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1960s California Hard-Edge : Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg

Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London. 5 July – 8 September 2018

Review by John Stephens, August 2018

It makes an interesting proposition for a couple of reasons. The first, and most obvious one is that it gives us an insight into a specific approach to abstraction, one that re-emerged in the late ’50s and ’60s and which countered the more expressive gestural abstraction of a few years earlier.  But I would hasten to add that a hard-edge approach to abstraction wasn’t a new phenomenon peculiar to the ’60s.  The Russian Constructivists, Malevich and El Lissitzky, and the Dutch De Stijl artists, Mondrian and van Doesberg, had previously based their abstraction on clearly defined geometric shapes.

The Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, well-established artists in New York by the 1950s, had already asserted a hard-edge approach to their radical forms of colour field abstraction, perhaps already a reaction to the expressively gestural paintings of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.  And this approach was readily taken up by the younger generation of painters, of which Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, working in Washington and New York respectively in the early ’60s, were probably the most prominent; they were assertively furthering this form of abstraction with equally radical approaches.

The context is important, as the use of hard edges in some forms of abstraction in the late ‘50s, early ’60s and beyond enabled artists to use quite uncompromising compositional designs in which, to a large extent, simplicity was key to making unequivocal pictorial statements, usually about colour and how it’s experienced. But it was also about the fact that in the emerging modernist idiom, subject matter became irrelevant, thereby asserting the supremacy of the painting itself. The critic Clement Greenberg championed Noland, and claimed that his use of simple motifs such as circles and lozenges, and his application of paint onto unprimed canvas, with its integration into the weave and thread of the canvas, led to a severance of painting’s links with the past traditions of oil painting and its techniques.  Moreover, Noland’s approach, and the nature of his simple compositions, freed the painting from any sense of the primacy of left and right and, importantly, gravity.  The paintings could “evoke… limitless space, weightlessness, air…”  And it’s important to be aware of these, as characteristic of developments in 1960s abstraction, if we are to read the paintings of Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg.

That the show gives an insight into what was emerging on the west coast of America in the early ‘60s is also an obvious point of interest.  While we were familiar with what was happening in New York and Washington, we know less about developments in California. Indeed, apart from the later emergence of artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, John Baldessari and possibly David Hockney, all associated with California, I suspect that we have little awareness of Californian art, especially from the late ’50s and early ’60s.  By 1960 Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg could be considered mature artists. Karl Benjamin was about the same age as Noland, but Feitelson and Lundeberg were considerably older; 62 and 52 respectively, and as members in the 1930s of the group ‘Subjective Classicism’, later known as ‘Post Surrealism’, they had already been involved in artistic alliances - perhaps shedding light on the approach they were to take in the late 1950s and early ’60s.  Despite his youth, Karl Benjamin became associated with the older artist, Lorser Feitelson, and in 1955 they were the founder members of the ‘Abstract Classicists’. This group had a major exhibition in 1959 at the Los Angeles County Museum, and then went on tour to San Francisco and Belfast.

Although Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg adopted a hard-edge approach, their paintings are significantly different from those of their contemporaries in New York and Washington. As a group, they claimed that their work was more outward-looking than that of their east coast contemporaries, whose work they considered more inward-looking and conceptual. The east coast artists’ work is typified by simplicity and radical design, and the subordination of any subject matter to the integrity of the painting as its own entity, but these characteristics don’t appear to be quite such an imperative for the west coast artists.

