Frederick Hammersley, Albuquerque Signman

Art Santa Fe Presents (Charlotte Jackson) and the Museum of New Mexico Press have just published Frederick Hammersley, a monograph covering the work of the Albuquerque artist who died age 90 last June.  Book signings will be were held Saturday at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and Sunday at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Frederick Hammersleys painting first struck me at Graham Gallery in 1989.  Subsequently, the computer drawings show at Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque in 93 was astounding, not just in the composition of each piece but in how Hammersley evoked a delicate sense of touch and light from glyph, plotter and common paper, through mechanical means. Blow a kiss to Walter Benjamin.  These qualities give the work a Japanese sense of “appearing” not found in American modernism, with its impetus to absolute objecthood.

The next knockout struck when Dave Hickey in the liquid atmosphere of his 2001 Site Santa Fe Biennial, installed Hammersley paintings flanking a simple rectangular opening, each a luminous pool.  I went to Art Santa Fe and bought what work of his I could afford, a Tamarind lithograph titled “Light Switch”.

Art Santa Fe Presents (Charlotte Jackson) and the Museum of New Mexico Press have just published Frederick Hammersley, a monograph covering drawing and painting from his student work until 2009, when he died at 90 in Albuquerque, where he had lived since 1968.  Every image is generously in color. Book signings will be held Saturday at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art from 2-4 p.m., and Sunday at the New Mexico Museum of Art, with a talk by museum curator Joseph Traugott, from 1-2 p.m.

Hickeys lead article is a kind of homage to the square:  the modest artist, his rectilinear dwelling, the shape of his paintings.  The division of space within each square painting may be either odd or even (or, as in Know Know, odd one axis, even the other).  Ive noticed many of the grids are 3 x 3, the classical “nine square cited by Colin Rowe as the basis for Palladios villa floor plans and Le Corbusiers Villa Garches.  Diagonals often cut through the grid – but unlike expressionist painting they are never gestural – but always structure pulling the composition into itself.  A Hammersley diagonal never carries beyond the paintings edge.

Joseph Traugott traces Hammersleys formation as an artist from postwar meetings with Picasso, Braques and Brancusi in Paris, through his 1959 Los Angeles breakthrough group show Four Abstract Classicists with fellow LA painters Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin and Helen Lundenberg.  He finishes the timeline with the Organics,  paintings that depart from the square with curved forms of interlocking color, soft and sexually suggestive.  Traugott gets a little way into Hammersleys titles,  multiple entendres striking a Beat note like William T. Wileys scrawled inscriptions.  Pages of artist notebook reproductions follow Traugotts essay.

Arden Reed arduously argues for viewers to see Hammersleys work as line.  That reminds me of Shusaku Arakawas statement, “A line is a crack.”  Ill buy it – especially as Reed makes the case for the artist building an edge to his areas of color, sculpting their boundaries with his palette knife.  Reed points out that Hammersley was a signal corps draftsman during the War.  Look at “By Ear” (1950) on p. 26. See those flags? Maybe thats where we get Hammersleys play of square and diagonal in his paintings, perhaps some of the color.

He titles a piece “Foxtrot” (naval code flag F) (p. 112), a pun on the dance. Semaphore signaling employs motion, speed and rhythm. The foxtrots a close dance; the painting, like the flag, communicates at a distance. His pictorial is self-contained; the titles show a way out.

Beginning with his praise of Hammersleys 1999 LA comeback show, “Ive Been Here All the While”, LA critic David Pagel centralizes the artists significance to West Coast painting.  To Pagel, Hammersleys work transcends the canonical development of LA art from  Surface Fetish to Space and Light to Conceptual to Performance and expresses an kind of essence of Southern California art.  I believe his appeal and importance are even broader.  The technical finish and the paintings capacity to hold light may relate to the Surface and Space/Light schools but his experimentation with abstraction as the exploration of multiple formal systems derives from inner needs.  He would elaborate on a problem,  move on, then return, unlike an artist, say John McCracken, who reworks the same theme over and over. His work is a code, transmitting beyond its origin.

Sarah King, Art in America correspondent,  concludes the writings of the monograph by drawing out the artists own voice.  In a question-and-answer interview, Hammersley emphasized the importance of feeling, of “not thinking”,  of graphic art in his formation.  Its clear that art was his way of achieving maturity and freedom his own way, not the “family Hammersley” way of his upbringing.  His move to art from his familys middle class expectations sounds more like attraction than rebellion.

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