a conversation with hammersley

when words become form, exhibition catalog, 2010

In the spring of 2007, after seeing Frederick Hammersley’s exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art, I decided to send him a fan letter. I’d never done such a thing, but I had always felt a deep connection to his paintings, particularly his small-scaled “organics.” While I’d known Hammersley’s abstract paintings for years, I was floored by a series of drawings in the exhibition that were made in the late 1960s using a computer. I had always felt that we shared a sense of color, but these 1969 experiments suggested a potential shared interest in systems and process as well. Since he was already in his mid-eighties, I figured it might be my last shot at having some contact. So I sent him a letter, along with a recent catalog of my work.

Three or four months after I sent the letter the phone rang. When I answered, a voice on the other end simply said, “Roden? This is Hammersley…” Over the next ten minutes, words spewed from the phone like a train running downhill with a full head of steam. There were no awkward pauses. In fact, I’m not even sure he took a breath between sentences, and I don’t believe I said a word other than that first “hello.” As he was talking, I tried to jot down everything he was saying, although I couldn’t come close to writing as fast as he was speaking. I think because I had sent him a catalog of my work, he felt the need to tell me what he thought of my paintings. And he didn’t mince words.

He told me my work was too contemporary, and that I needed to see as many of the “old master works” as I possibly could. He said there were seven tools that make up every picture (although he never mentioned what those seven tools were). He spoke about scale, in particular how the image in a painting of mine called “pneumatic forms” was floating and wasn’t connected to the form of the canvas or its scale. He mentioned the vertical clarity of Velázquez and the composition of a cross. He also mentioned Degas and Bonnard (the latter I suspect in relation to color, but I don’t really remember). He mentioned that the strings in my sculptural works were too loose, and that things should be straight and taut “like you mean it.” He said that the most productive time of the day was a nap, and that “we feel that we have been thinking and can resolve much during a nap, but in reality it is just our mind rummaging” through a kind of archive. (I can’t remember if he called it a file cabinet or something else; but I do remember he referred to this archive as “her” or “she.”) He then told me he was tired and would have to go, and hung up the phone.

A few months before I got the call, Rebecca [McGrew] showed me a small stack of postcards, which were a gift from Hammersley when she and Kathleen [Howe] were working with him on the 2007 exhibition. After I saw the postcards, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Part of my interest was that these images might have been a source of inspiration for an artist I greatly admired. but i have also been a voracious collector of old printed things for much of my life, so i was also interested in these images as simply being something that hammersley had gathered – regardless of whether they ever became the basis of any of his own work – because i knew he responded to their visual presence. The postcards connected him in my mind to other artist collectors whom I admire, such as Walker Evans, whose obsessive collecting of postcards generated interior conversations within his own work, and Joseph Cornell, who gathered old printed things and physically inserted them into his work.

After Hammersley passed away in 2009, Rebecca and I started talking about my creating a sound and sculptural installation for the museum. When we began to talk about the second gallery, I didn’t have to think twice before asking if I could borrow the postcards and use them to generate a small body of work. In many ways, I felt it would allow me to continue conversing with Hammersley, and I was pretty sure that, based on his phone call, my looking at these highly composed images would somehow influence not just what I might make, but also how I might make it. I should also mention that I have not made paintings while looking at, or being inspired by, photographic or realistic imagery since 1984—when I was in undergraduate school.

Hammersley had also given Kathleen some postcards, and the entire lot was made available to me. After discussing with Michael Ned Holte how i planned to use these postcards to generate a series of postcard-sized paintings, we spoke about a possible collaboration, with michael using the images to generate a series of postcard-sized texts. We then went through all of the postcards together, and selected a group of twenty images to converse with. Since then, each of us has followed our own path, stopping on occasion to marvel and ruminate upon the stepping stones that Hammersley had unknowingly placed beneath our feet.