The flatness so typical of modernist hard-edge abstraction seems to be acknowledged with varying consistency by the artists in this show.  We’ve become accustomed to the way in which such paintings are read, and we know that the way we read space is dependent on the organisation of colour and surface operating together. We read the push and the pull of planes of colour, and we have a sense of where the ground, the picture plane, is.  We read what appears to sit in front of, on, or behind the picture plane.  And while the three artists seem to be generally aware of this, to a certain extent there appear to be other imperatives that undermine such readings.  For example, there are discernible references to the cultural, urban and natural environment of California, a product both of the career histories of these artists and of their outward-looking attitude.  Some might see this as a kind of compromise, or possibly a deliberate attempt to add complexity to the paintings, to make the abstraction more ‘relevant’ or accessible.  But unlike the painters at the turn of the 19th century and the first decades on the 20th, who went to the South of France for what the quality of light might do for their impressionist-derived palette, the quality of the light for which California is renowned seems to have had a different impact on these three artists.  What we see instead is a palette that reflects more directly the hot colours of the desert, the cool colours of Californian architecture, and the brash colours of billboard signs and the built commercial environment. And it’s these characteristics that seem to have found their way into the language of each of these artists, each in a slightly different way. There is also something in the facture of these paintings that particularly interested me.  To a large extent I feel this may be due to the technicalities of the artists’ approach to painting, and their use of masking tape (which incidentally was not widely used by Noland and Stella, despite their assertion of defined edges) but it is also due to their having come from a different tradition within American 20th century painting.

Of the three painters, the youngest, Karl Benjamin, is probably the closest in attitude to the painters of the East Coast.  His work, like that of Noland or Stella, is marked by the use of simple motifs and shapes such as circles, discs, squares, lozenges and grids. But rather than use these as single motifs, as Noland did, he combines them with others, or links them to the framing edge, so that they assume the character of an emblem or symbol, often alluding to signage or billboards.  And unlike the fluidly-drawn roundels of Noland’s paintings, Benjamin’s use of masking tape renders his motifs more geometrically defined and more rigid.

There’s a strong sense of image and ground, and the painting process that Benjamin uses enhances this.  Looking closely at the surface, the oil paint is immaculately applied using carefully placed, single brush strokes, presumably using a wide brush, and brushing over the marking tape, which when removed leaves a pristine edge.  The making of the painting has required careful planning: Benjamin has had to take account of which shapes will sit on top of other shapes, and which will be adjacent.  Looking closely, you can see how, by using tape, there’s a slight raising at the edges of those shapes that sit on top, and this is absent where they sit adjacent to one another.  These are subtleties that require careful scrutiny, but for me they play an important role in understanding something of the history of the making of the paintings and thus how they are read.

For instance, in 37, the dark blue ground behind the two split discs appears to have been painted first, with what becomes the grey ground painted subsequently so that it contains the whole capsule motif, thereby causing an ambiguity of image and ground.  The red and pink  discs, tonally different, appear to oscillate chromatically, almost like a traffic light.  

Karl Benjamin 37, 1964. Oil on canvas. © Benjamin Artworks, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

18 and 30 are simpler compositions, consisting of a centrally placed circle in one and a lozenge shape in the other, and here Benjamin again plays with readings of image and ground - the colour interactions depend on colours of equal hue but differing tonal values.  In both paintings the central motif shifts between being an image coming forward and an opening onto the ground beneath; each motif is anchored to the edge by adjacent bands of the same colour running vertically along each edge, right and left.  The effect, again, is reminiscent of signage.

Karl Benjamin 18, 1964. Oil on canvas

© Benjamin Artworks, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

But Benjamin has other approaches to picture making.  43 uses a grid device in an interesting way, and of all his paintings in the show, this is probably the most successful and intriguing in terms of presenting us with spatial ambiguities.  What can be understood as a blue ground has, placed on it and adjacent to each other, two rectangles, one violet and one green, emphasising the horizontality of the work.  Placed symmetrically on top of these are four rectangles; two above two, in each half of the painting, in the same green and violet. And then, placed on top of these are smaller rectangles in the same blue as the ground. Except that these four blue rectangles aren’t actually placed on top at all, although they can be read that way; thanks to the use of masking tape they are in fact revealed as part of the underlying blue ground.  In this painting it’s not the jockeying of different hues but a reading of the tonal values of colour that make us question the space. The rectangular elements appear to move back and forth in space, sometimes coming forward, sometimes moving back, sometimes appearing as an opening onto the ground beneath. And yet, because of the sombre green and violet, the work also has a contemplative symmetrical stillness.

