take chess with its inflexible rules, fixed number pieces, and number of squares: The number of games is not infinite, but unimaginably large, or the order of 10 to 100th. With that many outcomes, it is not predetermined.

The second aspect of painting without thinking that matters is Hammersley’s keen awareness of what I’ll call for shorthand the unconscious — all those parts of the mind that operate in shadows. As much as something like painting is about being centered and present, he realized that thought happens behind a screen, out of view, and beyond conscious control. His methods were a way to open himself up to the fickle muse of painting.

Hammersley’s computer-generated drawings are a fascinating complement to his paintings — his play with letters, his patterning. How did he generate these drawings? How do you see them fitting into the larger body of work?

The computer drawings were made on a program called ART 1 written by Richard Williams and Katherine Nash in 1969. It was among the first programs designed specifically for visual artists, who couldn’t program in Fortran. Using punch cards, an IBM, and a printer, Hammersley worked by trial and error, feeding cards in, seeing the printed output, and adjusting until a good result was achieved. As the exhibition shows, Hammersley began shaping his practice around rules and procedures in the late 1940s, so by the late 1960s, he’d been working within systems, albeit his own as opposed to the protocols of ART 1, for two decades. He happened upon his perfect medium, one that hadn’t existed before.

© The Huntington

The digital interlude did not change the appearance of his painting, but the documentation of the paintings’ construction became exhaustively thorough after 1969. A computer program is nothing more than a set of instructions, and I think he must have started to think of the paintings as comparable to the outcome of a set of steps recorded in the Painting Books; ART 1, codified, is already a kind of thorough record-keeping.

Hammersley uses what seem like puns for many of his titles. How did he go about titling his work?

There are over 100 pages of densely covered pages of potential titles at the Getty. Although the sheets date from the 1950s right up to his death in 2009, it was only in the 1970s that he became systematic. By that time, each session was dated, and the string of words was noted. At one point, he describes the method using the term “free association.” In the mid-20th century, free association was a serious, clinical technique for probing the unconscious, and Hammersley adopted it as a tool to bypass what in interviews he called “mother,” by which he meant rules and the censorious inner voice. Sometimes the titles fit the painting, underscoring something in the artwork, and at other moments they don’t at all. In the exhibition, For awhile is the most gnomic title, but there are zanier ones not in show: Power steering, Mutual fund, Love Me, Love My Dog, and Sacred and profame. The puns are his way to push back against the specter of oppressive rationality, to fold in some levity and humor.

The sheet in the show contains some title strings, but also sketches of titled paintings. He is probably gathering together jottings from other pages, and reminding himself of titles he used — adding them up, so to speak.

Hammersley was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, studied in Pocatello, Idaho, and in Los Angeles, and died in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What was the role of the Southwest in his painting, and his impact on art in the Southwest? Especially Los Angeles?

The question of geography in Hammersley is entirely new to me. Some strains of abstraction reference landscapes. His do not, and his abstractions are placeless. From speaking with his friends, I know Hammersley valued the quiet and relative isolation of Albuquerque, though he was clearly a fixture in the New Mexico art scene. Alan’s research suggests that Hammersley chose artist’s materials that were less sensitive to the extremely low humidity of New Mexico. As for his individual impact, I suspect it is probably through his teaching at Chouinard, Jepson, and Pomona. His membership in the quartet that also included Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin, and Karl Benjamin is another way he shaped L.A. art. The hard-edge painters were probably the first recognized postwar avant-garde to come out of Los Angeles. They set the scene for Pop.

What do you mean by a hard-edge painter? 

Jules Langsner coined the term for his 1959 exhibition, and Lawrence Alloway, who brought the show to London, tied it to California when he retitled it, West Coast Hard-edge: Four Abstract Classicists. In diametrical opposition to the graphic looseness and emotional expressivity of Abstract Expressionism, these painters wanted their work to be cool and composed.

© The Huntington

How would you compare his work to that of some of his contemporaries, like Sol LeWitt, also interested in systems, or even John Cage, who also generated work through a computer?

Contemporaries like Sol LeWitt and John Cage — all of whom deal with systems, their limits, and way that the irrational acts as a dark aureole around a bright rational, ordered center — would have formed a bigger part of the catalog, space permitting. One goal of this show is to contextualize Hammersley’s practice within those more canonical artists of the 1960s and 1970s, whose questions about subjectivity, the demolition of the artist-genius, and the dematerialization of the object remain completely relevant today.

LeWitt sets up rules, lets them play out, and delegates through instructions and assistants. Cage embraced the aleatory. His massive computer-aided composition HPSCHD had seven players, dozens of tape players, and computer programs that generated random sounds. Hammersley does not dabble with pure chance, and he did not delegate.

Hammersley’s painting books are ex post facto archives, not instructions to be carried out. Where Hammersley is comparable, I think, is in his acknowledging that art comes from a letting go or a loosening of control, and for seeing that the arbitrary lies in axioms and ground rules. Why make a square painting in the first place? Why does a chessboard have 64 squares? The parameters are where the arbitrary lies. Hammersley delegated the selection of colors or determination to use a 16 square-matrix to his unconscious cognitive processes, rather than to a die or a set of instructions handed off to an assistant. From the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 distinctions to Stanislas Dehaene’s work on consciousness, contemporary science confirms that “thinking” happens out of view, as Sigmund Freud and William James argued long ago, and as Hammersley intuitively understood.

© The Huntington

What is something you discovered about Hammersley while curating this exhibit, something that possibly didn’t end up in the show?

There is a tiny spiral-bound notebook in the archive. Early in the project, it captured my attention — entry after entry, divided by pencil lines; no sense of dating or sequence; thoughts jotted down as they came, perhaps notes as he read. It shows him toying with possible titles: still a life, still a live; fete first, fate first. Or, noting a funny phrase, “There’s no method to my sanity.” He lists some books with abbreviated titles, including Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind, Sigmund Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Each entry is separated by a line. I wondered, what’s the thread? What is the convergence, other than the fact he wrote them down? At some point, it came to me that the jumping around acted as a prompt to stimulate and frustrate the mind’s restless searching for commonalities and analogies. I do not know the notebook’s purpose for Hammersley, but it helped me to appreciate that the push and pull between system and disorder, rules and spontaneity, acted as a creative engine. He lines bits of thoughts only to have them not add up, to deflect, and to play with expectations of order. With a curious blend of system and whimsy — the syncopation of an entry, a line, an entry, a line — this humble notebook, soft with use and wear, acted as a Rosetta Stone for an artist whom I never met and whose work has now occupied me for the past couple of years.


Photos courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


Stefanie Sobelle is the associate editor of fiction at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Stefanie Sobelle is an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College, where her scholarship focuses on the intersections of literature and architecture. Her criticism has been published in Bookforum, the Financial Times, BOMB, Words without Borders, Jacket2, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, among other publications.


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