Coined by critic Jules Langsner in 1959, the term “hard-edge painting” represented a kind of geometric or classical painting in which the shapes of the pictorial format were clearly defined by a hard edge – often, but not always, glued in the process. of their delimitation. Langsner used the term specifically to describe the work of Californian painters, such as John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson, and Karl Benjamin. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when hard-edge painting was talked about in Los Angeles galleries and studios, it was usually both a style and a technique. During these years, the term was frequently introduced – or “swapped”, as the redoubtable McLaughlin put it – in conversations geared towards a modest and reductive approach to abstract painting. The New York counterpart to these California classics 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 seem that traces of the great and modest variety of this hard-edge approach to painting are reappearing in varying forms.
Hard-edge actually predated the popular use of the term “minimal art”, which found its way into the rhetoric of the art world through an important essay written in 1965 by the art historian and theorist Richard Wolheim. When I started painting with metallic oil pigments in Santa Barbara in 1970, I thought I was working somewhere in between – between hard-edge art 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 meant to refer to objects in real space as opposed to canvas fiction. Exceptions would be artists who intentionally turned the canvas into an object – Jo Baer, for example. But not all who painted hard-edge chose this path, and not all painters were willing to relinquish their grip on painting and declare their practice in terms of “objectivity” – the notion that Michael Fried critically applied object art in 1966, redefining this approach to art as a type of theatre. However, there were many types of object-art, and not all of them fit Fried’s attribution perfectly. Even so, after reading Fried’s essay a few years later, I decided to drop the term “minimal” when discussing my work, largely to avoid confusion and return to the literal notion. of “hard-edge”, using it less to designate a style of painting than a technique. Coincidentally, perhaps, my early “Acoustic Variations” (1970-71) were finally exhibited with the hard-edge McLaughlin at the Jan Turner Gallery in Los Angeles in 1992.
Viewing the selection of four monumental paintings by Olivier Mosset at the downtown Mary Boone Gallery – three of which date from the 1980s – I was seduced by their classic stature, cutting-edge quality and openness of space to surface. (One of the more nuanced aspects of hard-edge painting, done by Mosset, is the care and precision that goes into articulating surface space in a way that is both opposite and equal to paintings that work exclusively with the space created by the overt gesture.Quality is something McLaughlin spoke 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 shapes stay on the surface without giving in to any particular illusory effect, while maintaining their place in a bifurcated relationship with each other. The set of horizontal bars on the left somehow correspond to the two brief diagonal cuts on the right, emerging discreetly from bottom to top and from top to bottom. The size of Mosset’s painting implies less a containment of hard forms than a dialectical relationship with architecture through reconfiguration or alteration of spatial orientation.
On the other hand, the paintings presented in Structured color at D. Wigmore Fine Art they were more modest and clearly absorbed in the direct use of primary and secondary colors, opticality, and hard-edged paint applications. Karl Benjamin’s scratches, 1970’s ‘Number 17’, read differently from Gene Davis, also included in the exhibit, whose rhythmic vibes go beyond the more classical, albeit clearly elegant, intentions of the former. Tadasky (aka Tadasuke Kuwayama) paints precision circles or bubbles that confront the viewer’s gaze head-on. Their impact is more overt than the “Targets” of Jasper Johns and more refined than the splashing circles of Kenneth Noland. In its self-proclaimed genre, there are many variations in shape and color, including line thickness. Along with those of his fellow pioneers, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Julian Stanczek, Tadasky’s paintings are optical in their resonance. The three artists were included in The reactive eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. By optics, I refer to the potential of a painting to create optical vibrations that suggest an illusion or the presence of virtual forms hovering in front of the real surface. Ironically, this quality is most apparent in the monochrome “D-147 (Blue)” from 1966 – the following year The reactive eye— only in “C-145 (multicolor)”, painted the year of exposure. Yet Tadasky continues to advance the premise that the circle is the most natural way to see beyond the edges of the square or rectangle and therefore allows the eye to move in and through its astral color rings.
Charles Hinman, also included in the exhibition, works differently from the optical painters included in Structured color. Its surfaces may appear simple at first glance, but in many ways they are as complex as the rest, with panels bolted together in elaborate arrangements to create a shaped painting that protrudes from the wall. Seeing the configuration of the stretchers from the back of paintings such as “Overlap” or “Checkmate” (both from 1980) is like deciphering the cerebral intricacies of a game of chess. The discrete color planes play off each other in a series of oppositions that ultimately result in resolution. I suspect that Hinman’s paintings – in addition to being, along with Stella’s, some of the very first shaped paintings – also define the meaning of “resolution” more convincingly than many painters who employ this term. In other words, there is a language of painting in Hinman’s work which is, at times, inexorable. As a painter, he is inextricably linked to the concept of abstraction and hardness. With painter Harvey Quaytman, who participated in a group exhibition 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 has also worked with shaped canvas at some point in his career, his most stoic and significant works are his ultra-refined, hard-edge abstract paintings that deal with a traditional mixed-media format. I am referring here to the artist’s ‘Untitled’ (1991), a quadrilateral painting measuring 46 by 46 inches, using rust, dry pigments and acrylic medium on canvas. Like Hinman’s chess sets, Quaytman’s paintings are extremely cerebral, yet full of sensual grace. “Untitled” reveals a highly sophisticated spirit, in which a delicate balance is achieved through intense reflectivity and maneuvering in pictorial space. Like the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, Quaytman seems to grasp the logical limits of his craft and in doing so move his painting to the point of intuition. The challenge was always knowing when to let go of logical boundaries and unleash the hidden luminosity in the surface air. An alchemist of sorts, Quaytman moved abstract painting beyond the mundane into the realm of cognitive understanding through heightened sensory engagement with materials and ultimate clarity of space.
Finally, I will cite the exhibition of recent paintings by Laurie Fendrich, an artist whose work provides a necessary counterpoint to the large-scale gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists by returning to an earlier discourse of American abstraction that focused more on a intimate scale look compared to hard-edged color forms. Having seen two exhibitions of his paintings and another of his drawings a few years ago at Colorado State University, it is clear that his work differs widely from the other hard-edge painters discussed here. In fact, most of its edges appear more blurry than hard, even though the shapes are harshly contained. Fendrich is less interested in symmetry and a predictable balance of form with color than in creating an unpredictable tension in surface space. They possess a quirky humor – as I observe in “An Honest Stupid Soul” (2010) – full of grace and extended wit. It touches a vital core of painting, and thus keeps it alive as a necessary (pre)occupation. By this I mean that Fendrich doesn’t need an exegesis to convince viewers that there is, in fact, an “out there.” Sometimes the paintings are delicate riffs, while other times they arise in the haze of clairvoyant ambiguity. Either way, they – for lack of a better term – vibrate with more push and pull than I think I’ve ever seen in a Hofmann, suggesting she’s achieved something in the act of painting that some spend their lives trying to avoid. Let’s just call it by its rightful name: aesthetic distance. And that’s why they sing!