Hassel Smith: A Free Spirit Remembered

The Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco is currently exhibiting some 45 paintings and works on paper by Hassel Smith (1915-2007), an artist whose mercurial six decade long career has been described by his stepson Mark Harrington as "a sustained high-wire endeavor." The exhibition -- the first major Bay Area show of the artist's work in over 30 years -- is timed to compliment the recent publication of the first comprehensive monograph on the artist: Hassel Smith: Paintings 1937-1997. 

Hassel Smith: Paintings (1937-1997), Edited by Petra Giloy-Hirtz, Prestel, 2012, 212 pages
Featuring major contributions by Paul J. Karlstrom and Susan Landauer, along with essays by Peter Selz, Robert C. Morgan, Petra Giloy-Hirtz and the late critic Allan Temko, the monograph makes a compelling argument that Smith's oeuvre deserves re-assessment. Smith would have appreciated the very talented group of writers who have come together to tell his story so completely.

Because Smith's work changed quite dramatically over time, evolving through roughly six distinctive styles, looking though the newly published text is a stimulating and revelatory experience. "I believe that people will be surprised at the breadth of Hassel's work," reports his wife Donna. "I think that those who can look at it with curiosity will appreciate what he did. In the book, as in the exhibition, there is much wonderful work that even people who knew Hassel well had little or no awareness of."


Hassel Smith, circa 1941-41, photo: The Estate of Hassel Smith
Smith first gained notice as a representational painter in the 1940s: his works from that period have an energy and graphic insistence that predicts some of the qualities of the Bay Area Figurative style that his friend David Park would pioneer a few years later. In the 50's Smith -- who was very close to Clyfford Still -- developed the feisty calligraphic abstract paintings that earned him his reputation as an "underground legend." He reached the apex of his career in the late 50s and early 60s when his work was shown in Los Angeles at the Ferus and David Stuart galleries, and when he also briefly taught at UCLA.

Then, the cultural tsunami of the Pop Art movement changed the landscape of the art world, and Smith's career lost some of its momentum. Interestingly, several of Smith's superb abstractions from 1960 and 1961 are still in the collection of Irving Blum, the Los Angeles dealer who famously showed Andy Warhol's soup cans in 1962.

 The peripatetic life that followed after Smith left Los Angeles -- he was back and forth between California and England for many years -- combined with his constant stylistic tinkering, meant that the art world never quite managed to get a read on Smith during his lifetime. Dr. David Anfam, a British curator and scholar feels that Smith's mutability was actually part of artistic and personal strength: "There is something wonderful about Hassel Smith's refusal to stay put in an Abstract Expressionist hold. Like Clyfford Still -- but in a completely different way -- he always seems to have been his own man."

 During his first year in England Smith painted narrative paintings that Paul Karlstrom describes as "playful, filled with humor, jokes and sometimes sarcasm." More representational paintings, especially of women, appeared in the late 60s, but Karlstrom says that for Smith "it was not a question of a 'representational' or 'abstract' worldview." Smith did what he wanted, the way he wanted, when he felt like it.

The fact that Smith had harsh opinions about many artists, dealers and critics -- and that he didn't keep them to himself -- has been cited as a reason that his reputation stalled in the 60s and 70s. "He did turn his back to some extent, on the art world," says Donna Smith "and to some extent, it turned its back on him. But he was a painter's painter, and did not easily play the game with critics or art functions, etc. I think the cantankerous side of him has been over-played."

As the new monograph makes clear, Smith had some very faithful friends and supporters. Allan Temko, the Pulitzer prize winning art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, was a true believer. In 1975 he opened his essay for Smith's 1975 SFMOMA retrospective, which is included in the book, with these words:  

"In an age which exalts not only mediocrity, but outright mindlessness, Hassel Smith's paintings are extraordinary acts of intelligence."

