Abstract Classicists: Helen Lundeberg and Frederick Hammersley

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Overlooked Brilliance

“Self-Portrait” by Helen Lundeberg (Collection of Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Gift of Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Foundation)
“Self-Portrait” by Helen Lundeberg (Collection of Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Gift of Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Foundation)

Southern California artist Helen Lundeberg is regarded as the co-founder of the new classicist, or post-surrealist, art movement of the 1930s. In fact, she wrote its manifesto—the first and only surrealist manifesto to come out of the United States—and yet her work has been overlooked for decades. Her husband, Lorser Feitelson, was her partner in life and art: The two were known for their abstract, perception-bending yet orderly and intellectual paintings and ideas. But it was Lorser  who became a more widely regarded artist, considered one of the key abstract classicists during the 1950s. But Helen’s work—thoughtful, contemplative, geometric and logical—stands the test of time and may exceed her husband’s in terms of depth and value.

This spring, Laguna Art Museum hosts the first comprehensive exhibition of Helen’s works since her death in 1999. “She really seemed like an exceptional figure who ought to be well-known,” says Executive Director Malcolm Warner. “I was interested right from my arrival here in the possibility that we could do a [Helen] Lundeberg retrospective.”

Curated by Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Ilene Susan Fort, “Helen Lundeberg: A Retrospective” will cover her most important hard-edge pieces of the 1950s and 1960s. A number of her large 60-inch by 60-inch paintings, which have rarely been seen publicly, are also on display through May 30.

“It’s hard to go against the grain of very macho men, and people thinking history was made by men only,” Ilene says of Helen’s long overlooked brilliance and sophistication. “We want to take history apart and fix it up a little.”

Abstract Acclaim

"Untitled" by Frederick Hammersley (Laguna Art Museum Collection, Gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation)
“Untitled” by Frederick Hammersley (Laguna Art Museum Collection, Gift of the Frederick Hammersley Foundation)

A contemporary of Helen’s, Frederick Hammersley was a giant in West Coast abstract painting in the 20th century. The artist was included in the landmark hard-edge abstraction exhibition, “Four Abstract Classicists,” which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1959, alongside Lorser (Helen’s husband), Karl Benjamin and John McLaughlin; it made stops in Los Angeles, London and Belfast, Northern Ireland, and changed the way the country—and much of the Western world—looked at California art.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1919, Frederick received formal training at Los Angeles’ Chouinard Art Institute and Jepson Art Institute before teaching at several Southern California institutions, including Chouinard, Jepson, Pomona College and the Pasadena Art Museum. He categorized his art into three groups: “hunches,” “geometrics” and “organics.” Painting well into his 80s, he died in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2009.

“Today, more and more artists, architects and designers are excited by midcentury abstract styles such as Hammersley’s,” Malcolm says.

In conjunction with “Helen Lundeberg: A Retrospective,” Laguna Art Museum is featuring a small exhibit titled “Frederick Hammersley: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection.” The show features about 20 of the 38 lithographs and drawings given to the museum by the Frederick Hammersley Foundation in 2014. While Frederick is known for his geometric, hard-edge abstraction, the collection also showcases his talents in drawing and representation.

“The interesting thing about his drawings is the way they range so much in style,” Malcolm says. “He was an old-fashioned draftsman in some respects. He was drawing from the live model, in a naturalistic style. He also had some experimental compositions, taking on ideas from [Pablo] Picasso and El Greco.”

Malcolm is curating the show and says some of the works on paper resemble Frederick’s paintings from the 1960s and 1970s. Notably, a few of the computer prints that the artist made in 1969—well ahead of his time—are on display.

—Written by Richard Chang

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  1. I fell in love with an early signed and dated oil by Frederick Hammersle. It perched atop a refrigerator in a real estate clients home in Petaluma. It was in need of help, as it had been removed from it’s frame, then naturally rolled up on itself, and stepped on, breaking some of the paint off of the canvas. I have guesses as to how this might have come about. At any rate my clients and friends rescued it, by reframing it.

    Every-time I went there, my eye was drawn to the painting and I would make a genuinely innocent comment about liking it.

    At the closing of the transaction, my clients gave it to me, as a tip, and because they knew that I truly liked it. I subsequently had a trusted professional restore the piece, back in about 1996-7. She did a beautiful job. Ironically it was mounted in a simple wooden frame, that I bet is the original, also.

    May I send you a photo of the painting and the signature, on back


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