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By Emily Lenz

D. Wigmore Fine Art offers examples of 1960s Hard Edge Painting from Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York in its fall exhibition. The Hard Edge style is defined as crisply edged geometric forms on a smooth surface devoid of heavily textured brush strokes. Each group in the exhibition achieves this through their own distinct technique: the Abstract Classicists of Los Angeles worked in oil; the Washington Color School stained acrylic into their unprimed canvases; and the New York Op artists built up their acrylic on primed canvases.  Each group worked serially to varying degrees, finding that a predetermined compositional format allowed for deeper exploration of color, line, shape, and space.  The treatment of color and form and the role of materials used resulted in different presentations of movement and space for each group.  Yet upon entering the exhibition at D. Wigmore Fine Art, it is apparent that all the works share a binding geometric look- the Hard Edge style.

In our exhibition Los Angeles is represented by the four Abstract Classicists: John McLaughlin (1898-1976), Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978), Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009), and Karl Benjamin (1925-2012). Recognizing that their work shared formal color relationships and rhythmic patterning within a unified single plane, Peter Selz, chairman of the art department at Pomona College, offered the four independent artists a group exhibition at the college in the mid-1950s. The critic Jules Langsner got involved with the group as well and pushed for a museum venue instead. The result was Four Abstract Classicists, which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1959 before traveling to LACMA and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London—a bold announcement of an alternative to the dominant East Coast Abstract Expressionism. The Abstract Classicists worked in oil and often used masking tape to create crisp edges separating colors in a minimal arrangement of geometric forms. In the catalogue text for Four Abstract Classicists, Langsner noted the precedent for their reductive geometry established by the founders of geometric abstraction Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).   

The Los Angeles artists emphasized a unified whole by creating paintings of centered, though not always symmetrical, composition of forms connected on a flat surface.  The effect is a painting seen in its entirety rather than one element at a time. Limited movement is provided by color contrasts that create a tension between the shapes but not depth. Because the Abstract Classicists formed their style in the 1950s, the artists all paint in oil on primed canvas resulting in rich, luminous colors.  John McLaughlin’s lifelong interest in Japanese culture brought an Eastern philosophy to his paintings, so the artist believed his minimal arrangements of rectangles in contrasting colors could stimulate contemplation in the viewer.  McLaughlin arranged his shapes slightly asymmetrically on a central vertical axis to force the viewer to consider the composition as a whole as seen in #3, 1964. Inspired by Surrealism, Lorser Feitelson’s first abstractions created in the 1940s showed biomorphic shapes in a deep space which he called Magical Forms. He then eliminated pictorial depth for a field of color in the 1950s, calling the works Magical Space Forms to recognize the importance of the flattened space. One can see this development in Feitelson’s Untitled (July), 1968, in which curves of red and white bisect a field of blue to create movement, but not volume, as neither color can be interpreted as shadow. Inspired by jazz, both Hammersley and Benjamin created a strong sense of rhythm in the interlocking forms of their works in which color creates movement and form provides monumentality. This can be seen in Benjamin’s #40, 1965, in which a red T-shape is anchored by a purple U-shape. Equally vibrant, neither color nor shape recedes or projects, producing a unified flat composition.  With all the Abstract Classicist paintings, the balanced geometric forms appear spare and refined, enriched by vivid colors of oil paint.  The term Classic is well applied to the LA group for the simplicity, clarity, and balance of their compositions.

The Washington Color School has its origins in the mid-1950s but was formalized as a group of six painters in the 1965 exhibition Washington Color Painters at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, curated by Gerald Nordland. The artists included were Morris Louis (1912-1962), Paul Reed (b.1919), Gene Davis (1920-1985), Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), Thomas Downing (1928-1985), and Howard Mehring (1931-1978).  We selected Reed, Davis, and Downing for our exhibition because they were the most consistently geometric of the DC group throughout the 1960s.  Staining acrylic paints into their canvases rather than painting onto primed canvas set the Washington Color School artists apart from their California and New York counterparts. Among the three groups in terms of seriality, the DC artists worked the most strictly within set geometric compositions to examine the function of color. The group had its start in the mid-1950s working loosely as they experimented with staining in Magna paint, but the artists came into its own through geometry.  The group’s shift to the geometric in the late 1950s may be attributed to Kenneth Noland’s time at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s when he studied with Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers (1888-1976) and New York abstractionist Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-1981). The DC artists were closely associated: Noland taught at Catholic University where he gave Gene Davis his first exhibition in 1953 and had Downing and Mehring as students. Moving back from New York in 1950, Reed was introduced to the group through Davis, a high school friend. This close association resulted in a shared working method of self-imposed constraints to generate new structures and patterns. 

The Washington Color School artists used geometric arrangements in all-over compositions to explore how color moves the viewer rhythmically across a canvas. With the paint soaked into the canvas, the color appears less solid creating the sensation of floating color. Examples of the Washington Color School in our exhibition are provided by Gene Davis, Paul Reed, and Thomas Downing. Gene Davis developed his signature style of vertical stripes in 1958 influenced by Jasper Johns’ target painting on the cover of ArtNews that year and Barnett Newman’s 1951 exhibition of stripe paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Davis methodically laid out the width of his stripes in pencil then shifted into a more intuitive mode when adding color. Royal Veil, 1971 provides a sizeable example of howDavis created rhythm and tension through the irregular repetition of purple, teal, and orange stripes that move the viewer’s eyes back and force across the balanced composition. Paul Reed experimented with Magna paint in the mid-1950s but started working exclusively in staining in 1958-59 when the new water-based acrylic paintings, which were less toxic than Magna, became available. Reed’s earliest geometric stained works date from 1961. Reed’s 1962 series of concentric Xs in two contrasting colors titled xA, xB, and xC are included in our exhibition. In increasingly complex series, Reed went on to systematically explore the function of color in defining form and structure in lattices, biomorphic shapes, and starting in 1967, shaped canvas compositions. Thomas Downing used dots as his primary geometric shape to investigate color’s capacity to extend visually beyond the canvas. In Iambic Time, 1963, a curved line of colored dots cascades down a field of blue. The vibrancy of the opaquely painted circles against the matte blue makes the dots appear to float off the canvas—buoyant, transcendent color achieved through the Washington Color School’s signature staining technique.

