Hard-edge Painting - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Hard-edge Painting
In the late 1950s, the Californian art critic, poet and psychiatrist Jules Langsner began to observe an emerging trend in abstract art that stemmed from Color Field Painting, yet tended to employ clean lines and contrasting hues. He chose to highlight this by staging an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1959, which included artists Frederick Hammersley, Karl Benjamin, John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson. It was titled Four Abstract Classicists.
Langsner coined the term "hard edge colorforms" to describe the paintings on display and, more generally, the new style of color field painting that was becoming popular in California. He believed it recalled the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt and others. After LACMA, the show traveled to England and Ireland, at which time British art critic Lawrence Alloway subtitled the show California Hard-edge.
Hard-edge Painting: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Although the four artists included in Langsner's show were very different, they were united by their use of clean, lucid composition, intense color, and lack of surface incident. They were also influenced by the sense of "wholism," or single, unitary composition, seen in the work of Barnett Newman and other color field painters. Hard-edge abstraction differed greatly from its popular predecessor, Action Painting, in that the artists applied their paints very carefully and sought to avoid any suggestion of spirituality or soulful expression. Frank Stella is typical of those who might be described as hard-edge painters, and who sought to avoid the high-flown drama of action painting - like him, most felt that, by the mid 1950s, gestural abstraction becoming a manner that was being copied by legions of less talented followers, all of whom were pretending the anguish and existential insight.
Many of the hard-edge painters also differed greatly from more traditional color field painters, because although their work employed color as one of its principle components, they were more preoccupied with design and structure. In fact, even though Kenneth Noland had been a student of Josef Albers, who famously espoused the "interaction of color," he and others like him often tended to employ colors that failed to relate in the way Albers envisaged. Frederick Hammersley's Opposing #15 (1959) is typical of this strategy, since it uses contrasting primaries.
Later Developments - After Hard-edge Painting
In 1964 Langsner curated another exhibition, this time at the Pavilion Gallery (otherwise known as the Newport Pavilion) in Newport Beach, CA. Combining his original term with the subtitle assigned by Alloway, Langsner called this exhibition California Hard-Edge Painting. Included in the show were the original four from Four Abstract Classicists (1959), along with artists such as Larry Bell, Helen Lundenberg, and John Coplans.
But this should not suggest that the term "hard-edge" was therefore an established reference point for years to come; it had to compete with several others that attempted to describe similar work in the period, including "One-Image painting," and "Systemic painting." Some curators therefore tried to avoid descriptive labels entirely, and in 1963 an exhibition entitled Second-Generation Abstraction was held at the Jewish Museum in New York. The show consisted of 47 works by nine artists: Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Miriam Schapiro, George Ortman, Paul Brach, and Raymond Parker. It was significant for its introduction of New York-based artists into the hard-edge school of abstract painting. Up to this point, the tendency was only associated with those California artists who were widely considered rebels from the New York School.
Although the term "hard-edge" is helpful in describing the tendencies of the late 1960s, it had barely been launched before artists were also moving in new directions, and it fell from use as abstract painting explored new problems in the 1970s.