Silk Mill Studios in association with Donna Smith and the estate of Hassel Smith were delighted to host an exhibition of the later works of Hassel Smith. The exhibition was co-curated by Mark Harrington and Mark Karasick, with the support of Clive Walley.
Hassel Smith was a major figure of American Abstract Expressionism based in San Francisco and Northern California during the 1950s and early 1960s. He taught at the California School of Fine Arts alongside leading figures such as Ansel Adams and Clyfford Still. This is the first UK show of the later works of Hassel Smith since his death in 2007 and is a considerable honour for the Silk Mill, Frome Festival and the South West. We would like to welcome visitors to experience and appreciate the paintings of this exceptional artist.
HASSEL SMITH IN THE WEST COUNTRY
BY MARK HARRINGTON
Hassel Smith first came to the West of England in 1962, encouraged by Charles and Kay Gimpel whose London gallery, Gimpel Fils, represented several of the most innovative British artists of the period. Smith, with his wife and four sons, docked at Southampton in August after nearly one month at sea from San Francisco. The family collected a red-and-white VW bus from the ship’s hold and drove directly to the southwestern Cornish coast, taking-up residence for one year in a large house (formerly three cottages) overlooking the clustered stone-built dwellings, lofts, churches, pub, winding lanes, encroaching fields and protective harbor of the small fishing village of Mousehole. Smith’s studio was a sailmaker’s loft perched atop one of the working quays at Newlyn harbor, adjacent to Penzance. Whereas today the granite quays embrace a haphazard collection of yachts and pleasure craft, at the outset of the sixties Mousehole supported a fleet of wooden trawlers whose crews descended from generations of fishing people. As anticipated by the Gimpels, Smith soon met many of the artists whose lives shifted between Cornish studios and London galleries. Among others – Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Winter, Roger Hilton, Alan Davy, Paul Feiler, Bill Featherstone, Jack Pender and Michael Canney.
Acquaintance was made with Hepworth and Nicholson, also William Scott, as well as the diverse writers, historians, critics and curators who visited from London. There was a robustness to the indigenous community, with its mixed texture of farming, fishing and the residue of tin mining.The invasion of artists was absorbed seamlessly, a blending that thrived by virtue of sympathy and mutual curiosity. In the exceptionally cold winter of 1963, Gimpel Fils opened in London a Hassel Smith solo exhibition which was immediately notable for the attendance of Herbert Read, in company with Anthony Eden. Charles gimpel brought Smith’s work to the attention of the Tate Gallery and secured the purchase of a large 1958 painting for the Permanent Collection. Lawrence Alloway wrote positively of Smith’s recent paintings and drew parallels with the labyrinthine compositions of Alan Davy.
The Gimpels had first encountered the paintings of Hassel Smith in Texas, during the late fifties, introduced by Jermayne MacAgy who was then chief curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Jermayne MacAgy’s husband was Douglas MacAgy, who was director of the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco from 1945 to 1950. Although noted firstly as an educator, Douglas MacAgy was also influential as a curator and museum director. There can be no doubt that the MacAgy’s impact, during the fifties, upon public and critical reception of the abstract expressionist innovators of the Far West was unique and enduring. The Douglas MacAgy era at CSFA is celebrated to present times for having fostered some of the most advanced praxis in painting in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The work of Hassel Smith, who taught at CSFA from 1945 to 1951, flourished rapidly in the ambience created by the presence of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Clay Spohn, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Ansel Adams, William Stanley Hayter, Frank Lobdell and a host of other significant and influential artists, filmmakers, photographers and designers.