Hassel Smith, "Self Portrait," 1995 Acrylic on board 19 ¾ x 16 inches

Although Smith mainly painted abstractions in his final decades, one of the highlights of the show at Weinstein is an acrylic self portrait from 1995. In it's congested, sweeping brushwork there is a ferocity and vitality that shows just what Smith had retained after more than 50 years of painting: his conviction. As Donna Smith explains, it was painted just two years before he was forced to put down his brushes:  

"Hassel had a long and debilitating illness and it caused his death. More than that, he couldn't draw or paint after the end of 1997. He was in that condition for nine years. Sometimes I would see him draw in the air, but he could not control a pencil. I think it is a testament to his big spirit that he could live for so many years without practicing his art."

Weinstein Gallery
291 Geary Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, 94704
Through February 7, 2013

Israel Hershberg: Fields of Vision

At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, painter Israel Hershberg is currently showing four landscape paintings: two Umbrian landscapes, a view of Tel Kakun in Israel's Hefer Valley, and a small preparatory work done in the Roman Campagna this past summer. The result of painstaking study and observation, Hershberg's landscapes are scrupulous and refined. One of Hershberg's artistic aims is to remove "himself" from his work, an approach that mirrors the thinking of Italian Renaissance masters of the 15th century. "He is watching and looking hard," comments his friend and fellow artist Kyle Staver. "I feel his tenacity and resolution in every move. The work is present and uncompromising: it is absolutely convincing."

DETAIL: Aria Umbra I, 2003 - 2004, oil on linen, 119 x 250.5 cm. Collection: Israel Museum
Image courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
Hershberg was educated in the United States: at the Brooklyn Museum School, The Pratt Institute and the State University of New York at Albany. Between 1973 and 1984 he taught painting and drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and also briefly taught at the New York Academy of Art before moving to Israel in 1984.

In 1998 he founded the Jerusalem Studio School, the first school in Israel to focus on figurative painting. The school's core program is a four year Master Class comprised of 40 students and focuses on the primacy of painting and drawing from observation, the human figure and in depth study and research after old and modern masters. Its stress on classical as well as modernist values distinguishes it from the neo-classical realist ateliers more common today.  

I recently interviewed Israel Hershberg and asked him about his approach to painting, his show in Jerusalem, and about the Jerusalem Studio School.  

John Seed Interviews Israel Hershberg
Israel Hershberg
JS: Israel, is it fair to say that your paintings are grounded in your experience of the real world?

IH: There is a quality, an essential concrete experience that I wish very much to transmit, but in its various formational stages I take whatever liberties are necessary for the painting. My finished pictures are not a document of the thing observed. I'd like them to be a new nature, a registration, if you will, of experience as opposed to record. They must be first and foremost, paintings. When I am painting a landscape it's not the nature which captivates me. When looking at a landscape I consider it just as I would any other motif; it's seen through an imposed particularized lens, an accumulated corpus of painterly pictorial desires I have amassed, like the amassing of barnacles on an old ship's hull, it becomes an archetype and one with its own eco-system. One of the reasons I am seduced by the Italian landscape is that it's impossible for me to consider it outside that historical lens of painting, whether imagined or empiric. Seeing the concrete as such becomes canonical, and painting, fertile, pregnant and full of potential.

Aria Umbra I, 2003 - 2004, oil on linen, 119 x 250.5 cm. Collection: Israel Museum
Image courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
JS: So, the paintings you have on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem should not be seen as plein air paintings, right?  

IH: I don't see myself as a plein air painter. Actually, I'm appalled by what is called plein air painting today. It's been hijacked by an ever expanding group of hobbyists who have turned it into something between a fundamentalist religion and an outdoor sport. Their mantra: A painting is to be done en plein air from start to finish and not one stroke away from the nature! That approach was never the practice or intent of the great landscape painters, not Corot's, not anybody's. All landscape painting, all painting, is studio painting if pondered, whether done on site or in inside a sensory deprivation tank for that matter - painting is the expression of the experience of painting. That said, I am very concerned with maintaining what I think of as the plein air impulse: the stuff I try to nail down in the smaller preparatory works I start on site before embarking on the large pieces and precisely because I do covet the incidental, empiric, the random as important values.

