Hard-Edgeness in American Abstract Paintingby Robert C. Morgan
Invented by the critic Jules Langsner in 1959, the term “hard-edge painting” represented a kind of geometric or Classical painting in which the shapes within the painterly format were clearly defined by a hard edge—often, but not always, taped in the process of their delineation. Langsner used the term specifically to describe the work of California painters, such as John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson, and Karl Benjamin. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, when hard-edge painting was spoken of in Los Angeles galleries and studios, it generally referred to both a style and a technique. During those years, the term was frequently introduced—or “bandied about,” as the formidable McLaughlin used to say—in conversations directed toward a modestly scaled, reductive approach to abstract painting. The New York counterpart to these California Classicists was generally larger in scale and more pronounced, as seen in the works of Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. Based on a few recent exhibitions in New York, it would appear that traces of both the large and the modest variety of this hard-edge approach to painting are reappearing in a variety of forms.
Hard-edge actually preceded the popular usage of the term “minimal art,” which found its way into art world rhetoric through an important essay written in 1965 by art historian and theorist Richard Wollheim. When I started painting with metallic oil pigments in Santa Barbara in 1970, I believed I was working somewhere between the two—between hard-edge and minimal art—then later decided that the term “minimal painting” was an oxymoron. From the perspective of Donald Judd (among others), minimal art was supposed to refer to objects in real space in contrast to fiction on canvas. The exceptions would be artists who intentionally transformed the canvas into an object—Jo Baer, for example. But not everyone who painted hard-edge chose this route, and not all painters were willing to relinquish their hold on painting and declare their practice in terms of “objecthood”—the notion Michael Fried critically applied to art-as-object in 1966, thereby redefining this approach to art as a type of theater. However, there were many types of art-as-object and not all of them fit neatly into Fried’s attribution. Even so, upon reading Fried’s essay some years later, I decided to drop the term “minimal” when discussing my work, largely to avoid confusion and to return to the literal notion of “hard-edge,” using it less to denote a style of painting than a technique. By coincidence, perhaps, my early “Acoustical Variations” (1970-71) were eventually shown with the hard-edge McLaughlin at the Jan Turner Gallery in Los Angeles in 1992.
Upon seeing the selection of four monumental paintings by Olivier Mosset at the uptown Mary Boone Gallery—three of them dating from the 1980s—I was taken by their Classical stature, their hard-edge quality, and their openness of surface space. (One of the more nuanced aspects of hard-edge painting, achieved by Mosset, is the care and precision given to articulating surface space in a manner that is both contrary and equal to paintings that work exclusively with space created by the overt gesture. This quality is something McLaughlin has spoken of in relation to the brush paintings of the 15th century Japanese master, Sesshu, whose work he studied scrupulously while living in Japan.) With Mosset, I was particularly drawn to the large green and gray “EN (for enough),” measuring 84 by 187 inches, from 1988. In this painting, the forms stay on the surface without giving way to any particular illusory effect, while holding their place in a bifurcated relationship to one another. The set of horizontal bars on the left somehow matches the two brief diagonal cuts on the right, emerging discretely up from the bottom and down from the top. The size of Mosset’s painting implies not so much a containment of the hard-edge forms than a dialectical relationship with the architecture by way of a reconfiguration or alteration of one’s spatial orientation.
