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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Artist, Frederick Hammersley and Old Age

By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- One of the benefits of living in an area saturated with art and artist is that every now and then you find an artist you respect is—or was—living near of you.

Artist, Frederick Hammersley

Such is the case with Frederick Hammersley, one of the architects of Hard-edge painting.

For those not too familiar with Hard-edge art, it is a form of painting that combines Geometric Abstraction, Color Field, and Op art into a cohesive whole defined by sharp edges, unexpected transitions, and contrasting colors. It is often connected to the California cool jazz scene. If you’re familiar with the Jazz albums “Time Out” by Dave Brubeck or “Mingus Ah Um,” you get a sense of Hard edge inspired art (though neither of these two albums covers were created by the original Hard edge artists, but by graphic artist, Neil Fujita).

Hard-edge painting had its roots in California during the 1950’s. It began with a gathering led by professor, Peter Selz, of Claremont College, and curator, Jules Langsner. Selz and Langnser invited several artists to discuss their work, pointing out similarities between the paintings. Four of these men decided to show their work together, curated by Langsner. The end result was an exhibition called the “Four Abstract Classicists.”

Frederick Hammersley holding a book of his artwork

The artists were John McLaughlin (1898-1976), Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978), Karl Benjamin, and Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009).

Like other people, I first got a sense of Hard-edge style from classic jazz albums, particularly from the Bop and Cool periods. The odd geometric shapes and color combination led to an interest in the art. As a high school student in San Jose, California, I used some of the techniques in my own monotype prints: angular, sharp edges, with contrasting colors.

Later, as I began to study art history in my undergraduate days at Cal State Stanislaus in Turlock, California, I was re-introduced to this uniquely California movement.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the “Four” had been living in Albuquerque, New Mexico up until his death in 2009; a neighbor, of sorts.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1919, Hammersley attended college in both Idaho and California, before taking teaching posts in California at Pomona, Chouinard, and Pasadena colleges. In 1968 he moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico. In 1971 Hammersley stopped teaching, dedicating his time solely to painting.

In 1975 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship award and a National Endowment for the Arts award in 1977.

In a documentary entitled, “Never Let The Screen Door Slam” (, Hammersley discussed his move to Albuquerque, stating, “I didn’t know how to spell Albuquerque, but it was the best move I ever made.”

Up With It, 1957 by Frederick Hammersley. Oil on Linen

At a recent exhibit at the University of New Mexico Museum of Art – celebrating its 50th year in service to the community—I was able to view one of Hammersley’s pieces. Even with Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin works around, my eye was drawn to Hammersley’s work. I was impressed by the color, design, and Baroque-like tone to the painting. Furthermore, the documentary mentioned above was playing. I watched as an elderly man discussed his art, returning to painting in his later years as a creative outlet. He continued to create magnificent works well into his 80’s.

All of this made me ponder the concept of age. How is it Hammersley created great works of art well into his later years?

As I’ve noted in another article, according to US News Report, “There are now more Americans age 65 and older than at any other time in US history.” Census data collected in 2010 states a 5.3 percent jump in elderly populace since the year 2000. What does this mean? The answer is simple: the US has a sizable senior population. People are living longer.

Self Portrait, Frederick Hammersley. Oil on Canvas, 1950

But age doesn’t mean non-activity or non-productivity. As a matter of fact, cultures in eras before our own have demonstrated that the elderly have an important role in society, producing creative and expansive works, and providing a collective cultural value.

In his book, “Splendid Seniors,” Jack Alder provides a list of individuals who accomplished great things later in life.
Alder writes, “Sophocles was 89 when he wrote ‘Oedipus at Colonus,’ one of his dramatic masterpieces.

“On the day of his death, at the age of 78, Galileo was said to be planning a new kind of clock that would tell time—in minutes and seconds, not just hours—using a pendulum swing instead of movement of water or sand.

Isaac Newton, better known for his scientific achievements, became a scourge of counterfeiters as the Warden of the Royal Mint, a position he held until his death in his mid-80s.

“Benjamin Franklin only retired from public service when he was 82.

“Benjamin Disraeli was 70 when he became prime minister of England for the second time.

“Susan B. Anthony was past 80 when she formed the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

“Henrik Ibsen was 71 when he wrote his last play, ‘When We Dead Awaken.’

“Alexander Graham Bell was 75 when he received a patent for his work on a hydrofoil boat.

“Sarah Bernhardt was 78 when she acted in her last stage performance—‘La Gloire’ by Maurice Rostand.

“Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was reading Plato in Greek when he was 92.

“Ignace Paderewski was 79 when he retired from playing the piano in concerts.

“George Bernard Shaw was working on his last play, ‘Why She Would Not,’ when he was 94.

“Grandma Moses received her last commission as an artist when she was 99.

“Robert Frost was 88 when his last volume of poems, ‘In the Clearing,’ was published.

“General Douglas MacArthur was 70 when given command of the United
Nations’ army in the Korean War.

Winston Churchill

“Winston Churchill was 79 when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Igor Stravinski was 84 when he completed his last work, ‘Requiem Canticles.’

“W. Somerset Maugham was 85 when his last book, ‘Points of View,’ was published.

“Charles DeGaulle was 75 when he was reelected president of France.

“Pablo Picasso produced 347 engravings in his 87th year.

“David Ben-Gurion was 84 when he finally retired from political life in Israel.”

Quite a list.

With all this discussion concerning the elderly, a question arises for the Christian: As followers of Christ, what should our attitudes be towards the elderly?

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention gives some helpful thoughts concerning Christianity and the elderly (

One, old age is a blessing from God. The site states that, “Attitudes toward aging in general and toward elderly people in particular are especially important for Christians. The Bible teaches that old age is a blessing of God.”

Two, the site discusses the characteristics of old age: “In the Bible, the aged are perceived as resourceful people with valuable gifts to share for the good of everyone.”

Three, God has provided resources for the aged. The site states, “God has promised His abiding presence;” that “God gives strength to endure suffering and infirmity;” and “God gives deliverance from the fear of death.”

And, finally, care of the aged. The Ethics site reports, “The aged deserve kindness and respect. Families have an obligation to provide for their aged members. Churches have special responsibility for the aged.”
Great insight.

Yet—when all is said and done—one of the greatest honors we can bestow upon any person in their golden years is to let them be the person God has intended them to be: encourage them to create, to be productive, to offer their gifts, services, and life lessons to all who will listen and receive.

Allow the elderly to leave a mark for future generations, and in doing so we afford an opportunity to marvel at the imprint of God’s unfolding story of His work among humanity—and here age doesn’t matter, for God’s work in-and-through His people is ageless.

For more information on the University of New Mexico Art Museum:

For a documentary highlighting aging New Mexico artists:

For information on an upcoming exhibit in Los Angeles featuring the work of Hammersley and others:

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This story is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ASSIST News Service or ASSIST Ministries.
Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at

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