HASSEL SMITH The Measured Paintings, 1970-1986.
"Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles” Frank Lloyd Wright
If you want a concise description of Hassel Smith, just describe him as one of the founding fathers of the “everything loose,” “cool school” of West Coast modernism. The East Coast’s view of the West Coast expressed so perfectly in the pejorative “everything loose” is now being celebrated and embraced as a source of creative freedom - and rightly so - as a wave of ongoing scholarship continues to reveal the complex mosaic of West Coast artists and designers that in the aggregate created a uniquely American, West Coast Modernism that is now clearly visible as an important counter balance to the received New York-centric art canon. To understand Hassel Smith’s art you must place him in the context of this “free spirit” “cool school” modernism he helped create.
The creative freedom that came with Los Angeles' “anything goes” distance from New York City and allowed West Coast artists to freely experiment, also came with a troubling corollary. The distance from New York also meant that West Coast artists would be outside the New York centered art patronage system. The “everything loose” freedom so crucial to the West Coast art gestalt came with a Faustian bargain that meant for West Coast artists, no market, few collectors, and an entrenched East Coast critical establishment that viewed LA as a tinsel town whose “only cultural advantage was the ability to turn right on a red light.”
To say which came first - the fact that the New York critical and market support structure did not understand or value the West Coast’s art aesthetic, an attitude that led West Coast artists to develop a chip on their shoulder, which in turn led West Coast artists to not only work independent of, but also thumb their noses at the established critical and market support structure - is a chicken versus egg proposition. Compare the John Cage composition for piano, 4’33”, first performed in 1952 at Woodstock where performer David Tudor sat in silence at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, opening and closing the keyboard lid three times to mark the movements of the piece with a piano performance at Six Gallery in San Francisco (sometime between 1955 and 1957) where several artists and poets destroyed a piano with an axe. These two performances say it all about the East-West divide.
Chicken or egg, there was a huge gap between the West Coast vanguard art movements and the established critical and market patronage system. West Coast artists would have to live with it. The New York critical establishment assumed nothing of importance originated in the hinterlands. 4’33” would become a revered icon of the East Coast vanguard while the performance at Six Gallery would be critically ignored and virtually forgotten. The East Coast establishment ignored the fact that the influence of Buddhism on the American avant-garde, personified by John Cage, was a West to East flow. In 1955 Alan Watts was discussing Buddhism on the radio and teaching at the Asian Institute in San Francisco. Allen Ginsberg’s first public performance of “Howl” was at “6” Gallery” in San Francisco Oct. 13, 1955.
Understanding this undeniable structural gap is crucial to understanding Hassel Smith and crucial to understanding how an important body of work by one of the founding fathers of the “everything loose” “cool school” of California Modernism has been lost from the public view and the critical record. Hassel Smith was a quintessential West Coast artist. His cultural importance in vanguard art movements in both San Francisco and Los Angeles is a historical fact.
Hassel Smith was living in Haight-Ashbury before Janis Joplin was born. He was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, North Beach, San Francisco in 1945 forming with fellow artists like Clifford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, David Parks, Frank Lobdell and many American colleagues the most advanced art school in the world. He was well known to the Arensberg/Duchamp circle. Both Duchamp and Man Ray visited and lectured at CSFA. In 1949 Spohn installed a neo-dada exhibition “The Museum of Unknown and Little-Known Objects“ at CSFA. Richard Diebenkorn, Hassel Smith, and Frank Lobdell were important participants. Hassel Smith was one of the painters, along with Richard Diebenkorn and Clifford Still featured in the inaugural group exhibition at Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz’s now legendary Ferus Gallery in LA.
"The Measured Paintings, 1970-1986" adds an important piece of the puzzle documenting the structural gap between East and West Coast vanguard art movements. Looking at these brilliant paintings it seems impossible that they were painted 30-40 years ago. They have a freshness and contemporary presence that feels innovative right now. The exhibition of these paintings that I organized at 333 Montezuma Arts in Santa Fe, NM was the first ever to focus on this body of Hassel Smith's work. When I spoke on the phone with Paule Anglim, a long time friend and dealer of Hassel Smith, I asked her how these paintings had slipped through the cracks. Her reply was (I am paraphrasing), "San Francisco collectors expected Abstract Expressionist work from Hassel. The paintings were different than anything else at the time. Artists loved them but collectors and critics did not understand them. Hassel was a difficult free spirit, much like his friend Clifford Still. He could be his own worst enemy."
Understanding these paintings involves looking at work done in the 70's and 80's by West Coast artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, John Altoon, DeWain Valentine, Ken Price, Peter Alexander, John McLaughlin, and John McCracken. Even with the wave of more than thirty museum and gallery exhibitions that accompanied the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time” there are a startling number of important West Coast artists that the East Coast establishment has still failed to understand or acknowledge. Hassel Smith is one of these artists. Not that I think Hassel Smith would care. Smith was a lifelong lover of jazz. I can picture him working on his "Measured Paintings" listening to Herbie Hancock or Chet Baker while spinning out there in the cool jazz deep, floating to a “cosmic groove."
All images courtesy of 333 Montezuma Arts except for the last two above taken from the web
Above: Installation view, De Wain Valentine: Works from the 1960s and 1970s, David Zwirner, New York, 2015. © 2015 De Wain Valentine/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York