About Hassel Smith

Hassel Smith photo
Hassel Smith

Hassel Smith was active as a painter from the late 1930s to the late 1990s. His diverse oeuvre spans the seeming contradictions of abstraction/ figuration and expressionism/ hardedge. Yet the continuum of his praxis conforms readily to the dialectical progression of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Though infatuated by vaudeville, employing painterly equivalents of slapstick and caprice with deft effect, Smith was confirmedly anti-nihilistic and a visual thinker of clear purpose and incisive instinct. In appreciating the art of Hassel Smith one may grasp the principle of contradiction as a catalyst for renewal, perceiving within the flow of contrasting methods and concerns both the freedom and the disciplined energy of an artist for whom: "In art there are many problems, yet art itself is never a problem."

Smith attended Northwestern University during the mid-1930s, pursuing an active social life amid the bars and dance halls of Chicago while studying both widely and brilliantly. Absorbing the influences of the World’s Fair and the great historical collections of painting to be seen in mid-30s Chicago, as well as the appearance of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (under the direction of Massine—which made a lifelong impression), Smith sidelined his passion for chemistry to major in art history, winning a graduate scholarship to Princeton for the fall of 1936. But a decision to follow summer classes in drawing and printmaking at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, prior to assuming the Princeton scholarship for a Master’s in art history, proved fateful. The influence of his tutor, Maurice Sterne, did not merely encourage a radical change in the focus of Smith’s life, it helped determine the kind of artist that Smith would become.

The "laboratory" of Sterne’s class, according to the evidence from reproductions of students’ work at CSFA during the late 1930s, could not be identified as radical. It is the absence of radical style that may have been the strength of Sterne’s influence. Smith, in later years, credited Sterne with having stepped outside of prescribed technique to confer a stylistically neutral approach to perception and observation: an orientation that emphasized the contemplation of shapes and their relationships as fundamental to spatial awareness and visual thought. The artist was definitively liberated from replication and illustration.

Smith was awarded a Rosenberg Traveling Fellowship through CSFA in 1940–41, which took him for extended periods to the Motherlode region of Northern California. Though relatively few works from this period still exist, it was clearly a highly productive phase, as witnessed by the leap in assurance of the execution of landscapes and townscapes deriving from studies of the streets and environs of the decaying communities of Columbia and Angels Camp. Smith was captivated by surviving aspects of the gold-mining era in the saloons, sequestered houses, and verdant gardens of the old towns. The distinctive boldness of drawing and dashing paint application, together with a vivid complexity of color, establish the oil paintings of the 1940s as the first of several important stages in the development of Smith’s work.

More than half a century after the Motherlode period, towards the end of the 1990s, Smith made a modestly scaled vertical rectilinear painting titled Mission Control to Sojourner: "Return to Earth!". In retrospect, the paintings of the previous five decades present a journey of stellar reach: the tracking signal on an imagined radar screen attests to circuitous pathways, high-speed journeys into nebulous space followed by pause, then sudden alterations of direction that seem willfully directed to baffle pursuit. Regrettably, the metaphor is misleading, for the conquest of doubt precludes the questionable likelihood that signals were received from a navigational source external to the artist. The brilliance of Smith’s journey consists in the vindication of a complex path through the persistence of high achievement, formal clarity, and technical mastery. He was a superb stylist and a fearless visual thinker, undaunted by the demand for a marketable identity and the assurances of repetition.

The principal phases of Smith’s output form a sequence of six progressions, having a recurring pattern of overlapping influence: plein air and representational paintings of the 1940s; abstract expressionism of the early 1950s to mid-60s; return to figuration and representation, 1964– development of hard-edge abstraction, the "measured" series from the early 1970s to mid-80s; gestural abstraction in mid-80s to early 90s; and late abstraction in his final painting years from early to late 1990s.

An overview of the entire oeuvre reveals common elements between paintings that may otherwise appear so contrasted as to have emerged from different artists. Hence, the flamboyant brushwork of representational paintings of the late 1940s, in which each stroke describes shape and defines color, anticipates the signature works of the "thunderbolt" phase from the early 1950s to mid-60s, characterized by an evolving merger between pictorial field and electric manipulation of line.