Tel Kakun, 2005 - 2007 oil on linen, 68.6 x 250.5 cm. Private Collection.
Image courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
JS: You are showing two paintings of Italy alongside a painting of a landscape in Israel. How do the landscapes work together?  

IH: There is a lot of overlap. People here, at first glance, have thought that the Italy paintings were done here in the north. Israel is after all in the Mediterranean basin: there are a lot of cypress trees, olive, date, and figs trees. There are pockets here, without manmade structures to give it away, nestled into the hills surrounding Jerusalem that could make you think you are in Italy. Also, I have always been fascinated by the historical connections, relationships and exchanges between ancient Rome and Jerusalem.

Aria Umbra II, 2007 - 09, oil on linen, 93 x 250.5 cm. Collection: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada Jerusalem, Israel
Image courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
JS: It must be very exciting to be the founder of the Jerusalem Studio School, and to feel that you are taking part in the creation of a new set of artistic traditions in what is still a relatively young country.

IH: It is pretty amazing. Amazing that the consensus here, and elsewhere, is that the school has changed the face of Israeli art. When the state of Israel was born there was this kind of muddled connection to modernism with no real or complex conversation, no memory of anything earlier. That one can't really start there even un-muddled, was and still is in some sectors, anathema. Even those unhappy with such a school in their midst acknowledge that the Jerusalem Studio School has changed the face of Israeli art, as was recently stated in the Israel Museum's latest quarterly. We are putting out some remarkable young artists, ambitious and with a serious hunger for visual culture, and significant notice is being taken both abroad and in Israel.

From Soratte - Study, 2012, oil on linen mounted on wood, 15.5 x 60 cm, Private Collection
Image courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York
JS: I understand that you spend part of the each summer in Italy with students from the JSS. Can you tell me more about the program you run there?

IH: The school, in general, and its Italy summer program, more specifically, were established to address a troubling paucity of necessary artistic archetypes I observed in both young and mature artists in Israel when first coming here. With the dearth in Israel of significant collections, I mean the direct unmediated experience of live pivotal and transformative masterworks one needs to acquire such artistic archetypes, an Italy summer program seemed the perfect way of both surmounting and illuminating what I saw as the dark zones. Frankly, I believe that such a program is an artistic imperative even where such a dearth is not so much in evidence!

Out of the school's alternative and immersive pedagogical approach the JSS in Civita Italy summer program evolved and is now attracting serious artists from around the world.

The program is located in Civita Castellana, less than an hour's ride north from Rome in the Lazio region of Italy. The area, town and the imposing presence of the legendary Monte Soratte were the epicenter of open air landscape painting for artists sojourning through the Roman Campagna. So many eminences have worked here: Corot, Ingres, Turner, a list too long to get into here... This summer we have added a whole new dimension to our program: the Terrano Studio Center is just a spectacular studio, classroom, lecture hall and gallery facility in a former WWI-era factory building with gorgeous north windows. In addition we are accepting application for Residencies anywhere from two to ten weeks between June 24th and September 2nd. It all makes for the best community of artists I've seen anywhere in Italy.

Exhibition View: Fields of Vision -- Photo by Elie Posner, The Israel Museum
JS: When someone visits your Jerusalem show, what kind of experience do you hope that they will have?  

IH: It is a show of only four works: not a lot of paintings but certainly a lot of painting. I would hope people would stop and embark on a journey of another kind, one that allows for exploration and discovery via a hungry eye. I would hope my paintings slow things down a bit, slow looking. In a very fast everything world, I want the paintings to seduce. I was a little pessimistic about whether my paintings could do this to someone, but I have watched from the museum café which is separated by a large cathedral-like space across from the nave-like space my work now occupies, and watched visitors to the museum just sit for long periods to ponder the paintings. Not all of course, but far more than I'd ever thought. It moved me.

Fields of Vision - Landscapes by Israel Hershberg
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Through Feb 9, 2013