Smith was a close friend of the Macagys, establishing his idiosyncratic, gestural style of spatially dynamic abstraction in the decade that followed the departure of the Macagys from San Francisco. Smith, too, left the city and bought an apple orchard in the agricultural land to the north. From this rural base Smith’s work attracted an accumulating interest throughout the United States during the Fifties. His paintings entered several public collections, were exhibited successfully in New York and reviewed appreciatively by leading critics and art historians. While not surprising, in the climate of the time, that the Gimpels should direct their attention to Smith, it was fortuitous that they did so; for it was the Gimpels’ purchase of a large group of paintings from Smith’s studio in 1961 that enabled the Cornish sojurn. Indeed, it is thanks to the vision and encouragement of Charles and Kay Gimpel that Smith’s presence in the West Country became a reality, thus stimulating a period of exchange between artists from the western seaboards of Britain and the United States.
With the offer of a senior teaching post at the Royal West of England Academy of Fine Art in Bristol, Paul Feiler invited Smith to return to Britain in 1966. The escalation of the Vietnam war and the decline of the market for abstract expressionist painting (as pop art asserted ascendancy) made Feiler’s offer attractive, which was was swiftly accepted. What could not be forseen in the autumn of 1966 was that an expedient choice should establish a definitive, permanent change of life and career. Hassel Smith did not live or work outside the West of England for longer than temporary periods, from mid-1966 until his death in Wiltshire in 2007. There were invitations to teach in the Bay Area and elsewhere in Northern California, leading to a few prolonged resumptions of studio output in California in the seventies and eighties. There were regular exhibitions of his work on the West Coast that demanded his presence. However, Smith’s commitment to an English West Country base was marked. Paradoxically, there were few exhibitions of Smith’s work in Britain after the early sixties. Following retirement from teaching in 1980, it may have been the consolations of privacy and seclusion that bound Smith to a rural West Country retreat, poised on the border between Somerset and Wiltshire. In the interests of undisturbed productivity, Smith may have willed the cold shoulder that England seemed to reserve for him.
When ill and unable to paint, in the final years of his life, Smith was accidentally made aware of the presence of an elderly writer living nearby, who, similarly disabled, remembered Smith’s name from an exhibition that the writer and his wife had visited in San Francisco decades earlier. The writer was Anthony Powell, whose novels Smith revered. The two shared nursing staff and corresponded briefly by courier. Despite the innate sensibilities of both men, defined as artists by the differing contexts that formed their maturity, it is poignant that each may have been an outsider at heart.
Hassel Smith’s last studio, at Rode near Frome, was a refuge and powerhouse in which he embarked on major developments in his painting. It was uplifting to witness the passion and depth of the work that emerged during the eighties and nineties. In the Rode studio the ‘measured’ paintings (characterized by flattened, hard-edge schemas), which originated in Bristol in the early seventies, began to soar. Works such as ‘Two slips and a Gully’, ‘I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in’, ‘Alone with the Killer pt. 2’ and ‘Without Hope They Live in Desire’ are transcendent, masterful accomplishments – powerfully suggestive of the counterpoint between composure and ecstasy in the late compositions of J.S. Bach. Two further important shifts in style were achieved in the nineties at Rode, changes that revived aspects of the abstract expressionist paintings from more than three decades earlier.
These last works are reflections upon the potential of painting as a primary medium for visual enlightenment and are the essence of Smith’s allegiance to the necessity of artistic apprehension. Smith remained fully active, producing continuously, until a prolonged period of grave illness prevented him from working during the final nine years of his life.
The paintings exhibited at the Silk Mill for the Frome Festival 2011 were selected from works made at Rode during the eighties and nineties.
Opening of the Hassel Smith Exhibition
We were very happy that so many people came to the opening of this fabulous show. The curators are delighted by the way that the space gives light to the paintings and the pictures change the shape of the space.
To see the pictures properly people who came last night may need to come again as there were so many of them that it was quite a struggle to get a good view of them!
Minimalist Soundscapes – Review
Review of the evening by the celebrated Jazz pianist John Law who wanted to write something about the event, as he very much enjoyed it, but wanted it to be known that he never writes reviews as he’s “philosophically very anti critics and the whole process of making arbitrary value judgements, especially concerning music”
Jeremy Little & Adam Khan play Clapping Music.