It is clear that the ensuing return to figuration, during the second half of the 1960s, was a passage between major periods of non-representational painting. The outset of this sharply defined body of work contrasts so markedly with its ending that it would be impossible to understand the late 60s as anything other than a vital transition, a return to base as preparation for departure. We may be thankful that the late figuration of Hassel Smith produced both some of the most amusing and some of the most elegant of representational painting by any artist of the West Coast, uniquely unfettered by the European atelier tradition.

At the outset of the 1970s, Smith spoke often of kinetics and gave considerable attention to the artists active in that area on both sides of the Atlantic. This preoccupation coincided with a rigorous investigation of the chemistry of paint, resulting in the abandonment of oil-based products for the entirety of the artist’s late career. A much earlier painting, The Triumph of Gargoyalism (1957), was a manifesto in both title and substance (household oil paint) for an anti-aesthetic memorably evoked by Smith’s prescriptive statement, in the early 50s, that a painting should be "so ugly I wouldn’t hang it on my shithouse wall." The urgency for an uncompromised aesthetic, an aesthetics of beastliness, had transformed by the late 1960s to an aesthetics of restraint and understatement, that positively embraced the introduction of the then relatively- untested acrylic paints in separate component parts.

By "measured" paintings Smith described works having a calculated grid substructure. Events and intervals arising from the overlapping of lines in a grid structure, or the coincidence of pathways between selected intersections, were resolved as the basic forms of circle, square, triangle, and rectangle. Assuming the tensile relations of cross-rhythms within monochromatic fields, the fundamental Euclidean forms were regulated into perceivable patterns, or merged into continuums of irregular amalgamated shapes that transcended optical provocation, to achieve configurations of extraordinary pictorial range—from multi-tonal zest and playfulness to works of menace and enigma.

The comparative flatness of tone and surface, in the measured paintings of the 1970s, surrendered during the early 1980s to the animation of explosive multi-colored brushwork at strategic points and within decisively chosen shapes. Departing from the surface reduction of hard-edge painting, Smith perceived the visual field as dimensionally complex and portentous. The interruptions to flatness are certainly no mere decoration, but are integral to the dynamic of pictorial space, arousing the observer to scan both across and forwards and backwards. Though clearly disciplined by the order of a measured plane, the perception of the observer experiences no sense of containment but accedes to an uplifting liberation. It is the interplay between precise shapes and impassioned brushwork that animates the sense of spatial movement.

Subsequently, the balance of this interplay veered irrevocably, as the 1980s proceeded, toward what might be considered, at a glance, an extreme of randomness. In fact, moving at great speed into the dimensional possibilities of planar space, Smith’s color and brushwork fragmented the visual field, literally overwhelming all vestiges of measured strategies. The paintings of the late 80s and 90s, in their flight from Euclidean shapes and underlying compositional order, where the energetic application of paint determines pictorial space, are a sustained and varied dialogue between the material substantiality and perceptual mutability of the painted surface. Vortices of clustered multi-tonal strokes grow and diminish within fields of thinly tinted canvas, at moments revealing broad expanses of open space, then closing, uniting, colliding in tense combustions that both confront and absorb the observer’s gaze. The sense of travel is unmistakable, the allure of the painting consisting in the simultaneous confirmation of planar solidity and the invocation of spatial infinitude.

The consensus that has emerged in recent decades, magnetized to conceptualism and anesthetized by permutations of virtual reality, is noticeably empty of individuals possessing Duchamp’s subversive sense of mission. Paradoxically, what has evolved is a new form of academicism in which the position of the conceptualistrealist has become convenient to the apparatus of the many new dimensions of the contemporary global industry of art. Today the visual artist, the maker of non-referential painting, has been marginalized as a kind of outsider, perhaps an anachronism. Within this airless context the art of Hassel Smith is a refreshing antidote. The survival of his reputation, attested by the recent publication of a full monograph (Hassel Smith: Paintings 1937–1997, Prestel, 2012), challenges the conviction that observation is irrelevant to the formulation of ideas and that the retinal appreciation of art is intellectually void. The enduring charisma of the outsider art of Hassel Smith is the projection of a sustained high-wire endeavor that continually sidesteps the certitudes of recognition guaranteed by stylistic repetition. Smith derived inspiration from a wideangle perspective upon the history of painting, European and American. As a reflection of historical continuum, the achievement of Hassel Smith is a unique manifestation of change and transformation, reaffirming the potency of artistic independence and the vitality of visual intelligence.