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Ever true to forms

The precise yet quirky vision of influential Frederick Hammersley is captured in a Pomona College exhibition.

March 12, 2007|Christopher Miles | Special to The Times

The quietly wowing exhibition "Hunches, Geometrics, Organics: Paintings by Frederick Hammersley," at Pomona College Museum of Art, marks a homecoming for an artist linked to a pivotal moment in Los Angeles art history.

It's been 45 years since Hammersley left Pomona, where he taught from 1953 to '62, and almost 50 years since "Four Abstract Classicists," the 1959 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that focused attention on him. But even from his base in Albuquerque, Hammersley has remained a defining force in Southern California painting.

Organized by curator Jules Langsner, the SFMOMA show included the work of Hammersley and hard-edge painter Karl Benjamin, now professor emeritus at Pomona, as well as the abstractions of Lorser Feitelson and the proto-Minimalist paintings of John McLaughlin. The show, which traveled to the L.A. County Museum of Art, identified the four Southern Californians as differentiated from then-dominant Abstract Expressionists by their classicism -- their devotion to a more explicit, clear and defined approach to form. Critic and curator Lawrence Alloway, an advocate of emerging movements -- including British Constructivist painting and Pop Art -- repackaged Langsner's exhibition as "West Coast Hard Edge" and toured it in London and Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1960.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Exhibition organizer: A review in Monday's Calendar section of "Hunches, Geometrics, Organics: Paintings by Frederick Hammersley," at Pomona College Museum of Art, said that the 1959 exhibition "Four Abstract Classicists" opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and later traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The story should have said that LACMA was the organizing institution.

Between "classicist" and "hard-edge" is a clear idea of the handmade, nuanced precision of Hammersley's work. Add the artist's own terms -- "hunches," "geometrics" and "organics" -- and you have not only the names of his three main bodies of work but an indication of the variety and quirkiness to which his precision is joined.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1919, Hammersley came to L.A. in 1940 and spent two years at Chouinard Art School, where his curriculum ranged from figure painting to lettering. A four-year stint as a graphic designer in the Army followed, then a term at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before more studies back at Chouinard and Jepson Art School.

His "Hunch" paintings, produced from 1953 to 1959, began with the artist's laying down one shape and then adding shape after shape toward an unplanned end. Such ends suggest still-lifes and landscapes, with differing temperatures and climates, and some imply the epic and cosmic while remaining highly abstract. The strongest are "Yellow Place, #5" (1957), "Up Within" (1957-58) and "Redscape" (1959). They show Hammersley to have been, from the start, as keen a student of Modernist style as he was of color and composition.

Cooler and more severe but still playful are the "Geometrics," produced from 1959 to 1964, and from 1965 to the mid-'90s. For each section of a grid, Hammersley would decide whether to divide it with a diagonal or, occasionally, an arc, and whether to fill the resulting sections with a different color or the same one as the adjacent section. The results are compositions of squares, rectangles, parallelograms, triangles and compound shapes defined by straight sides and 30-, 45-, 60- and 90-degree angles. For all the rigidity this seems to describe, the results are rhythmic and fluid. And as titles such as "In Two the Fray, #5" (1978) or "Take Sides, #1" (1993), suggest, Hammersley's play of interlocking shapes, in which positive and negative space flip-flop in a kind of angular yin / yang, often implies relationships between figures.

If the straight-edge is the rule of the "Geometrics," the freehand curve is the MO behind the "Organics," produced in 1964 and from 1982 to the present. These small paintings also deal in interlocking forms but are more evocative and suggestive, with elements seeming to probe and penetrate, embrace and envelop one another. Particularly effective is the combination of hard breaks between colors from one shape to the next with gradations between colors within a shape. In "Comes Out Eden, #8" (1994), shapes seem to fade in and out, to merge, dematerialize or change states -- to behave like chameleons and run hot and cold.

Although committed to abstraction, Hammersley routinely doles out the tricks of illusionistic representation: linear perspective, overlapping forms, shading and atmosphere. All of his early training and experience as a figure painter and graphic designer still come through. But he also deliberately tips his hand, hamstrings his own devices, leaves them incomplete and never allows them to team with one another to deliver an image. And this is one of the real pleasures of his work -- his playing with suggestion without ever telling.

The more you look at Hammersley's abstractions, the more you realize that they get their smarts from their maker's understanding of pictures.


Frederick Hammersley

Where: Pomona College Museum of Art, 330 N. College Ave., Claremont

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Mondays

Ends: April 8

Price: Free

Contact: (909) 621-8283,

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