Much of the music of the 20th century was concerned with an exploration of the particular instruments employed, so that the techniques or the extensions of techniques stood either in opposition to or assisted – depending on your point of view – the perceived content or indeed emotional impact of these pieces. So the form versus content paradigm became very important. Not just the superficial in-the-moment concept of technique or style but also the very process of the composition became almost synonymous with the meaning or, again, emotional impact.
Those who know me and know my preoccupation with striving for an ‘absolute relativism’, whereby it’s possible to hold completely opposite views at one and the same time, will appreciate that I’m not one given to making and expressing any form of opinion as absolute. Moreover I can think of a number of different points of view that completely contradict what follows. But here’s a way of looking at the music presented on Thursday the 14th at the Silk Mill in a thrilling, always engaging performance by the duo of Jeremy Little (assorted percussion) and Adam Khan (guitar, clapping).
The first piece, Cuban Landscape with Bells, by Leo Brouwer, was, for me, a perfect start to the concert. In fact, from one point of view, it couldn’t get any better. The composition, mostly (it seemed to me at the time) an exploration of guitar harmonics, was also a piece that inhabited almost exclusively the area between quiet and very quiet. A perfect, gentle start and played, on guitar by Adam Kahn, quite exquisitely.
For me this piece seemed to set the tone for the evening: an exploration of music where the technical aspects of texture or instrumental technique or the process adopted by the composer was in one sense of utmost importance in understanding the piece but – a completely different way of looking at it – which also offered the listener, in a more naïve way, the opportunity to become immersed, without employing critical faculties, in a world that was very other than the one we’d come from before the concert.
Thus, the wonderfully delicate marimba piece Il Sognio di Pacciochino, by Nebojsa Zivkovic, played ever so subtly by Jeremy, was on one level a series of juxtapositions of single lines with three and four note chord tremolos. But how wonderful and soft it sounded, in its very simplicity, and with every note clearly audible in the beautiful acoustics of the Silk Mill!
Battercada by Rachel Gledhill, for two drums, seemed to me to be a piece dominated by the technical process: a natural progression from low sounds to high, from simpler to more denser, and then reversed, with a nod to the Golden Section in the shorter second (reversed) section. And in the architectural simplicity of this process all the more powerful was the result. A very neat piece, played with consummate skill and precision (and not a little excitement!) by Jeremy Little.
And if the two performers wanted to best illustrate the 20th century obsession with music as a process then Clapping Music by Steve Reich was surely one of the best examples. The process is the music. The music is the process. Or is it? A number of us, on completion of the piece, couldn’t resist, when showing our appreciation throughclapping, repeating the rhythmic phrase used in this piece (well I couldn’t anyway!). So the piece had encroached on reality..!
Cage’s famous (or is that infamous?!) 4’33” was ‘performed’ by Jeremy and Adam with almost humorous seriousness. In the empty space left by the total lack of music we were left to fill it with thoughts about form/content/process.. as well as to contemplate the marvellous artworks by Hassel Smith which hung all around (and to which the music was, ostensibly, related but, I think, only rather vaguely; rather more they sat next to each other, Art and Music, perfect dinner companions). But this emptiness was also filled by a buzzing fly, much to the amusement of Jeremy who I thought must, at any moment, simply must burst into fits of giggles. He’s a consummate professional though..
The two more extended works that stood out as being a bit different were Terry Riley’s Dias de los Muertos and George Crumb’s Canis Mundis. Both pieces were played with enormous attention to detail. The Riley I found personally the hardest piece of the evening to digest. Would it have fared better with more passionate input? Hard to say. I actually found myself thinking that, in the lack of a sustained, coherent harmonic language (some passages, for example, between marimba and guitar very spare, like a Bach two part Invention, might be followed suddenly by chords which ranged from a simple minor 6th through fuller, ‘jazz’ chords of sharp 9s to denser, more opaque ones) in this piece, at least, Riley seemed to me a bit of a dilettante. I’m sure another way of looking at this could completely contradict this view and it was just what popped into my head, on the first hearing.
