AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Frederick Hammersley: An Artist’s Documentation of His Painting Practice” by Alan Phenix

Pacific Standard Time is not just a time zone.  It is also the title of a Getty-funded initiative, jointly launched by the Getty Foundation and Getty Research Institute, that enabled more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California to tell the story of the art scene in Los Angeles, California.  The initiative focuses on archives, research, exhibitions, publications, and other programs to record the region’s artistic history.  A substantial part of the project is dedicated to Los Angeles art from post-World War II through the 1970s.  In 2011/2012 The Getty Center held an exhibition entitled Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970.  One of the artists in the show was the painter Frederick Hammersley, who died in 2009.  After Hammersley’s death a artist-endowed Foundation was established to preserve and maintain his artistic legacy.  Getty researchers first encountered the extensive archive of materials held by the Hammersley Foundation during preparations for the Crosscurrents show.  Alan Phenix presented to the Paintings Specialty Group some introductory observations on the wealth of that information.

Frederick Hammersley was a leading abstract painter in Southern California in the postwar period.  He first gained widespread notoriety in 1956 when he was included with artists Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin in an exhibition entitled Four Abstract Classicists.  The show led to the coining of the painting movement known as “West Coast Hard-Edge”.  Hammersley was born in 1919 and studied art in the 1940s at the Chouinard and Jepson Art Institutes in Los Angeles.  He stayed on at the Jepson Institute in a teaching capacity after he finished his studies.  He also held subsequent teaching positions at Pomona College (1953-62), Pasadena Art Museum (1956-61), and Chouinard (1964-68).  In 1968 he took a teaching position at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which he kept until 1971 when he stopped teaching to concentrate on his painting.  He continued to work at his home studio until six months before his death and his space remained essentially untouched after his death, serving as final documentation of his life and work.  Hammersley had also fastidiously documented his artistic process in series of notebooks for a period of more than 50 years with few interruptions.  Among the most notable of these were four “Painting Books” that consist of cumulative and descriptive chronological lists of works completed.  The project being undertaken by the Getty Conservation Institute aims to examine and interpret that archive of materials for what it may reveal about Hammersley’s process, materials and techniques, and what it might mean for the preservation and conservation of his work.

Hammersley’s painting had a strong psychological element, which is illustrated in the evolution of his work.  From 1954 to 1959 he worked on a series he called “Hunch” paintings, which developed without preparation as the artist relied on “hunches” coming from reflection and intuition to guide his work.  In 1963 until 1965 he worked on series defined as “Organics” and “Cut Ups” that expanded upon his intuitive painting with more organic processes.  In several periods throughout his career he also worked on more hard-edged geometric paintings.  An early instance of his documentation and creative evolution was found in a set of notes on labels on the back of a 1956 “Hunch” painting entitled In Front Of, in which he recorded dates for the addition of specific shapes in the composition.

The artist began keeping his “Painting Books” in 1959, wherein he kept lists of his work, information about his process, when and to whom each work was sold, and other related information.  The details of his records continued to increase and by 1966 he’d expanded his notes to include additional items, such as information on specific paints.

It was interesting to hear that Hammersley’s documentation was not limited to formal records and itemized lists; his notebooks were also works of art in their own way.  Some of his books contained visual composition ideas in thumbnail sketches.  When he liked a composition he would execute it in a slightly larger (ca. 3″ x 3″) format.  Eventually he began including sequential breakdowns of the development of particular artworks.  On occasion he would revisit past artworks and those changes were also documented in his notebooks.  The artistic process was not limited to the works themselves.  Hammersley kept a “Titles” folder that contained lists of words written by free association.  When he came across words he liked he would underline them and then retrofit them to create titles for particular works.

This presentation just scratched the surface of the available information in Hammersley’s personal documentation.  The goal of the Getty Conservation Institute’s work is to make the mass of information of Hammersley’s archive available to a wider audience, including conservators who may have cause to work on his paintings in the future.  A searchable database is envisaged once the material is transcribed, collated, and interpreted.

This year’s annual meeting was focused on connecting to conservation through outreach and advocacy.  A searchable database of artists’ materials and techniques certainly has potential to assist with that effort.