Karl Benjamin 43, 1964. oil on canvas

© Benjamin Artworks, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

Lorser Feitelson has two different types of painting on display.  Although they are all ostensibly abstract, a closer look seems to reveal an overt connection to architectural detail, and two paintings appear to allude to aerial views or maps.  In both types, I get a sense that the compositions are sections of something larger.  Unlike Benjamin’s paintings, in which the compositions are contained within the framing edge, Feitelson’s might well extend beyond the edges.  They are marked by a series of subdivisions, which might be traceable back to the paintings he made in his post-surrealist phase.

Untitled, Magical Space Forms, a painting in landscape format, is divided simply into two sections; the left-hand section is a square while the right-hand section is left with an awkward format: a narrow vertical rectangle.  The whole painting is then further divided; the left-hand square section into ever-decreasing squares, using what are effectively alternating grey and orange chevrons. These have the effect of leading the eye to a space behind the right-hand section, while in the right-hand section the divisions appear to be part of planes that go beyond the framing edge.  It’s a spatially confusing but intriguing painting, with a design that appears flat but isn’t.  Its palette alludes more to interior design than to an exploration of colour per se and seems to chime with the sense that the painting itself is taken from an architectural detail. Its facture too is intriguing: within the areas of paint whose edges have been delineated with masking tape, the brushwork is gratuitously heavy, multidirectional, very different from Benjamin’s meticulous and measured brushwork.

Lorser Feitelson Untitled, Magical Space Forms, 1960. Oil on canvas

© The FeitelsonLundeberg Art Foundation, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

There’s a similar approach to compositional organisation in Untitled, 1960. Again, the canvas is divided into a square and a ‘what’s left’, but this time it’s reversed. The right hand assumes the role of the square and the left-hand side is the vertical rectangle.  This painting is more satisfying than Untitled, Magical Space Forms, if a little less intriguing.  The division is marked by a difference in tone and chroma: two squares, above each other, make up the left-hand section, each square’s inner edges delineated by bands of yellow, ‘holding in’ two grey squares.  The right consists of diminishing squares of a very deep violet and chestnut, ‘holding in’ a square in the upper right-hand corner made of two colours, blue and green, which are chromatically and tonally very close.  Again, in this painting, it’s difficult to fathom the orchestration of the colour, leaving one with the sense that it is part of a larger design element, perhaps part of an interior or a building façade.

Feitelson’s other type of painting is evident in Untitled 1964 and Untitled (February10) 1965. These paintings were made five years after the previous two, accounting for the significant stylistic difference.  They both consist of linear elements running in a meandering flow from top to bottom. In Untitled (February10) 1965 they run over a ground of silver paint laid over previous painting of similarly meandering shapes, while in Untitled 1964 the lines are on a blue ground and appear to be hemmed in by two waving black edges.  As in the two previous paintings, the effect of the lines running from top to bottom is to suggest that the painting could extend beyond its framing edge, as if the painting is derived from an aerial view or map. But the viewer, once divested of this notion, is animated by the fluid lyricism of this work.  The surface of the painting reveals the sequence of its making; the lines are laid on last, between edges of masking tape, so that the ‘tracks’ are almost in relief.  Although these two paintings have lost any allusion to a ‘design palette’ it is nevertheless difficult to understand the colour intentions of the artist.  The use of silver paint may have some sort of reference to its use by the Pop artists of the time, notably Andy Warhol.

Lorser Feitelson Untitled, 1964. Oil and enamel on canvas.

© The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

Helen Lundeberg’s abstract paintings have inherited her rather beautiful handling of paint, use of subtle colour, and the meticulous drawing of her post-Surrealist paintings.  But without wanting to detract from these paintings, I hesitate to acknowledge them as purely abstract; in each one there are clearly discernible references to architecture.  But the spaces in the paintings are not created through readings of shapes that vie with one another because of their colour or their juxtaposition, as with the other two artists. The paint is applied within flat planes, which are subject to a form of perspective that gives them a spatial reading, and Lundeberg seems to have retained something of the psychological elements of her previous surrealist paintings.

