Hassel Smith was an American Abstract Expressionist. He studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute and was accepted in Maurice Sterne's elite painting and drawing class. Smith was influenced by the Modernist style. He later became interested in abstraction after seeing Clyfford Stills Color Field exhibition. His improvisations are characterized by jarring colors layered on top of one another and free handed, witty shapes. In the 1980's he went back to painting expressionist scenes.
Hassel Wendell Jr. Smith was born in Sturgis, Michigan in 1915. Over the next several years, Smith moved with his family to Denver then on to Los Angeles, San Mateo and Mill Valley in search for a more agreeable climate for his mother, who had contracted tuberculosis while Smith was still an infant. The family returned to Michigan in 1923, staying until 1929 when they moved again to San Mateo. In 1932, Smith graduated from San Mateo Union High School.
He then attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned Bachelor’s degrees in both Art History and English Literature. During his study at Northwestern, he encountered the modernist paintings on display at the World’s Fair in Chicago and saw the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. These occurrences piqued the interest of the fledgling artist, eventually leading him to study the masterpieces of the European moderns. From this point forward, Smith immediately identified himself as a “modernist,” something that he would adhere to for the remainder of his life (“Hassel Smith Chronology”).
In 1936, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA, now the San Francisco Art Institute) with the intention of only taking courses through the summer. However, by the end of the term, he decided to continue studying there. Over the next two years, Smith studied under artists Otis Oldfield (1890-1969), Spencer Macky (1880-1958), Lee Randolph (1880-1956), and Maurice Sterne (1877-1957) (Nixon 10).
At the time Smith finished his studies at the CSFA, the economy was still suffering from the fallout of the Great Depression. In 1939, Smith became a state relief worker in San Francisco where he supervised a group of men on San Francisco’s Skid Row. During the War years, Smith joined the Farm Security Administration as a caseworker in Arvin, California. He completed a series of drawings of farm workers that documented their life and circumstances, much in the vein of social documentary photographers Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) (Nixon 10). While in Arvin, he met and married social worker June Meyers.
By the end of the war, he returned to the Bay Area with Meyers and their son, Joseph. He took a temporary position in the lithography workshop at the CSFA, which eventually led to a full time appointment. He arrived at CSFA just as the school was undergoing a decisive change in its history. Under the tutelage of the CSFA’s new director, Douglas MacAgy (1916-1973), the school became a veritable stronghold in the San Francisco art scene. Between 1948-52, Smith taught alongside Clyfford Still (1904-1980), David Park (1911-1960), Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991), Edward Corbett (1919-1971), Clay Spohn (1898-1977) and Ansel Adams (1902-1984), among others. During the post-war years, the school flourished as a hotbed for new discussions on abstraction (Selz 8). Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) each spent time there as visiting professors. Moreover, while at the CSFA, Smith interacted with students such as Frank Lobdell (b. 1921) and Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who would later join him as members of the faculty.
By 1952, however, the once congenial and vibrant atmosphere of the CSFA was all but gone. Rifts began to develop between the older generation of Abstract Expressionists and the new generation of painters who were returning to figurative painting. In addition, the School suffered from a decrease in student population and funding. MacAgy found little support in the Trustees, who wanted to shift the School’s focus to more trade oriented curriculum; ultimately, he resigned. When a new director who favored more “traditional” art practices was appointed in 1952, Smith and several other instructors were eventually forced to resign (Selz 9).
A year later, Smith purchased an apple orchard near Sebastopol, Sonoma County, where he built a painting studio and worked the orchard. However, tragedy struck when his wife, Meyers, passed away from cancer. Between 1957 and 1962, he enjoyed numerous solo-exhibitions in galleries in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, San Francisco and London that eventually allowed him to make a living from the sale of his art.
In 1959, Smith married Donna Raffety Harrington, who had two sons, Mark and Stephen. In 1960, their son, Bruce, was born. In 1962, he and his family spent a year in Mousehole, a Cornish fishing village. While in England, Smith received positive critical reception with regular exhibitions at Gimpel Fils in London and the Tate’s acquisition of a painting for their permanent collection (Temko).
