At BAMPFA: A notable retrospective of abstract classicist artist Frederick Hammersley

Frederick Hammersley: Me & thee, #14 1980; oil on linen; 24 x 24 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation. © 2019 Frederick Hammersley Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Frederick Hammersley: Me & thee, #14 1980; oil on linen; 24 x 24 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation. © 2019 Frederick Hammersley Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) has just opened the first notable solo Bay Area exhibit of Frederick Hammersley since his death ten years ago.

A highly regarded 20th-century artist, Hammersley (1919–2009) had a wide-ranging artistic vision that included experiments in photography, painting, printmaking, drawing, sculpture and early computer art. A recent and generous gift to the museum from the Frederick Hammersley Foundation of more than 100 of Hammersley’s works was the catalyst for the new exhibition, Looking: The Art of Frederick Hammersley. Curated by BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder, the show presents a stimulating opportunity to learn about this worthy, yet often overlooked artist.   

Hammersley’s emergence into the larger art realm occurred in 1959, as one of the artists in the groundbreaking international exhibition, Four Abstract Classicists. Unlike the openness and casualness associated with “action painters” like Jackson Pollock, Hammersley helped to develop a crisp, demanding style which L.A. critic Jules Langsner described as “finite, flat, rimmed by a hard, clean edge,” and which was a precursor to the Pop Art and Minimalism schools of art. Excellent examples of Hammersley’s abstract paintings are Me & thee (1980) and Bertha (1965).

Frederick Hammersley was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and attended the University of Idaho (1936-1938), and the Chouinard School of Art (now the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles (1940-1942). While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was stationed in Paris and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts.


Frederick Hammersley: [no title given], 1975; conté crayon on paper; 10 ½ x 7 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation; © 2019 Frederick Hammersley Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Frederick Hammersley: [no title given], 1975; conté crayon on paper; 10 ½ x 7 in.; BAMPFA, gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation; © 2019 Frederick Hammersley Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
While in Paris and in Berlin at the end of the war, Hammersley took many black-and-white photographs, which are part of his “Northridge Series,” comprised of 50 silver gelatin prints. The small post-World War II photos are of more significant historical than artistic interest, and include likenesses of Dwight Eisenhower with French dignitaries, Brancusi’s studio, Picasso’s dog and the Venus de Milo. The 1960s and 1970s black-and-white photographs contain creative close-up portraits taken in New Mexico. The prints have only been displayed two or three times prior to being shown at BAMPFA.

Under the G.I. Bill, Hammersley returned to Los Angeles where he continued to study, and later, to teach art. His work in the late 1940s, before his romance with abstraction, includes a series of tiny, precise lithographs, nicely displayed at BAMPFA.

The artist’s creations, in whichever style he employed over his long career, show concentration, detail and dry wit. Hammersley’s humor is especially apparent in his sketches in Conté crayon, which are loosely drawn, capture the essence of his subjects and are quite engaging, especially his untitled self-portrait.

In 1968, Hammersley left Los Angeles for Albuquerque, New Mexico. There he taught at the University of New Mexico and he learned Art1, a computer program written by faculty, and among the first programs designed for visual artists. Using punch cards, a then high-tech IBM 360/40 computer, and a tractor-fed 1403 IBM line printer, Hammersley made what he called “computer drawings.” Although primitive by today’s computer techniques, the conceptual printouts are nevertheless an interesting art form, especially for the late 1960s.

Although one can posit many explanations for why Hammersley is under-appreciated, one reason may be his pursuit of art for its own sake. He did not capitalize on it. He continued to experiment with various media, forms and artistic techniques, as opposed to repeating what might be popular.

On Sunday, May 5 at 2 p.m., BAMPFA will host a colloquium on the legacy of Frederick Hammersley, featuring remarks by several scholars and curators who have written about his work. On Saturday, May 11 at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., families are invited to engage with the exhibition through BAMPFA’s Gallery + Studio program, which offers art-making workshops inspired by Hammersley’s grid-based compositions. The programs are free with museum admission.

Looking: The Art of Frederick Hammersley is on view until June 23 at BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St. in Berkeley. For further information visit BAMPFA online.