Hard Edge Painting – Its Artists, Paintings and Influences

Hard-edge painting refers to an oil painting style that is related to various movements and is distinguished by an abrupt transition between areas of solid colour which involves many different painting techniques.

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Developed as a reaction to some of the forms of Abstract Expressionism, hard-edge painting is not so much a movement in its own right but a trend initially found in many artists who grouped together to hold an exhibition of this art form in 1959 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called “Four Abstract Classicists.” The artists who participated in this exhibition were John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson and Karl Benjamin.

When the exhibition later moved to Great Britain, it was also called “California Hard-edge” by Lawrence Alloway, British art curator and critic due to California being considered the centre and birthplace of this style of oil painting. The term “hard-edge painting” was actually coined by Peter Selz, and art critic of the Los Angeles Times Jules Langsner in 1959, who were instrumental in achieving a collaboration of artists for the first representative exhibition of this form of painting.

Even before that representative exhibition, works of hard-edge painting are traced to American artists Josef Albers (1888-1976) – the Bauhaus artist who began his series of oil paintings at Asheville, North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in 1949 – and Ellsworth Kelly’s 1949 work from his Private Collection, “Window, Museum of Art, Paris.” Another early example is “Counter-Composition V” (1924) by Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), the Dutch painter and founder of the De Stijl movement.

Hard-edge painting is characterised by not only abrupt acrylic or oil colour transitions, but also the subject of the painting dominating the entire canvas. According to Lawrence Alloway, “the whole picture becomes a unit…” Unlike most other forms of painting, there is not the depiction or the feeling of the subject being placed in a scenario or background. There is generally no free space in a hard-edge painting. Most commonly acrylic or oil paints are used with the number of tones limited to two or three and solid colours without variations in shade. Sharp and precise contours, broad light areas and depiction of geometric forms rather than abstract images are distinctive characteristics of the hard-edge style.

Hard-edge painting has many influences in movements such as Synthetic Cubism, Geometric Abstraction, Colour Field Painting, Bauhaus and De Stijl. Emerging from Colour Field, hard-edge painting is considered a branch of Post-Painterly Abstraction.

Since the first 1959 exhibition, hard-edge painting became widespread in the 1960s with artists in the West Coast and East Coast of the United States creating representative works of the hard-edge style. Some of the most well known works include Ellsworth Kelly’s “Broadway” (1958), “Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red” (1966) and “Dark Blue Curve” (1995), Frank Stella’s “Hyena Stomp” (1962) and “Harran II” (1967), and Richard Anuszkiewicz’s “Temple of the Radiant Yellow” (1982).

Hard-edge painting has established itself as an important form of modern art that has absorbed influences from many movements and yet developed into a distinctive form that has been embraced by many artists. A recent exhibition in 2005 in Los Angeles proves its continued popularity.