Helen Lundeberg, Untitled, July, 1964. Acrylic on canvas. © The Feitelson/ Lundeberg Art Foundation, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

Lundeberg comes closest to real abstraction in Untitled 1969. This is an asymmetric composition with two capsule-shaped forms next to each other, off-centre to the right, on a blue ground.  The larger of the two shapes is full and rounded, the other awkward and elongated from the top edge to the bottom edge of the painting. Both are bent in their lower half and are reminiscent of shapes that might be found in a work by Ellsworth Kelly.  A horizontal line running across each of the shapes divides them into orange and tan sections.  The tan looks as if it could be the admixture of orange and blue, the two complementary colours in the painting, and as such it plays a neutralising role between the two richer-hued colours.  And although I could still discern light entering an architectural space through two openings, it’s the only painting of hers that I felt went beyond the figurative.

Helen Lundeberg, Untitled, July, 1969, Acrylic on canvas.  © The Feitelson/Lundeberg Art Foundation, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

As I’ve already mentioned, this show represents an interesting curatorial enterprise, bringing to light the work of artists that might not otherwise be seen in this country. Indeed, the critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philip claimed in 2011 that “Mr. Benjamin and his cohort would have been better known if they had worked in New York”.  But she goes on to say that paradoxically it was because he was cut off from the east coast that his work developed as it did.  

But I think the show has wider significance than this. The achievements of the artists based in New York and Washington who became known as the ‘Colour Field’ painters, so much championed by the critic Clement Greenberg, left other artists wondering where to go from there.  In New York artists embraced Minimalism and then Post-Minimalism, but for many other painters the establishment of a wider legitimacy for an art that was purely abstract left them with the challenge of how to proceed.  In some respects this is still a challenge, and while I wouldn’t necessarily consider the paintings in this show to be of major significance, they nonetheless embody the artists’ drive to make something of the abstraction that had so strongly asserted itself by the beginning of the 1960s.  And it’s interesting that the works of the British artists Bernard Cohen, Michael Kidner and Richard Smith, now on show in West Hollywood, California, represent a similar response to the same challenges.

The summer months - July and August - are often a time when gallery-goers expect to see mixed shows of gallery artists; it’s generally down-time in the gallery cycle. But over the last few years there’s been a trend for galleries to curate summer shows that are more enterprising. And so it is with the current exhibition at Flowers, of hard-edge abstract painters from America’s west coast, 1960s California Hard-Edge, which runs until September 8th.  It is, in fact, an exchange show in collaboration with Louis Stern Fine Arts in Hollywood, California, which represents the three artists on show and is simultaneously putting on a show of British abstract painters from the same period: Bernard Cohen, Michael Kidner and Richard Smith.

Lorser Feitelson, Untitled (February 10), 1965, oil on canvas ® The Feitelson Lundeberg Art Foundation,  Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Untitled (Arches II) is a painting in browns and beiges that at first sight appears abstract, but in fact subtly denotes a stylised depiction of shadows cast by one architectural element onto another with deep space beyond. And while one could argue that the artist has abstracted from something seen, it is nevertheless difficult to read it as abstract. The paint is meticulously applied so that no shape or plane is raised above another; they are all adjacent to each other.  This is not a painting about colour; the colour is used as local colour to describe a sense of light and atmosphere, rather like an old sepia photograph, and this is its charm.

A similar quality of light and space can be seen in Untitled, July, 1964, a symmetrical painting made with a limited range of tonally related colours with just two small flashes of orange.  Again, this is a painting that depends on an abstraction of shapes: something seen and translated into a stylised rendering.  The apse-like centre of the painting is flanked on both sides by two walls of ivory white lying parallel to the picture plane.  It could be the actual picture plane - the eye is drawn from the picture plane into the apse and through the arched openings in it to a space deep beyond, and somewhere in the distance lies an orange horizon.  All this is read from an arrangement of flat planes of colour with no tonal rendering, and in my view it says more about an experience of space and atmosphere than about painting itself.

Helen Lundeberg, Untitled (Arches II), 1962, oil on canvas   ® The Feitelson Lundeberg Art Foundation,  Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London and Louis Stern Fine Arts, Los Angeles

Installation view of 1960s California Hard-Edge, Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundberg, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery