Exposition Art Blog: Hassel Smith

Hassel Smith

Hassel Smith (April 24, 1915 – January 2, 2007) was an American painter.
During the war period, while working as a camp supervisor in the Central Valley, he made numerous drawings of field workers: "It seems to me that the drawings that I began to make of field workers and so on, are among the first things which I consider to have really quite significant quality".
His paintings of the post-war years (1945–48) continued in representational vein reflecting Bay Area street-life and bar scenes, characterised by flattened space with frequent combination of collage elements taken from advertising and newsprint, and increasingly tough gestural brushwork. Smith's humor and social conscience are evident in the works from this period.Smith's most influential and widely known paintings and drawings developed rapidly from the end of the 40's, lasting into the mid-1960s. The influence of Clyfford Still's torn fields of color was apparent from an early stage, alternatively a strident dispersion of roughly applied post-pointillist strokes. By the mid-1950s Smith achieved an entirely independent stylistic language, integrating raw canvas and broad patches of color with a combination of short curving, also ruled linear markings that dance at speed across the visual plane, tightening pictorial space.

 From 1964 to 1970 Smith returned to representational painting with a series of large-scale figure compositions and street scenes; partly invented, partly observed, occasionally deriving ironically from renaissance and classical themes (Tarquin and Lucretia, Cupid and Venus, et al.: Smith's most favored artists from the past were Titian and Georges de la Tour). It is clear from the paintings of this period, as from the paintings of the 40's, that Smith's concepts of representational painting were not responsive to the academic atelier tradition. Both amusing and elegant, Smith's paintings of the late 60's form a pivotal transition from abstract-expressionism to a cool hard-edged aesthetic.The presence of an underlying but only partially visible grid, a modular schemata, identified the paintings of the 1970s to late 1980s as the "measured paintings". Made on recurring square and rectangular formats having the same vertical dimension, the measured paintings consist of high-density synthetic acrylic paints fabricated from separate components. There is evident use of compass and straight-edge without taped lines, yet vigorous brushwork within the boundaries of drawn elements. By the mid-70's the supporting grid was undetectable beneath an interplay of squares, rectangles, triangles, circles of varying dimensions embraced within tonal fields.

 The emergence of apparently random brushstrokes and markings, tenuously confined by the compositional schema of late-series measured paintings, led to complete disintegration of the grid strategy as the visual plane surrendered to an oppulent gestural abstraction (1987 to 1994). Vortices of clustered multi-tonal strokes grow and diminish, explosive and wave-like, within fields of thinly tinted canvas. Made from high-density acrylic components, paintings of this period suggest simultaneously the density of oil with the translucency of aquarelle. A counterpoise of planar solidity and spatial infinitude contributes to vitality and allure.
Regrettably few paintings comprise the final group of Smith's works, executed in the three years before a Parkinsonian illness prevented further output. Rarely exhibited and little-known, they are an amassing of gestural marks into solid shapes whose tonal contrasts and soft edges create interlocking dramas of pictorial space. Hassel Smith's last works are consistent with his signature West coast sensibility, yet there is a compelling tenderness and fragility.Wikipedia

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