THE HARD-EDGE SIGN
Employing flat color and geometric form, hard-edge painters developed an abundance of styles and a rich, if restrictive, esthetic whose legacy is still felt today.
By Stephen Westfall
THE TERM “HARD-EDGE” was probably coined in the late 1950s by Jules Langsner, then a Los Angeles Times art critic, in reference to highly finished, flatly rendered, mostly geometric paintings by Karl Benjamin, Fred Hammersley, John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg (who was married to Feitelson). The four male painters subsequently exhibited together in Langsner’s exhibition “Four Abstract Classicists,” which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1959. (Though impeccably refined, Lundeberg’s work wasn’t as thoroughly abstract as the others’, so it shouldn’t be assumed she was excluded from this show because of gender bias.) A revised version of the exhibition, curated by Lawrence Alloway under the title “West Coast Hard-Edge,” was shown in England and Ireland the following year. The term had migrated across the hemisphere and came to describe a certain look in abstraction that harkened back to Mondrian, encompassed a wide range of sensibilities and represented a cool rationality in the post-Abstract-Expressionist era.
Benjamin (1925-2012) was the youngest of the original hard-edge painters, most of whom lived in or around Los Angeles (though Hammersley moved to Albuquerque in1968). When Benjamin died last summer in Claremont, Calif., at the age of 87, it seemed like a good moment to take a fresh look at the legacy and future of hard-edge painting. For the purposes of this essay I want to consider Benjamin out of the original “Four Abstract Classicists” before moving beyond the American West to consider a range of painters whose work has employed the hard-edge sign.
Benjamin came to painting largely by accident. A native of Chicago, he moved to California after a stint in the Navy between 1943 and 1946. He graduated from the University of Redlands as an English major and had hoped to be a writer, presumably hard-boiled. In 1949,however, he found himself having to teach art as part of the general sixth-grade curriculum at the San Bernardino County school where he worked, and the task steered him in a new direction. He instructed his students to “fill up the space with pretty colors and don’t mess around.” Inspired by the work they produced and by modern art he encountered in magazines, books, museums and galleries in Pasadena and Los Angeles, he soon began making paintings himself. In 1952, he moved his family to the lively cultural community of Claremont. He taught at a grade school in Chino for more than two decades and eventually, in 1979, became a professor of painting at Claremont College. Living with his family in a ranch house designed by the local modernist architect Fred McDowell, and working in a studio out back, Benjamin made hundreds of paintings that came to stand for the Los Angeles hard-edge esthetic. (How easy and pleasurable it is to imagine a Schindler or Neutra home with a Benjamin painting and Eames furniture.) This esthetic was shaped in part by an embrace of the European geometric abstract painting style that would come to be denigrated as sentimental and inefficient by Minimalists such as Donald Judd and Frank Stella.
Langsner, the L.A. Times critic, defined hard-edge painting as the fusion of shape and flat, uninflected color, but he and the painters who touted the liberation of abstract shapes from conventions of representation were never caught up in the absolutist drive for self-definition that Clement Greenberg, Judd and Stella had set as the agenda of modernist painting. Benjamin represents an alternative modernist, abstract vision of plenitude. His first flatly painted abstractions feature Miro-influenced flame shapes. His patterns then shifted repeatedly and included right-angled geometry, diagonals, organic shapes and landscape references. He did not work toward some logical end and sometimes doubled back to revisit earlier motifs. His colors are rich, like those in sign painting, bearing even intensities but with the paint toned down a bit so that all hues seem to share a common light.
Oli Sihvonen (1921-1991) was, like Benjamin, a Western hard-edge painter who came from points east: Brooklyn, in Sihvonen’s case. He studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College from 1946 to 1948, and attended Taos Valley Art School in New Mexico from 1948 to 1950. He committed himself to abstract painting in 1950 and never looked back. His work, along with Benjamin’s, was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s1965 Op art exhibition, “The Responsive Eye.” He moved back to New York from Taos in 1967, prompted by a surge of interest in his work from East Coast institutions and New York galleries, but he quarreled with his dealers and showed only sporadically after the early ’70s.
