It may be hard to find, but Dave Hickey did a little catalogue for Karl Benjamin in 2007 (published by Louis Stern Gallery) that contained a sort of palate cleansing line that bears repeating. Actually it bears writing out in pen or maybe even reserving a little space on your pegboard:
“One need only consider Abstract Expressionism, for just a moment, as just another style to see with a great deal of clarity that, in the Post World War II period, geometric abstraction, or op art, or hard edge painting, or whatever you want to call it was, in fact, the dominant global idiom of that era, the true cosmopolitan language of art. During this era, Hélio Oiticica in Brazil, Rafael Soto in Venezuela, Max Bill in Germany, Jo Baer in New York, Bridget Riley in Britain, Victor Vasarely in Paris, Benjamin, McLaughlin and Hammersley in Los Angeles and hundreds of other artists created a massive body of work, which, if considered collectively, provides a much more rational precedent for the Puritanical Minimalism that followed in New York and the Hedonistic Minimalism that followed in Los Angeles.”
The more I travel and the more time I spend in the dusty regional sections of museums in Brazil, Argentina, and France, the more I see Hickey’s point. Hard edges and optics, systems and codes, perceptual twists and geometric kookiness, was pretty much the order of the day every place except New York from the early 50s into the 70s. You had Antonio Llorens in Uruguay, León Ferrari in Argentina, Waldo Díaz-Balart in Cuba, François Morellet and Julio le Parc in France. These are simply more names to add to Hickey’s already impressive list. It was as if the artworld outside of New York got hit with same ruler, and Los Angeles was no exception.
The origin of the hard edge most likely can find root in the dispersal of the International Style of architecture and the principles of the Bauhaus during World War II. Forced out of Europe, exiled architects and artists populated the earth bringing optimism about the social role of design. Even before this, the words of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had reverberated globally. These tastes met surging economies in the 1950s, and whereas much of the theoretical edifice was lost, the cold, hard-lined look remained, from the rakish cut of Cadillac fins to the streamlined sheen of surf boards. Any starting point – whether it was surrealism, art school collage experiments, local flavor, music, movies – seemed best expressed by punched up colors, expanding systems, hard curves and tilted cubes.
Evidence of this expansive moment exists now at LACMA in the way, way too small and horribly titled Four Abstract Classicists, in the form of Lorser Feitelson, Karl Benjamin, John McLaughlin, and Frederick Hammersley. In each of these painters, you can either posit a rejection of New York Abstract Expressionism – again pitting coast against coast and brushiness against crisp lines in the most boring way – or you can find these four incredibly original and genuinely weird painters among their sympathetic confederates, which amazingly were sprouting up all over the world. Each painter is very different, with their own story, and the rubric of the hard edge barely contains them.
Karl Benjamin, Bars #7, circa 1955, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 in.; © Benjamin Artworks, reproduced by permission.
Of the works at LACMA, Bar #7, 1955 by Karl Benjamin runs most closely with the international impulse towards the hard edge. It’s cool but not cold, flirting in advance with obsessions like the pixel, the conduit, and the circuit, thirty years before those ideas would find market viability in Peter Halley. Bar #7 could be a Morellet or something by the Spanish artist Francisco Sobrino; there is a rational irrationality to it, as if a premise was set forth and started to unravel as the artist made his way through the work. Bar #7 has none of the theory of Piet Mondrian; it does not seem to lay claim to any internal pulse to nature or a quasi-religious belief in the structure behind reality. However, it does have a little of the jazz, a little of the “wide-eyed Dutch boy in the city” experimentation of Mondrian getting away from himself, letting himself ride the burst of the new.
Hammersley is a much different animal. If you continue to walk through the second level of the Ahmanson Building, you may do well in getting a sense of Hammersley’s Around a round, 1959 in viewing the small works of Paul Klee. Hammersley’s early lithographs have the rigor of Bauhaus collage, all surrounded by the rough-hewn frames of Klee’s strange spirituality. Around a round seems to take these games with shape and pattern and run it through with surrealist totems: the sun, the sky, the earth, and the body reimagining itself through its own dreams. By 1964, the totems find absolute serenity and balance in Legacy, #14, which posits shape as a matter of pure force. This is purely a guess, but one could speculate Hammersley found his way to Malevich by way of McLaughlin.
If any of these painters could be called “classical,” and it is still a stretch, it is Lorser Feitelson. Hard Edge Line Painting, 1963 seems an elegant and minimal take on the knee joint of a leg, and indeed, most, if not all of Feitelson’s work, grew out of an increasingly reductive view of the human body, a view of the body in the oldest sense, a matter of pure form and crisp ideals. In this sense, Feitelson is classical, in that he can be traced through Matisse’s cut outs back to the Mediterranean to the idylls of the classical world. Feitelson’s work can be incredibly sexy, the curves getting close enough to rub and fold over each other. Where in Ellsworth Kelly’s curves, I see shadows on a barn door, evening light on snow bank, or the graphic sensibility of Audubon’s birds, in Feitelson, I see only sex, a type of sex that lives in certain types of design extending from the flowering buds on Roman chairs to lithe ivies inlaid in symbolist wardrobes.
John McLaughlin, #5, Oil on canvas, 121.29 x 152.08 cm.; © John McLaughlin Estate.
However, the master is John McLaughlin. Perhaps more than any other American and earlier than any other American, other than maybe Marsden Hartley, he understood and advanced the painting of Malevich’s disembodied and spiritual shapes and forms. You will find no precedent for McLaughlin anywhere in LACMA’s permanent collection; he is a genius of the first order, right up there with whoever made the first Shaker rocking chair. McLaughlin’s #5, 1974 is remarkable and is just two vertical black rectangles on a white field. It is Malevich brought to a point of pure center, quiet and unforced. There is no event in this painting like, say, in a Barnett Newman zip. With McLaughlin, we are seeing something ancient in the language of the new, as though visual equivalent of zen. What we find in McLaughlin is something crazy: rigorous form with an irrational or maybe extra-rational center. I don’t know about you, but for me, viewing a McLaughlin is to view something decidedly different and removed, something away, far away in a place where tickets can’t get you.
I wish Four Abstract Classicists was a bigger show (how about, for example, June Harwood and Helen Lundeberg, mentioned guiltily in the wall text yet unrepresented in the show). There is so much of this type of abstraction in the world right now, both in the unknown past and in the untested contemporary. Matt Connors, Alex Olson, Julian Hoeber, Philippe Decrauzat, Jens Wolf, Xylor Jane, Ann Pibal, Odili Donald Odita, Dan Walsh, and David Malek all mine the legacy of the international hard edge and we struggle to put them in the New York line. It is my fear that until François Morellet carries the same force of conviction for American audiences as Frank Stella, until Hélio Oiticica looms as large as Donald Judd, and until McLaughlin stills the heart has much as Newman, we may still have more to learn about abstraction than we already know.
(Image on top: Frederick Hammersley, Around a round, 1959, oil on canvas, 73.03 x 93.98 x 4.45 cm; © Frederick Hammersley Foundation)