Conservation, Getty Conservation Institute, Paintings, Research

The Value of Record Keeping: Frederick Hammersley’s Painting Books

Frederick Hammersley in 2003 outside his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Frederick Hammersley in 2003 outside his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which now houses the Frederick Hammersley Foundation. Photography: Paul O’Connor. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA

The Frederick Hammersley Foundation recently donated the artist’s archives to the Getty Research Institute, as we shared last week.

Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009) first came to prominence as part of the group of Los Angeles artists who exhibited as “Four Abstract Classicists” (1959) and whose style came to be known as West Coast Hard-Edge.

Throughout his long career, Hammersley kept meticulous records about his work process and materials. It is rare and remarkable for an artist to record his creative process in as much detail and over such a prolonged period of time as Hammersley did. The depth of information contained in his archive is an incredible resource for art historians, for those charged with the display and conservation of his artworks, as well as for conservation scientists—such as Alan Phenix of the Getty Conservation Institute.

Scientist Alan Phenix in the labs of the Getty Conservation Institute

Alan Phenix prepares the scanning electron microscope for the examination of a paint sample. Photo: Scott S. Warren

Alan is a member of the project team for the Conservation Institute’s scientific research project Art in L.A., which is studying the materials and fabrication processes used by Los Angeles-based artists since the 1950s, as well as the implications these materials and process have for conservation. Frederick Hammersley is among the artists included in this project.

Frederick Hammersley's paints and studio tools / Albuquerque, New Mexico

Frederick Hammersley’s paints and studio tools as left on his painting table at his home studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

At the Conservation Insitute, Alan focuses on analyzing the chemical composition and buildup of paints in works of art to reveal evidence of an artist’s creative process, choice of materials, and how the materials may have altered over time. His research helps conservators determine the best course of treatment.

In 2010 Alan, along with colleagues from the Research Institute, visited the Hammersley Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and had the opportunity to view some of the artist’s paints and tools. When Alan talked to me about this visit, his excitement at seeing these materials for the first time was contagious. Of special interest to him has been a four-volume notebook series, which Hammersley referred to as his “Painting Books.” These books contain copious notes on paintings, detailing Hammersley’s creative process from 1959 to within a few months of his death in 2009.

Notes for Frederick Hammersley's painting Power steering, 17

Painting Book 3 showing the entry for Hammersley’s painting Power steering, #17, 1978, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Painting Book © Frederick Hammersley Foundation

The level of detail with which Hammersley documented his work is demonstrated in an entry from Painting Book 3 on the work Power steering, #17, now in the National Gallery of Art. Hammersley includes specific information on the types of tube paints used for the first and second coats (even noting he had run out of a particular paint color and had to go out to buy more), the varnish used, plus information about the frame, down to the detail of how the corner joints were reinforced.

“Normally, we obtain only minute samples of paint to analyze, so Hammersley’s Painting Books offer the unparalleled opportunity of a coherent and complete body of information compiled by the artist himself,” Alan told me. “His records allow for a level of understanding about materials, process, and conservation issues we simply can’t get through paint analysis alone.”

The Painting Books are now being transcribed, with the aim of eventually entering the contents into a text-searchable database. This information, together with the other archival materials now at the Research Institute, will serve as important research tools for detailed analysis of the painter’s practice, as well as a key reference for conservators who encounter Hammersley’s work.

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      All Hail Tiberius, Least Media-Savvy of the Roman Emperors

      Tiberius was proclaimed Roman emperor on September 17 in AD 14, exactly 2,000 years ago.

      He was also a bit wacko. “He was the least media-savvy emperor you could imagine,” says curator David Saunders, who has been in charge of this bronze portrait of Tiberius which leaves us on September 22. He point to this description found in the writings of Cassius Dio:

      Tiberius was a patrician of good education, but he had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all. On the contrary, his words indicated the exact opposite of his real purpose; he denied all interest in what he longed for, and urged the claims of what he hated. He would exhibit anger over matters that were far from arousing his wrath, and make a show of affability where he was most vexed…In short, he thought it bad policy for the sovereign to reveal his thoughts; this was often the cause, he said, of great failures, whereas by the opposite course, far more and greater successes were attained.

      Moreover, David tells us, “Tiberius’s accession itself was a farrago: Tiberius sort-of feigning reluctance, the Senate bullying him, he being all, ‘Well, if-I-have-to,’ and in the end—according to Suetonius—saying he’ll do it as long as he can retire.”

      Suetonius is full of great, albeit spurious, anecdotes about poor old Tiberius, David reports. “When someone addressed him as ‘My Lord,’ it is said, Tiberius gave warning that no such insult should ever again be thrown at him.”

      Happy accession, My Lord!

      Portrait Head of Tiberius (“The Lansdowne Tiberius”), early 1st century A.D., Roman. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      Statue of Tiberius (detail), Roman, A.D. 37, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro. Currently on view at the Getty Villa following conservation and study.


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