Sihvonen worked through nearly as wide a variety of compositional motifs as Benjamin did, but he didn’t revisit them. The arc of his development runs from the simple to the complex. He made his national reputation with large, sometimes enormous paintings that hold fat ellipses against hot color fields. There followed simple vertical-band paintings in a somewhat darker and softer palette, and works that contain forms resembling ladders. Sihvonen was a maddeningly lax record keeper and left many, if not most, of these paintings undated, but it has been ascertained that the ellipse paintings are from the mid- to late ’60s, and the vertical-band and ladder works from the ’70s. Sihvonen developed severe heart problems by the early ’80s but continued to work, complicating his paintings further with broken fields of tightly packed stripes, ladders interpenetrated by spiral bands, and fragmented quatrefoils, among other shapes and pictorial inter weavings. Some of these compositions are nearly as optically dense as Al Held’s late, baroque abstractions, though without the illusionism.
ONE PAINTER WHO DID briefly practice a sort of hard-edge illusionism is Sven Lukin. Born in Riga, Latvia, in1934, Lukin immigrated to the U.S. in 1949. After studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to New York in 1958 and three years later had a solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery. In this exhibition, he showed a group of paintings featuring flat shapes, at once biomorphic and emblem-like, on canvases bolted to exposed wooden beams, which curve at the top as well as the bottom. In subsequent paintings, such beams were placed behind the canvas so that they tent it along its vertical or horizontal axis. With these paintings Lukin became known as “the father of the shaped canvas.” He subsequently took the approach much further into an abstract Pop territory, with curled panels that roll out from the wall like exaggerated tongues. The front and sides of these protrusions are painted as unmodulated bands, and the palette is hot pastels and grays. The ribbon like panel scan also be a little blockier and lean in sagging loops against a corner of the gallery like a drunk against a lamppost. By the late ’60s Lukin was flattening the forms back onto the picture plane as painted shapes, in ways that suggest coils of ribbon seen in isometric perspective.
Two solo shows in the last three years in New York, at Gary Snyder Project Space and Gary Synder Gallery, have helped renew interest in Lukin’s work from the 1960s and’70s, placing it in the context of his recent paintings. Some of these newer works utilize tree branches as stretchers for burlap. They recall Peter Young’s similar canvases from the1970s, but Lukin configures more irregular, organic shapes with his twisted branches. Each piece of burlap is filled with a painted color or a collection of colored shapes, though there are occasional glimpses of the raw burlap ground.
Another New York artist whose work is decided lyunder-recognized is Ward Jackson (1928-2004). Jackson grew up in Virginia and, after moving to New York in 1952, studied painting with Hans Hofmann and George L.K. Morris. After1960, influenced by Mondrian and Albers, he devoted his career to painting geometric planes in flat hues. This style began with a striking group of diamond-shaped paintings. In most of these works, black-and-white shapes are organized along the supports’ horizontal and vertical axes, leading the eye to interpret cruciformality. Although a modest man, Jackson was admired by key artists. His diamond paintings were first exhibited in an important group show at New York’s Kaymar Gallery in 1964. The other participating artists included Stella, Judd, Sol LeWitt, Jo Baer and Jackson’s close friend Dan Flavin. Jackson’s career, however, did not take off with theirs. He continued to paint, but also worked for over 40 years as an archivist and a program director of the Guggenheim Museum, and served as archivist and president of the American Abstract Artists Association.
In 1968, Jackson shifted from the diamond paintings to 3-foot-square paintings of trapezoids and triangles in soft but glowing colors. Collectively titled the “Virginia Rivers” series, the works feature long planar shapes that suggest abstract depictions of roads, rivers and riverbanks. After “Virginia Rivers,” Jackson used the same square format to create paintings bearing vertical bands, which can be read as silhouettes of urban buildings. He was known, in fact, to make small notebook sketches of the skyline across Central Park on breaks from his duties at the Guggenheim. Although his imagery touched on subjects from the physical world, Jackson remained committed to hard-edge abstraction for almost his entire career. In this, he was more like Benjamin and Sihvonen than Lukin, who was something of an outsider, using the hard-edge sign for his own ironic, architecturally imposing purposes.