After his return, he held teaching stints at both UC Berkeley and UCLA. In 1966, he accepted a position at the West of England College of Art in Bristol, England (which later became the Bristol Polytechnic). He continued to teach there until 1978. During leaves of absences, he taught at UC Davis, alongside Roy De Forest (1930- 2007), Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), William Wiley (b.1937), and Manuel Neri (b. 1930), among others; at UC Berkeley for two years; and at the San Francisco Art Institute. Until 1978, he taught at the Bristol Polytechnic, Faculty of Art School and the Cardiff College of Art in Wales. Throughout the 1980s, he made several trips to the Bay Area, where he continued to enjoy numerous solo-exhibitions. In 1988, he was awarded the Cunningham Endowed Chair at the College of Notre Dame, and in 1991, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the San Francisco Art Institute.
Over the several years, he enjoyed a productive period of painting at his home and studio in Rode, Somerset, England. In December of 1997, he was forced to stop painting due to failing health. On January 2nd, 2007, Smith passed on at Sutton Veny Nursing Home, near Warminster, Wiltshire, England (“Hassel Smith Chronology”).
II. SGTV Video
"Hassel Smith: Abstract Expressionist"
Produced by Jeremy Tessmer
Narrated by Frank Goss
This video was produced to accompany the debut exhibition from the Estate of this first generation Abstract Expressionist painter.
To watch this video click on the image to the left.
HASSEL SMITH IN HIS STUDIO, c. 1989
Photo courtesy of the family
III. An Analysis of the Artist's Work
“Again, there is Smith’s reminder that his paintings are not about something, they are the something which waits to meet and involve us.” – Walter Hopps, 1961
In 1936, Hassel Smith arrived in the Bay Area equipped with degrees in Art History and English Literature from a first rate university. Yet, unsure of his future plans of attending graduate school on the East Coast, he enrolled at the CSFA that same year. This proved to be a monumental decision for Smith as he devoted the rest of his life to art making. Though a painter, Smith never abandoned his training in Art History and Literature. Throughout his career, he committed himself to exploring all facets of the arts, particularly the powerful analogs that coexist between the production of art, music, dance, and poetry.
When Smith arrived at the CSFA, it was still very much a conservative institution; yet, he found kinship in one of his instructors, Maurice Sterne. Smith, who at the time knew the basics of art making, learned from Sterne the tenets of modernist painting. Smith has stated that Sterne exposed him to the “[…] mysteries of transferring visual observations in three dimensions into meaningful two-dimensional marks and shapes […]” (Selz 6). In the following years, Smith continued to paint and draw mostly in a figurative, Post-Impressionist style (Nixon 10).
The year of 1947 proved to be a critical juncture in Smith’s development as a painter. Clyfford Still was hired as an instructor at the CSFA and a major exhibition of his color field, Abstract Expressionist paintings was put on at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The show had a profound effect on Smith’s ideas on art, causing him to question the currents of modern art (Nixon 16). Ultimately, he responded to Still’s exhibition by taking up abstraction. Smith has stated on the subject that he wished “to feel free to appreciate life without relating it, either its beauties or its ugliness in any necessary way to my painting. My paintings are intended to be additions to rather than reflections of or upon life.” (Hopps 2). His paintings from this period carry swift, improvisational characteristics— jarring colors layered on top of one another and free handed, witty shapes (Temko).
Though he turned to non-objective painting in 1947, as Curator Walter Hopps has suggested Smith never completely abandoned figuration. In the 1960s, Smith painted a series of works that drew heavily from his passion for jazz. He painted expressionist scenes of young teens dancing or “twisting” and even included items from popular culture such as American flags, automobiles and ice cream cones into his scenes. Smith’s love of dance and art can be traced back to his days in Chicago when he first saw the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. The synthesis of modern art with experimental music and dance had a profound effect on him. Once in the Bay Area, he fell in love with the abundant availability of jazz bands and clubs. He found parallels between the energy and movement of the musical genre with his own forays into Abstract Expressionism. Many of these figurative pieces were often given peculiar titles that added an “unexpected comic energy” (Duncan 103). According to critique Lawrence Alloway, this “humour, the influence of jazz, and ‘a symbolic use of colour, as in maps, flags and heraldry” tied Smith to a certain “San Francisco style” (Alloway 2).
In 1957, Smith was included in the first exhibition put on by the Ferus Gallery, which became lauded for its important role in fostering the birth of Los Angeles’ modern art scene. Through the gallery, he met fellow artists Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934), and John Altoon (1925-1969). In 1961, the Pasadena Art Museum held a retrospective that solidified Smith’s ties to the Los Angeles art scene (Nixon 21).
