Hassel Smith

333 Montezuma Arts, Santa Fe
12 July to 30 December 2013

Curated by Petra Giloy-Hirtz
In cooperation with Tom Tavelli


“The magnificent liberated ‘geometric’ paintings of the 1970s,” as Allan Temko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, called them, are paintings of exuberant color and masterful brushwork - for today’s eyes contemporary, fresh, and surprising. Around 1970, with a protractor and adhesive tape, Hassel Smith started dividing the canvas into fields, constructing a grid, and configuring simple geometric forms within it: circles, squares, rectangles, spirals. He composed them within relationships, allowing them to overlap, ignoring the edge of the image: like globes, spheres, or solar systems, orbiting around a center. They float, as in some cosmic space, in shades of rose, pink, light green, purple, yellow, orange. The surface is painterly, it is in movement by means of dynamic strokes of the brush; only occasionally do purely opaque areas rest within them like islands. In the sensitive, finely balanced, and often transparent application of delicate colors arises the impression of an exciting connection between the constructed and the free, between chance and control, calculation and spontaneity - a dialogue between fixed order and dynamism. One can hear and feel the rhythm of the works, like the language of a poem, the movement of a dance, like music.

Smith was known as “a leading free spirit of art,” as a “West Coast underground legend,” “one of the freest and wildest,” “one of the most vigorous and imaginative Western pioneers of the modern movement in painting” mentioned by art critics in the same breath as Willem de Kooning, or Franz Kline. Allan Temko considered Smith “the most powerful Abstract Expressionist in the West.” Along with artists such as John Altoon and Richard Diebenkorn, Smith was one of the “key people of Abstract Expressionism in the legendary Ferus Gallery.

He has been famous for his early representational paintings - “a distinctly colorful and rugged expressionistic approach to landscape, ‘casual’ scenes of figures, and portrait heads” (Walter Hopps) – as for his figurative work of the 1960s - playful images filled with humor that narrated stories – and of course for the abstract “iconic paintings” from the 1950s and 1960s of great compositional and poetic power.

Today these works are scattered, lost, or virtually inaccessible in the museums’ depositories. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art there are twelve paintings, at Oakland Museum of California there are fifty, at the Los Angeles County Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, in Denver, Huston... - across the entire United States there are no less than twentyfive museums whose collections contain Hassel Smith’s works - from New York City to San Francisco. Imagine to bring them together in a retrospective! Cosmotiana should inspire to a renewed energy to release Hassel Smith’s works from museum storage and reveal them to the public. It would be a historically important show and a unique esthetic experience.

There is a strong continuing history of interchange between New Mexico and California - as witnessed by the lives of many significant artists of the West. Within this context it is a bold initiative by Tom Tavelli to show the measured series of paintings by the Californian artist Hassel Smith in Santa Fe. The breathtaking and surprisingly beautiful exhibition at 333 Montezuma Art – the first time by the way that a large group of measured paintings have been exhibited as an exclusive installation -, accompanied by a recent monograph and a lecture by the author of this essay at the New Mexico Museum of Art, are significant steps to illuminate and reappraise Hassel Smith’s work. The resonance of the public and statements of art critics have already proven the increasing awareness and appreciation of this artist.

A recent published book presents a full appreciation of Smith’s achievement: Hassel Smith, Paintings, 1937-1997, edited by Petra Giloy-Hirtz, authors: Paul J. Karlstrom, Susan Landauer, with contributions by Petra Giloy-Hirtz, Robert C. Morgan, Peter Selz, and Allan Temko (1975), Prestel Publishing, Munich London New York 2012.