Like Lukin, the English painter Robyn Denny (b. 1930) had a pivotal phase in the 1960s and ’70s when the hard-edge esthetic figured prominently in his work. But Denny is more of a Romantic than Lukin and holds irony in abeyance. In the late 1950s, while still studying at the Royal College of Art in London, he began to make paintings combining stark gesturalism and elements of collage that invoke Abstract Expressionism and the French Tachisme and Lettrisme movements. It was the Lettriste influence that appears to have been a bridge to his more geometrically ordered paintings of the 1960s and ’70s, which symmetrically position horizontal and vertical shapes resembling fragments of letters or numbers in the center of bright color fields. These configurations have an architectural feel, recalling archaic gateways. Denny was also keenly aware of Rothko, Newman and Kelly: the cool wing of postwar American painting, which he encountered in the late ’50s.You can see the incandescent mauves and grays of Rothko merging with hard-edge composition in a painting like Garden (1966-67). There is also a slightly cartoonish quality to the way that wide, colorful bands in Denny’s compositions serve not only as discrete forms but also as outlines of other, interior rectangles. In 1969, he organized an exhibition of American artist Charles Biederman’s abstract geometric reliefs, a project that furthered his own thinking about hard-edge abstraction. Denny’s best paintings from this period are his larger canvases—as big as 8 by 6 feet—whose architectural compositions seem to envelop the viewer.
The visually compelling quality of hard-edge painting reflects its relationship to architecture. The hard-edge sign is meant to telegraph across space even as it draws us in to inspect the painting’s facture. Its clean, fast lines echo the lines where floor, ceiling and walls meet one another. The sign may mimic the luminosity of stained-glass windows, as in Benjamin’s work, but it also pushes forward into the room, rather than offering an escape from it. Lukin, Sihvonen and Denny purposefully address architectural scale in their larger paintings. In1969, Lukin went so far as to install a phallic, 119-feetlongpanel painting in the Empire State Plaza in Albany, which remains his best-known work.
Hard-edge painting seems to be innately optimistic. But there’s a range in that optimism. Benjamin’s and Sihvonen’s paintings offer different kinds of ebullience, due to the artists’ distinct approaches to scale and material surface. Sihvonen tended to go for a softer, more abraded surface and a tangier palette, creating works that suggest close-ups of finely woven, patterned fabrics. Lukin’s playfulness can be much more louche than Benjamin’s and Sihvonen’s, while also containing a touch of Warner Brothers cartoon insouciance. Compared to these three, Jackson and Denny are the true “classicists,” to the extent that within the hard-edge style they work toward clear, harmonic geometries. Denny is perhaps the most subtle colorist of these artists. Jackson is possibly the most wizardly with scale. Though his works activate a significant amount of space in a room, few have dimensions greater than 3 feet.
I selected these artists to write about precisely because they don’t constitute an actual group. They exemplify a level of mastery that has largely been overlooked, as well as an impressive range of affect, despite working in a style that most people tend to regard as purposefully restrictive. Today, a similar range can be found in the work of younger painters including, among others, Frank Badurin Berlin, John M. Miller in Los Angeles, and Winston Roeth, Gabriele Evertz and Li Trincere in New York. Badur produces richly colored compositions of austere, rectangular forms and softer grids, while Miller creates optically vibrant grids of hundreds of floating, precisely sized and spaced diagonal dashes. Such rigor is also found with Roeth, who, in multi panel paintings, builds up layers of tempera pigment with intense, devotional care. Evertz dazzles with vertical-stripe patterns, and Trincere endows her angular-shaped canvases with Pop-Minimalist sass. All these painters demonstrate distinct, instantly recognizable sensibilities in works keyed to various aspects of the hardedge legacy, which is far too big for any single artist to represent. The joy of this esthetic lies partly in the abstract otherness it invokes and partly in its open appreciation for its models in European modernism. Some might see the historical interplay of such painting as a limitation, but I see it as providing an ongoing, deep conversation—one continually enriched by new forms.