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Smith created a series of highly structured, often geometric paintings, which he referred to as his “Measured” paintings (Selz 34). With compass and ruler in hand, Smith set out creating acrylic paintings that drew influence from Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) and the school of Russian Constructivists. The geometric patterns of these large canvases are balanced by Smith’s mastery of color. He sought out to create a controlled method for painting on a canvas, something that is a naturally random act (Nixon 28-29). Again Smith never left his love for music far behind when painting. Smith has stated about this period of work that it “[…] could be closely related to the arts of music and dance as well as to forms not commonly considered to be ART: game boards, flags, maps, rugs, quilts, and so forth.” (Nixon 41). Just as a composer carefully arranges a symphony, Smith methodically arranged each canvas.
By the mid-1980s, he returned to working in an Abstract Expressionist mode. The works of this later period stand apart from his abstract works of decades earlier in that they are less densely painted. Feathery brushstrokes of vivid color appear to dance lightheartedly across the canvas, outlining the sway of the veteran artist’s hand. Whether figural, abstract, or carefully measured, Smith’s paintings invite the viewer to experience not just the finished appearance, but every aspect of how the paint was placed there in the first place.
HASSEL SMITH IN HIS SEBASTAPOL STUDIO, c. 1958
Against the wall to the right of the artist, there leans a painting typical for Smith in that period. Biomorphic shapes suggesting anatomy jostle for space on a canvas that is alive with color fields and spontaneous marks.
1915 Born in Sturgis, Michigan.
1918-1923 Moves to Denver, then Los Angeles, San Mateo and Mill Valley, California.
1932 Graduates from San Mateo Union High School.
1936 Graduates from Northwestern University with a double major in Art History and English. Enrolls at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute).
1937 Takes up painting en plein air. Enrolls in drawing classes under the WPA program. Meets Henri Lenoir, Hilaire Hiler, Mat Barnes, and others.
1939 Works under the California State Relief Administration, supervising a single men's caseload on Skid Row in San Francisco.
1941 Accepts the Abraham Rosenberg Fellowship for independent study and moves to the Sierra foothills.
1942-1944 Sent to Arvin, California, to work under the Farm Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Marries June Meyers, a social worker.
1944 Spends the remainder of the war as a timber sealer for the Forest Service along the Macenzie River in Oregon.
1945 Returns to the Bay Area and teaches at the CSFA as an assistant in the lithography workshop.
1945-1951 At the CSFA, teaches alongside Clyfford Still, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Jean Varda, Clay Spohn, James Budd Dixon, Robert Howard, Walter Landor, DorBothwell, Squire Knowles, Ansel Adams, and Richard Diebenkorn, among others. Visiting instructors included Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and William Hayter, among others. Students during this period included Frank Lobdell, Deborah Remington, James Kelly, Sonia Gechtoff, Adelie Landis (Bischoff), Lily Fenichel, Roy deForest, Ernest Briggs, John Hultberg, Julius Wasserstein, Jack Jefferson, and Madeleine Dimond (Martin), among others.
1947 Holds his own solo-exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Son, Joseph, is born. Moves with family to Oregon where he works as a timber scaler. Later he teaches at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
1948 Returns to a teaching appointment at the CSFA.
1952 New Director of the CSFA forces Smith and several other instructors to step down. Teaches at Presidio Hill School and the Mission Community Center. Holds weekly seminars at his home.
1953 Acquires apple orchard in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, where he builds a studio and works the orchard while continuing to paint.
1955 Exhibits in Action I, which takes place at the Merry-Go-Round Building on Santa Monica Pier.
1957 Participates in the Ferus Gallery’s innaugral exhibition, meets artist Peter Voulkos, John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Moses, among others. Begins exhibiting at the Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco. June Meyers Smith passes away.
1959 Marries Donna Raffety Harrington, who had two sons, Mark and Stephen. Begins to show in London.
1960 Son, Bruce, is born.
1962 Lives for a year in Mousehole, a Cornish fishing village.
1963-1965 Returns to California as a Lecturer in the Art Department at the University of California at Berkeley.
1965-1966 Moves to Los Angeles and becomes Associate Professor in the Art Department at the University of California at Los Angeles.
1966-1978 Principal Lecturer at West of England College of Art in Bristol (the Bristol Polytechnic), Faculty of Art School, and the Cardiff College of Art, Wales, England. Guest Artist at the San Francisco Art Institute.
