Hard-Edge Painting: Art History Basics 101

Late 1950s to the Present

Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts; used with permission
Frank Stella (American, b. 1936). Moultonville II, 1966. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paint on canvas. 124 x 86 in. (315 x 218.4 cm). Collection Mr. and Mrs. David Mirvish, Toronto. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts

Hard-Edge Painting reinforces the idea of the canvas or paper as a field of abstract forms. Similar to the interrelationship of colorful forms that we find in Color Field Painting and Abstract Expressionism, this abstract movement also emphasizes the flatness of the surface (either canvas or paper). But that's it! Hard-Edge Painting shows us clean-edged, monochromatic areas of color that defy AbEx and Color Field's freewheeling ambiguity in favor of a detached clarity of vision.

Cooler yet still spiritual, it can track its influences way back to Synthetic Cubism, Park Avenue Cubism, De Stijl, Suprematism and the Bauhaus.

The British critic Lawrence Alloway wrote: "The whole picture becomes a unit; forms extend the length of the painting or are restricted to two or three tones. The result of this sparseness is that the spatial effect of figures on a field is avoided." This response to space may relate to the contemporaneous obsession with exploring outerspace, ignited by the success of the Soviet Sputnik Program of the late 1950s.

California critic Jules Langsner (1911-1967) invented the term "Hard-Edge" for his exhibition Four Abstract Classicist at the San Francisco Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum in 1959. Lawrence Alloway introduced the term to a wider audience in his title West Coast Hard-Edge, a 1960 revision of the show created for the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the Queens College in Belfast.

The West Coast artists involved were:

  • John McLaughlin (1898-1976)
  • Frederick Hammersley (1919-2009)
  • Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978)
  • Karl Benjamin (b. 1925).

Feitelson's wife Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999), and Langsner's wife June Harwood (b. ca. 1930), were not in the exhibition but did participate in this Post-Abstract Expressionist movement.

From the onset, Hard-Edge Painting seemed as laid-back as the Beach Boys' break-out 1961 hit "Surfin": uncomplicated and smooth.

On the East Coast, Hard-Edge Painters were:

  • Kenneth Noland (1924-2010)
  • Al Held (1928-2005)
  • Jack Youngerman (ca. 1926)
  • Frank Stella (b. 1936), whose shaped canvases can be considered in a category of their own.

How Long Has Hard-Edge Painting Been A Movement?

As a style, we can trace Hard-Edge Painting to Bauhaus artist Josef Albers' (1888-1976) series , begun in 1949 at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. In New York, we can trace the beginning to Ellsworth Kelly's Window, Museum of Art, Paris (1949, Private Collection).

However, as a movement, we should consider "Four Abstract Classicists" (Hammersley, McLaughlin, Feitelson and Benjamin) as the official launch.

What are the Key Characteristics of Hard-Edge Painting?

  • Clean lines
  • Colorful geometric areas
  • Flat surface
  • The canvas/paper/print as a unit, a shape on the wall
  • Influenced by Synthetic Cubism, Park Avenue Cubism, de Stijl, Supremetism and Bauhaus.

In some respects, Hard-Edge Painting is related to Minimalism.

Suggested Reading:

Arnason, H. H. and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art, 6th edition.

Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2009.

Lorser Feitelson Foundation, http://www.lorserfeitelson.com/

Grace Glueck. "John McLaughlin," New York Times, September 23, 2005.

Karmel, Pepe, et al. New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Collection.
New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2009.

Sandler, Irving. American Art of the 1960s.
New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Waldman, Diane, ed. Ellsworth Kelly: A Retrospective.
New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996.

Wilkin, Karen. Kenneth Noland.
New York: Rizzoli, 1990.