The Crumb, though, a series of portraits of the composer’s dogs(!) was a minor tour de force, full of exotic sounds (such as the striking of a tamtam partly immersed in water!) and beautiful ‘eastern’ sounding scales, such as in piece number 4. And with humour too: the cries at the end from Jeremy, calling and chastising one of the dogs were really fun. And with this sudden interjection from the ‘real’ world the audience were brought out of the world we’d been in for the evening’s concert: one full of beautiful, exotic sounds, of stimulating ideas, of hypnotic chords and ringing harmonics.. a world totally unlike the buzzing festival going on outside. We’d gone beyond style and technique. And this was made possible through the wonderful skill of the performers, ably assisted by the clear acoustics of the Silk Mill and the beautiful atmosphere created there by Kate and Damon Moore.
John Law, July 2011
Birmingham Conservatoire – Review
Frome Festival 2011 Review by Composer Stephen Marquis, An evening with Birmingham Conservatoire at the Silk Mill.
I arrived for this evening of experimental acoustic and electronic music inspired by the works of Hassel Smith with some enthusiasm for both contemporary avant-garde music and abstract art but little in-depth knowledge of either. I sat thus something of a blank canvas myself, ready to absorb both fresh and exciting musical textures and an insight into the artworks that spawned them. I wasn’t disappointed. I had heard Luke Deane, currently in his first year at Birmingham Conservatoire, play his own jazz piano compositions on a prior occasion in Frome, and was eagerly anticipating his sincere and sensitive approach. For the first half of the boldly programmed evening, Luke took centre stage himself, playing four pieces on electric piano interwoven with electronic soundscapes constructed of his own meticulously collected, sampled and filtered sounds. Luke’s genuine and quietly self-assured musical presence and elegant piano playing ensured that the audience remained absorbed as his music passed coherently through lyrical, tonal jazz styles, more discordant and jagged textures and at times daring percussive and piercing backtracks. Good on him for embracing the expressionist aspects of the art unflinchingly; after all, one of the paintings on display is entitled Alone with the killer. Luke punctuated his pieces with unassuming and heartfelt explanations to the fascinated audience, including how the geometric forms of some of the paintings had suggested explicit structural shapes but that he sought also a deeper response by revisiting the paintings on a number of occasions and letting them speak more implicitly to his artistic sensibilities.
In the second half of the programme, Luke was joined by four of his contemporaries from Birmingham Conservatoire, Richard Stenton, Josh Herring, Rose Mitchell and Andy Ingamells, all of whom had collaborated on a performance piece in response to the exhibition as a whole. What a perfect setting for such an enthralling and often spontaneous work the Silk Mill Studios is, both visually and acoustically. We were surrounded by the imposing canvasses and, owing to the rearrangement of seating during the interval, a kaleidoscope of sounds ranging from ethnic instruments such as a thumb piano and didgeridoo to recorder and tin whistle and fun and educational instruments such as an intriguing plastic tube picked up at @bristol (according to its logo!) and colourful boomwhackers, all employed sparingly and largely unconventionally. Vocal sounds and sound effects using the most basic materials such as a wooden block were also incorporated particularly engagingly. The musical direction of the piece was determined, at least in part, by a game of chance set up as a gameboard (designed to look like one of the abstract paintings!) on a table in the centre of the room, to which the various participants returned to draw cards and read biographical snippets about Hassel Smith and his work. As a part-time teacher of music to young children and keen composer myself, I was delighted by the profundity of the work even given the simplest means of expression. I loved the unhurried nature in which the piece unfolded, which encouraged me to give the same time and attention to exploring the paintings on display, which I otherwise might have skated past too cursorily. The piece ended with the simplest of song-like passages, performed by Josh Herring on banjo and voice, which grew remarkably organically from the preceding material by means of a drone-like motif on banjo which evolved into a middle-eastern-like mode, which complemented his simple wisps of lyrics most magically. The appreciative audience had obviously relished the opportunity to be immersed in such an unusual and affecting performance piece judging by their enthusiastic response.