Hard Edge Painting
Characteristics of Type of Abstract Expressionist Art.

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Hard Edge Painting (Late 1950s, Early 1960s)
A Form of Post-Painterly Abstraction

This mini-movement of American art was a sub-variant of what art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94) called Post-Painterly Abstraction - a trend away from gestural Abstract Expressionism as practised by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and others, towards a smoother, sharper idiom. The term Hard-edge painting was first used in 1959 by the art historian and critic Jules Langsner, when describing the non-figurative pictures of four West Coast artists (Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin) whom he had brought together in an exhibition entitled Four Abstract Classicists, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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Drought (1962, Tate Modern, London)
By Kenneth Noland. A modern example of concrete art.

What is Hard Edge Painting: Definition/Characteristics

These abstract painters responded to the more "painterly" or gestural forms of Abstract Expressionism by producing a type of geometric abstract art characterized by an economy of expression, a neat surface devoid of incident, a richness of colour applied in clearly delineated areas, and a non-relational, arrangement of forms across the whole canvas. Its impersonal style was further enhanced by a complete absence of brushstrokes. In addition, they sought to create a single, unitary composition, of the type often seen in works by Barnett Newman (1905-70) and other colour field painters.

In simple terms, Hard-edge painting - which recalls the Precisionism associated with the De Stijl theories and Neo-Plasticism of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), as well as works by Josef Albers (1888-1976) - combines the clear imagery of geometric abstraction with the intense hues of Colour Field Painting. Leading exponents of Hard-edge painting include: Al Held (b.1928), Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923), Frank Stella (b.1936), Alexander Liberman, Brice Marden (b.1938), Kenneth Noland (b.1924), Ad Reinhardt (1913-67), Jack Youngerman (b.1926), and many others. Initially developed in California (it was later called "California hard-edge" by the British art critic Lawrence Alloway), Hard-edge painting spread throughout the United States during the 1960s.

In contrast to gestural "action-painters", Hard-edge painters went to great efforts to de-personalize their compositions, in order to prioritize formal elements (line, shape, colour), and downplay less important elements such as spirituality or emotionalism. Similarly, unlike more traditional Colour Field painters, who regarded colour as the most important element in their work, Hard-edge painters were more interested in design and structure. See also: Non-Objective Art.

California Hard-Edge Exhibition 1964

Later, in 1964, Jules Langsner staged a second exhibition, this time in Newport Beach, CA, which he called California Hard-Edge Painting. Held in co-operation with the Ankrum Gallery, Esther Robles Gallery, Felix Landau Gallery, Ferus Gallery and Heritage Gallery of Los Angeles, the exhibition included the original four from the 1959 show, together with Florence Arnold, John Barbour, June Harwood, Dorothy Waldman, Larry Bell, Helen Lundenberg, John Coplans and others. (For US collections of 20th-century paintings which include examples of hard edge painting, see: Best Art Museums in America.)

Second Generation Abstract Expressionism

Second generation abstract expressionists left gesturalism behind and started a host of smaller tendencies (which Greenberg lumped together and called Post-painterly abstraction). Hard-edge painting was only one of them: others included Colour Field, Colour Stain Painting, Op Art, Washington Colour Painting, "One-Image painting", "Systemic painting" (Josef Albers), Lyrical Abstraction, Bay Area Figuration and Minimal Painting.

Curiously, the same degree of fragmentation was occurring in Europe: the main movement Art Informel, which corresponded to Abstract Expressionism, comprised numerous different styles and tendencies, such as Tachisme, Art Non Figuratif, Abstraction Lyrique, and others. Indeed, it was from this artistic melting pot, during the late 1960s/early 1970s, that Contemporary Art emerged to give us Postmodernist art in the form of Minimalism, Video Art, Installation, Conceptualism and other anti-formalist movements.

Hard Edge in Retrospect

In 2000, the art dealer Tobey C. Moss staged Four Abstract Classicists Plus One at her gallery in Los Angeles. In 2003, Louis Stern Fine Arts held a retrospective for Lorser Feitelson called Lorser Feitelson and the invention of Hard-edge painting, 1945-1965. Also in 2003, NOHO MODERN exhibited paintings by June Harwood in a show called June Harwood: Hard-edge painting Revisited, 1959-1969. The last Hard-Edge show - featuring works by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, June Harwood, Helen Lundeberg, and John McLaughlin - was held in 2005, at the Ben Maltz Gallery of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Paintings by Hard-Edge painters hang in some of the best art museums in the world.

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