In contrast, the paintings shown in Structured Color at D. Wigmore Fine Art were more modest in scale and clearly absorbed with the use of direct primary and secondary color, opticality, and hard-edge applications of paint. Karl Benjamin’s stripes, “Number 17,” from 1970, read differently from Gene Davis, also included in the exhibition, whose rhythmic vibrations exceed the more Classical, though clearly elegant intentions of the former. Tadasky (a k a Tadasuke Kuwayama) paints precision circles or bullseyes that confront the gaze of the viewer head-on. Their impact is more overt than the “Targets” of Jasper Johns and more refined than the splashy circles of Kenneth Noland. Within his self-appointed genre, there are numerous variations of form and color, including the thickness of the lines. Along with those of his pioneering colleagues, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczek, Tadasky’s paintings are optical in their resonance. All three artists were included in The Responsive Eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. By optical, I refer to a painting’s potential to create optical vibrations that suggest an illusion or the presence of virtual forms hovering in front of the actual surface. Ironically, this quality is more apparent in the monochrome “D-147 (Blue)” from 1966—the year after The Responsive Eye—than in “C-145 (Multicolored),” painted the year of the exhibition. Still, Tadasky continues to advance the premise that the circle is the most natural way of seeing beyond the edges of the square or rectangle and therefore enables the eye to move in and through his rings of astral color.
Charles Hinman, also included in the exhibition, works differently from the optical painters included in Structured Color. His surfaces may appear simple on first sight, but in many ways they are as complex as the others, with panels bolted together in elaborate arrangements to create a shaped painting that protrudes from the wall. Seeing the configuration of stretchers from the backside of such paintings as “Overlap” or “Checkmate” (both 1980) is like deciphering the cerebral intricacies of a chess game. The low-key color planes play off one another in a series of oppositions that ultimately achieve a resolution. I suppose Hinman’s paintings—in addition to being, along with Stella’s, some of the very first shaped paintings—also define the meaning of “resolution” in a more convincing way than many painters who employ this term. Put another way, there is a language of painting in Hinman’s work that is, at times, inexorable. As a painter, he is inextricably bound to the concept of abstraction and hard-edgeness. Along with the painter Harvey Quaytman, who was included in a group show at the David McKee Gallery in February, Hinman offers a succinct argument that elevates abstract painting beyond the spiritual into the realm of thought.
While Quaytman also worked with the shaped canvas at a certain point in his career, his more stoical and significant works are his ultra-refined abstract, hard-edge paintings that deal with a traditional format in mixed mediums. Here I refer to the artist’s “Untitled” (1991), a quadrilateral painting, measuring 46 by 46 inches, using rust, dry pigment and acrylic medium on canvas. Like the chess games of Hinman, Quaytman’s paintings are extremely cerebral, yet full of sensual grace. “Untitled” reveals a highly sophisticated mind, in which a delicate balance is achieved through an intense reflectivity and maneuvering within a pictorial space. Like the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, Quaytman appeared to grasp the logical limits of his craft and, in doing so, move his painting toward the point of intuition. The challenge was always to know when to relinquish the logical limits and release the luminosity hidden within the air of the surface. An alchemist of sorts, Quaytman moved abstract painting beyond the mundane into the realm of cognitive understanding through a heightened sensory involvement with materials and an ultimate clarity of space.
Finally, I would like to cite the exhibition of recent paintings by Laurie Fendrich, an artist whose work offers a necessary counterpoint to the large-scale gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists by returning to a previous discourse in American abstraction that focused more on an intimate scale in relation to hard-edge color forms. Having seen two shows of her paintings and another of her drawings a few years ago at Colorado State University, it is clear that her work differs widely from other hard-edge painters discussed here. In fact, most of her edges appear more fuzzy than hard, even though the forms are contained in a hard-edge way. Fendrich is less interested in symmetry and a predictable balancing of form with color than in creating an unpredictable tension within the surface space. They possess a quirky humor—as I observe “An Honest Stupid Soul” (2010)—full of grace and extended wit. She touches a vital core in painting, and thus keeps it alive as a necessary (pre)occupation. By this I mean that Fendrich does not require an exegesis to convince viewers that there is, in fact, a “there” there. At times, the paintings are delicate riffs, while other times they surge through the mist of some far-sighted ambiguity. Either way, they—for lack of a better term—pulsate with more push and pull than I think I’ve ever actually seen in a Hofmann, suggesting that she has achieved something in the act of painting that some spend a lifetime trying to avoid. Let’s just call it by its rightful name—aesthetic distance. And this is the reason they sing!
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.