Hassel Smith

Untitled

1959

Artist
Hassel Smith 1915–2007
Medium
Oil paint and enamel on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1803 x 1245 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Allan D. Emil through the American Friends of the Tate Gallery 1960
Reference
T00383

Not on display

Summary

Untitled 1959 is an oil and semi-gloss enamel painting on a rectangular, vertically orientated canvas. The work’s grey, textured surface is dominated by two jagged, organic-looking forms: one floating in the upper left quarter of the composition and the other occupying the painting’s lower right corner. The latter of these forms is made up of bold gestures of dark blue and red paint combined with crisp curved edges. The upper form, although also mostly abstract, has a grotesque quality, suggestive of a creature standing on its hindquarters. Thin trails of dark colour spike upwards and off to the left from this haunch-like shape, their sharpness softened by a hazy outline of pink, orange and white. Sets of thin, straight lines section off portions of pale-coloured space at the bottom and on the upper right hand side of the painting. The back of the canvas is inscribed ‘Hassel Smith | 1959’.

Untitled was made in 1959 by the American artist Hassel Smith in the Californian city of Sebastopol. It was first exhibited in a solo exhibition of Smith’s work at Gimpel Fils in London in 1960. Writing about Untitled in a letter to Tate dated 21 April 1961, Smith stated that he remembered little of the work’s initial painting and conception and claimed that his methods generally precluded ‘verbal recapitulation’, underscoring the immediacy of his practice (Alley 1981, pp.694). He did recall, however, that Untitled developed over a prolonged period of time, and that in its early stages there was an ‘additional eventfulness’ to the painting’s composition:

Thus it is an example of a trajectory of change characteristic of many of my paintings. I often begin by ‘making’ a lot of ‘things’ – packing the area with events – and then proceed (compulsively rather than by formal plan or choice) to eliminate, cut-up, regroup, etc., always in the direction of greater asperity of effect.
(Quoted in Alley 1981, p.694.)

Smith’s recollections of painting Untitled can be said to emphasise the artist’s intimate connection with the act of painting, which is frequently evident in his work. This intimacy was fostered, in part, by the relative seclusion of his studio in Sebastopol. Built in an apple orchard in 1953, the studio would form Smith’s place of work until 1962. This retreat from San Francisco came a year after his resignation from the California School of Fine Arts, having been forced from his teaching position due to his uncompromising left wing politics. Despite this outcome, his time at the school had a lasting influence on his practice. His encounters with fellow faculty member and abstract expressionist Clyfford Still had a particular impact – Still’s 1947 exhibition at the California Legion of Honor in San Francisco is often credited as the catalyst for Smith’s turn to abstract expressionism. (See Robert C. Morgan in Giloy-Hirtz 2012, p.64.) The jagged, torn forms that dominate Untitled bear a resemblance to Still’s ripped abstractions (see, for instance, PH-945 1946, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver). However, they are accompanied by a stillness and control which, critics have claimed, is unique to Smith. (Morgan in Giloy- Hirtz 2012, p.65.)

Although Untitled can be considered exemplary of the maturation of Smith’s abstract expressionism, there is an undeniably figurative quality to its curved contours. This career-long interest in figuration can be attributed partly to the influence of Maurice Sterne, whose drawing classes Smith attended in 1936–7. In his reflective statement of 1962 Smith compared the imagery of Untitled to his earlier work Variations on a War-Like Theme (date and collection unknown). According to Smith, the ‘hoof-like forms’ that feature in both paintings suggest a flying horse, dragon or warrior, consequently evoking a ‘destructive apocalyptic presence’. (Quoted in Alley 1981, pp.694–5.)

Further reading
Allan Temko, Hassel Smith: Paintings 1954–75, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 1975.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, pp.694–5, reproduced p.694.
Petra Giloy-Hirtz (ed.), Hassel Smith: Tiptoe Down to Art – Paintings 1937–1997, London and New York 2012, pp.66, 75, reproduced p.149.

Katherine Doniak
March 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Catalogue entry

Hassel Smith born 1915

T00383 Untitled 1959

Inscribed 'Hassel Smith | 1959' on back of canvas, and 'up' with an arrow
Oil and semi-gloss enamel on canvas, 71 x 49 (180.5 x 124.5)
Presented by Allan D. Emil through the American Friends of the Tate Gallery 1960
Prov: With Gimpel Fils, London (purchased from the artist); Allan D. Emil, New York
Exh: Hassel Smith: Paintings, Gimpel Fils, London, April 1960 (14, repr.)
Repr: The Friends of the Tate Gallery: Annual Report 1960-1961 (London 1961), between pp.12 and 13

The artist wrote (27 April 1961): 'It was executed in a combination of conventional oil-color and semi-gloss enamel (the American equivalent of Ripolin, I believe).

'I wish I could tell you something in detail about this painting, its conception, etc. As it happens my "methods" preclude verbal recapitulation. I do recall that I spent an awfully long time on this painting and that in an earlier stage of its development there was additional eventfulness. Thus it is an example of a trajectory of change characteristic of many of my paintings. I often begin by "making" a lot of "things" - packing the area with events - and then proceed (compulsively rather than by formal plan or choice) to eliminate, cut-up, regroup, etc., always in the direction of greater asperity of effect.

'In this particular painting I notice hoof-like forms which seem to relate it in my mind with an earlier painting (also shown at Gimpel Fils), a painting called "Variations on a War-Like Theme". The imagery in the earlier painting is more complete but in both there seems to be a suggestion of the Flying Horse (dragon), warrior, destructive apocalyptic presence etc.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.694-5, reproduced p.694

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