October 22, 2017

MODERN ART & DESIGN AUCTION

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Lot 187: Karl Benjamin

Lot 187: Karl Benjamin

Blue with Yellow Spot

1954
Oil on Masonite
Signed and titled in graphite frame verso; retains Pasadena Art Institute exhibition label verso
Masonite (vis.): 21.625" x 23.5"; Frame: 24" x 25.75"; (Masonite: 55 x 60 cm)
Provenance: The artist; Thence by descent
Estimate: $20,000 - $30,000
Inventory Id: 26187

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Hard Edge painting wasn't always the term used to describe California's first fully native Modernist art movement. A genre unto itself, critics and artists alike struggled to find an appropriate moniker to characterize the wholly new form of geometric abstraction that emerged on the West Coast during the late 1950s. Initially, Abstract Classicism was mentioned in the same breath as paintings by artists producing work in this new style, including those by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. Helen Lundeberg, who often worked in the Hard Edge idiom, as evident in Linear Torso (1969) (Lot 189), alternately described her works as Classicism or Post-Surrealism, with the former denoting "a highly conscious concern with esthetic structure which is the antithesis of intuitive, romantic, or realistic approaches to painting" with an aim "to calculate, and reconsider, every element in a painting with regard to its function in the whole organization" and the latter as "based upon the normal functioning of the mind: its meandering, logical in sequence though not in ensemble, its perceptions of analogy and idea-content in forms and groups of forms unrelated in size, time, or space." Art critic Clement Greenberg characterized the movement as a sub-variant of Post-Painterly Abstraction, which shifted away from the overtly painterly, gestural Abstract Expressionism found in the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others, towards a sleeker, sharper idiom. However, it wasn’t until prominent Los Angeles art critic Jules Langsner coined the term Hard Edge painting in conjunction with his seminal "Four Abstract Classicists" exhibition mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1959, that this new mode of expression was given an appropriate name, which gained currency and eventually stuck.

Devoid of surface incident, Hard Edge works prioritize formal elements of shape, color, and line with an eye toward achieving a lucid, unitary composition. Works such as Karl Benjamin's 1957 Seascape (Lot 186) and John Barbour's 1966 Untitled (Lot 188), epitomize Hard Edge's predilection for clearly defined, non-relational fields that nonetheless generate a unity of composition. With its angular forms, subdued colors, and rhythmic forms, Seascape is a quintessential example of Benjamin's oeuvre. Straddling figuration and abstraction, the composition is defined on three sides by a jagged blue border, which frames a series of blue, pink, and olive green triangles, redolent of maritime landforms set against a white and pale blue background suggestive of a vast expanse of sky hovering over a seascape. In Barbour's Untitled, Hard Edge's obsessive compartmentalization of monochromatic colors are exhibited with full force, which comes as little surprise given that he studied under Henri Matisse, whose celebrated cut-paper collages engaged flat, drastically reduced shapes and a bold color palette.

Evoking the precisionism associated with the Neo-Plasticism of Piet Mondrian and loosely drawing on the tenets of De Stijl, Hard Edge painting adopted a precise, deliberately methodical approach to applying paint. The minimalist forms and interplay of shapes and colors evident in work pioneered by Josef Albers reappear in the Hard Edge vernacular, which seamlessly fuses the potent pigments and bold, uniform contours found in Color Field painting with the clear composition, sharp imagery, and economy of expression inherent to Geometric Abstraction. Hard Edge painting's abrupt color transitions and a complete absence of brushstrokes renders rigorously tidy surfaces saturated with intense, monochromatic, clean-edged colors applied in clearly defined, non-relational fields that emphasized the two-dimensionality of the canvas's surface. This is particularly the case in Frederick Hammersley's 1972 work On and of (Lot 190). Created at the height of his career, Hammersley's oil-on-linen painting is an excellent example of the Hard Edge idiom, which Hammersley helped define. On and of found its nascence as a rhythmically orchestrated study exploring the interactions between shape and color on a geometric grid that ultimately plotted out its arrangements for the canvas. "At first I would paint a shape that I would 'see' there," Hammersley once said. "That one colored shape in that canvas would work, or fit," he continued. "The next shape would come from the feeling of the first plus the canvas. This process would continue until the last shape completed the picture." It is this dynamic, a "harmony of opposites," between the intuitive and the systematic, that ultimately lends an element of exuberance to the precise, economical composition of Hammersley's work and to Hard Edge painting as a whole.

Fort, Ilene Susan. Helen Lundeberg, An 80th Birthday Celebration. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
"Frederick Hammersley." Louis Stern Fine Arts, 2017. Web.
"Helen Lundeberg: Classic Attitude. " Cristin Tierney Gallery, 3 Nov. 2016, Web.

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