For the New York Hard Edge artists, the viewer’s interaction with a painting and response to its perceptual effects was of primary importance in the 1960s. For this reason, the style was termed Op Art, which was identified as an international style in MoMA’s 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye. The viewer’s participation in an active visual dialogue with a painting was in fact a part of all Hard Edge painting and the MoMA exhibition included examples by all three schools. The New York Hard Edge artists selected for our exhibition are Richard Anuszkiewicz (b.1930), Julian Stanczak (b.1928), Tadasky (b.1935), and Bill Komodore (1932-2012). New York was an international art center in the 1960s so many artists came to develop their careers in the city’s numerous galleries and museums. As a result, the New York Hard Edge artists were not a close-knit group like in LA and DC. Josef Albers was a significant influence for many of the New York school. Anuszkiewicz and Stanczak studied together with Albers at Yale University while Albers was developing his Homage to the Square series. Seeing Albers’s paintings reproduced in a magazine in the 1950s inspired Tadasky to come to America to pursue geometric painting. Komodore studied with Mark Rothko in 1957 at Tulane University, as well as with the Kinetic sculptor George Rickey, before arriving in New York in 1961. Developing their careers in the 1960s rather than the 1950s, the New York artists used new water-based acrylic paint on primed canvas to achieve an oil-like richness of color along with crisp lines through acrylic’s plastic quality. While both the California and New York artists often used masking tape to execute a hard edge, the fast-drying acrylics allowed the New York artists to execute finer lines for complex color interactions and compositions. Because line and color were of equal importance to the New York artists, they often produced multiple variations in their compositions within each series, especially in comparison with the DC artists’ set compositional formats. The New York artists embraced spatial depth that either projected towards the viewer or receded infinitely, distinguishing their paintings from both the flatness of the California group and the floating color of the DC group. The treatment of space by the New York group results in a more calculated rather than intuitive feeling, even though the New York artists experimented with their color choices like the DC and LA artists.

The New York school were the group most interested in how color is perceived and understood.  The artists created a new model of depicting space by using only the relationship of color and line without texture or shadow to achieve movement that projects and recedes. They painted overall symmetric compositions that explore the tension between the center and edges of a canvas.  The artists achieve their fine lines by using acrylic paint on primed canvas, often assisted by tape or other tools. Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczak used masking tape to create fine lines of color that interact to create a sense of additional floating colors. Anuszkiewicz used colors minimally—often applying three colors to create the impression of multiple shades of each as seen in Quiet Center, 1962. Stanczak worked quite differently—one might call him a color maximalist—sometimes using just two or three colors to create a multi-colored effect and other times using up to 30 shades to create the impression of a single color. The astounding luminosity of his Folded Forms series, begun in 1968, can be seen in Festive Red, 1970-71. Stanczak used five shades of red with an undercoat of orange to create the impression of monochromatic geometric structures that shift and fold onto each other. Tadasky works differently, applying paint as raw color without taping, using the proximity of his rings to create optical blending in his circle-in-the-square compositions. In his early works, alternating rings of two or three colors create a pulsing or spinning effect. One of Tadasky’s more complex color relations is seen in C-177A, 1965 in which thick rings of black separate thin brightly colored rings that glow as if made of neon lights. Bill Komodore worked with both primed and unprimed canvas in the early 1960s.  He produced dazzling works in 1964 by staining fine lines into an unprimed canvas where the slight wobble of the lines produced flashes of phantom colors. Alongside the stained works, Komodore made bolder patterned paintings using masking tape on primed canvas. In our exhibition, three 1967 paintings have been selected.  Their minimal compositions of a single central field show the influence of both Rothko and Albers, yet these works have an Op quality derived from the contrast of light and dark along the border of the canvas, which may be an influence of Rickey. In Ten Ten Fifth Avenue, 1967, Komodore uses an intricate border on top of a field of black to provoke consideration of open and closed space. The same year Richard Anuszkiewicz also considered the edge’s ability to define an infinite center depth or projection in Inflexion, 1967. These 1967 paintings by Komodore and Anuszkiewicz demonstrate the New York interest in ambiguous spatial depth which varied greatly from the California artists for whom a unified composition with no sense of background and foreground was essential.

Hard Edge Painting emerged as more than a reaction against Abstract Expressionism; it reflected a renewed interest in color isolated from emotion using geometric abstraction and a new approach to compositional unity within a single plane. It also identified with new scientific understandings of how the brain controls vision and the essential role of the viewer in experiencing a painting. While each of the groups in our exhibition had distinct aesthetic positions, they were united by a common interest in empirical investigations of color and new models for pictorial space. Their work raised questions of how colors meet and melt into one another and how the interplay of background and foreground can produce an ambiguous sense of space within a painting.  In the 1960s, Hard Edge art was an exploration of how the elements of a painting are organized. In the process, intuitive and predetermined compositions were used to investigate the effect of size, shape, line, and color on a viewer’s perception. These Hard Edge paintings are creative in conception, immensely skillful in execution, and offer the viewer a central role.  For all of these artists, the ultimate goal was to create a heightened awareness of what it means to see.

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