1967 Receives "Distinguished Service to American Art" award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
1973-1975 Returns to the Bay Area on two separate occasions to take up a position as a Visiting Professor in the Art Department at the University of California at Davis.
1977-1980 Instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute.
1979-1980 Visiting Professor in the Art Department at the University of California at Berkeley.
1984 Visits the Bay area for an exhibition at the Paule Anglim Gallery.
1985 Returns to the Bay Area for an exhibition at the John Berggruen Gallery.
1986-1987 Creates lithographs and monotypes at Magnolia Press in Oakland.
1988 Awarded the Cunningham Endowed Chair by the College of Notre Dame.
1991 Awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the San Francisco Art Institute.
1988-1997 Executes a prolific period of painting at his home and studio in Rode, Somerset, England.
1997 Forced to stop painting in December when his health begins to fail.
2007 Passes away on January 2nd at Sutton Veny Nursing Home, near Warminster, Wiltshire, England.
2008 In March, the San Francisco Art Institute holds a celebration of his life and work.
UNTITLED 11 (CIRCLES)
68 x 68 inches | acrylic on canvas
Available for acquisition
In these mysterious and playful "measured" paintings from the 1970s, Smith bucks the Bay Area convention that geometric work is too "cold and aloof." Smith occasionally discussed painting in terms of "events" and "intervals." In these works, an event might be understood as a change in shape or color, while an interval might be read as an expanse of color. This kind of thinking ties even these "measured" paintings to music - especially jazz.
Atlantic Richfield Company, Los Angeles, CA
Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento, CA
Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, TX
De Menil Foundation, Houston, TX
De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA
Federal Reserve Bank, San Francisco, CA
Hirshhorn, New York City, NY and Washington, D.C.
Houston Museum of Art, TX
I.B.M., White Plains, NY
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
New York State University Gallery, New York, NY
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan
Oakland Museum, CA
Palm Springs Desert Museum, CA
Pasadena Museum of California Art, CA
Phillips Gallery, Washington, D.C.
St. Louis Museum of Art, MO
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
San Francisco Airport, CA
Security Pacific National Bank, CA
Stanford University Museum of Art, Palo Alto, CA
Tate Gallery, London, England
Berkeley Art Museum, University of California, Berkeley, CA
University of California, Davis, CA
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
1947 University of Oregon Art Gallery, Eugene, OR
1947, 1953 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
1953, 1955 King Ubu Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1953, 1955 East & West Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1957, 1959 California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA
1957, 1962, 1964, 1965 Dilexi Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1959, 1961 The New Arts Gallery, Houston, TX
1960, 1963 Gimpel Fils, London, England
1961 Pasadena Art Museum, CA
1964 University of Minnesota, MN
1964Hassel Smith Twenty Years, Gallery Lounge, San Francisco State College, CA
1964 Worth Ryder Gallery, University of California, Berkeley, CA
1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1973 David Stuart Gallery. Los Angeles, CA
1968 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
1970-73 Suzanne Saxe Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1972 Bristol Art Gallery, England
1974Hassel Smith in Houston, University of Houston, TX
1975Hassel Smith Paintings 1954-1975, San Francisco Museum of Art, CA
1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987 Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, CA
1978 Atlantic Richfeild Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, CA
1980 Tortue Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1981Hassel Smith Selected Works 1945-1981, Oakland Museum, CA
1983 San Jose Museum of Art, CA
1984 Theatre of the Primitive Future, London, England
1985 John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1987 Blum Helman Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
1987-1997 Annual Group Exhibitions, John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, CA
1988Hassel Smith: Measured and Figurative Paintings 1964-1985, Gallery 44, Oakland, CA
1988 College of Notre Dame, Belmont, CA
1988 Monterey Museum of Art
1988 Cleveland Bridge Gallery, Bath, England
1988 Lannetti-Lanzoni Gallery, San Francisco, CA
1989 Natsoulas- Novelozo Gallery, Davis, CA
1995 Harcourts Modern and Contemporary Art, San Francisco, CA
1991, 1997, 2001, 2006 John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, CA
2002Hassel Smith: 55 Years of Painting, Sonoma County Museum, Santa Rosa, CA
2004Lenbachpalais, Credit Suisse, Munich, Germany
2006Hassel Smith, John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis, CA
2008Line on the Loose: A Hassel Smith Memorial Exhibition, San Jose Museum of Art, CA