Lot 169: Frederick Hammersley
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In the autumn of 1967 Frederick Hammersley gave a series of lectures in Claremont, California in which he laid out and elaborated on what he considered to be the seven essential elements of the painter's language: shape, line, value, color, form, pattern, and texture. Over the course of these talks, Hammersley continually returned to the importance of shape above the other elements. "Of all the tools - shape - I feel is needed before you can do anything else," he asserted. "Value, color, pattern and the rest cannot exist unless there is an edge where they begin and end. This edge of the shape, this boundary can be of many different kinds, either clearly defined, or soft and vague. The character of the edge can either emphasize or reduce, but it never destroys the shape."
The body of geometric, "Hard edge" work that resulted from this postulation is that which is most often associated with Hammersley, who would pursue the same idiom throughout the rest of his career. Paintings, such as his 1967 Home run, would begin as rhythmically orchestrated studies in sketchbooks. In these studies Hammersley explored the interactions between shape and color on geometric grids that ultimately plotted out their arrangements for the canvas. "At first I would paint a shape that I would 'see' there," Hammersley noted. "That one colored 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." It is in this dynamic between the intuitive and the systematic that lends an element of exuberance to the precise, economical style of Hammersley's most well-known works, including Home run.
Speaking of his geometric abstractions in another lecture entitled "About My Painting" Hammersley identified what he considered a recurrent theme in his work: "It is the creating of a harmony of opposites, but most important, the interaction of these opposites creates a third thing, outside the identity of the shapes themselves." This third thing, he explained, is not something that is easily articulated, but undoubtedly felt: "I know that an area of quiet can suggest action, and an active shapes group can suggest repose."
That Hammersley would speak of his paintings as dealing in the undefined comes as no surprise, given that his practice was largely rooted in the intuitive. Hammersley divided his works into three distinct categories: "hunches," "organics," and "geometrics." "The structure making is of prime importance," Hammersley stressed. "Until this is right nothing further can be done. After the picture works in line the shapes 'become' colors. I answer the hunch as it comes." Hammersley's geometrics also embraced intuition, but in a different respect. In spite of their very precise compositions and clearly delineated color fields, Hammersley's geometric works such as Home run rely on a kind of haphazard, yet systematic form of free association.
In Hammersley's paintings "the parameters are where the arbitrary lies," as curator James Glisson puts it. Hammersley's works attest to an acknowledgement that "art comes from a letting go or a loosening of control" even as they understand 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?" In a 1984 talk entitled "Life Can be, Black & White" given at Hoshour Gallery in Albuquerque Hammersley himself addressed these questions: "I settled on the square because it is neutral. It demands nothing from you. A vertical canvas, on the other hand being mildly aggressive, has a tendency to make you stand up. A horizontal canvas, being passive, has a tendency to make you lie down. A square is neither of these. It is noncommittal. It is the actor shapes put on this square that may make you stand up, lie down, or feel stimulated. It is a combination of opposites—no comment, with a comment."
Free association also played a role with regard to how Hammersley selected the playful titles for his works. "The idea is to eliminate judgment and let the image prompt whatever words of phrases that come," he said. "The title is right when it does what the painting does—at least two different things. At times the title will look one way, yet sound another, or be a pun, etc. Like the painting, it must be more than what it is." Titles were never an afterthought for Hammersley, who ardently insisted that they play an active role in how a work generates meaning. "As the observer looks at a painting he experiences changes and shifts of relationships. Likewise, when he considers the title he should be able to experience various shades of meaning that echo those found in the painting. The title and the painting contribute one to the other—an exchange of meaning the observer creates for himself."
"Frederick Hammersley at the Huntington: Stefanie Sobelle interviews James Glisson," Los Angeles Review of Books, December 29, 2017.
Hammersley, Frederick. "Talk #1 (of 6) Methodist Church, Claremont." Frederick Hammersley Foundation.