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Hassel Wendell Smith, Jr

Hassel Smith was born in 1915 in Sturgis, Michigan. During childhood and adolescence his family alternated between homes in Michigan and the West Coast, due to the health of his mother. He became an Eagle Scout at 15 and was an active outdoorsman for much of his adult life.

Smith attended Northwestern University (Chicago) 1932-36. Initially a chemistry major, he graduated BSc cum laude with majors in History of Art and English Literature.

In the Chicago of the early thirties, Smith witnessed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under Massine and was exposed to painting at the Worlds Fair: turning points in his development. He won a scholarship to Princeton for graduate studies in History of Art, but chose to spend two years at California School of Fine Art (now San Francisco Art Institute) in the painting and drawing class of his mentor, Maurice Sterne. "I have no hesitation in saying that to whatever extent my intellect has been engaged in the joys and mysteries of transferring visual observations in three dimensions into meaningful two-dimensional marks and shapes, I owe to Sterne."[1]

Smith worked with derelict and alcoholic individuals on skid row in San Francisco during the late thirties, becoming active in leftwing politics. He received a Rosenberg Traveling Fellowship in 1941 for independent study, moving to the Motherlode region of northern California. His work until the end of 1942 was made plein-air with a focus on town and landscape.

During the war years Smith was engaged in alternative service as a timber scaler in Oregon and as a camp supervisor in the Central Valley, near Arvin, southern California. He met June Myers, a social worker for the migrant labour program, there and they married in September 1942[2] (their son Joseph was born in 1947). From 1945 to 1951 Smith was a celebrated teacher at CSFA working under Douglas MacAgy[3] and Clyfford Still, alongside Ed Corbett, David ParkElmer BischoffRichard Diebenkorn and Frank Lobdell, among many other significant artists, filmmakers and designers. He was influenced deeply by Still's 1947 exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, forming a friendship with the artist that lasted until Still's death in 1980.

From 1953 until late 1965 Smith lived in an apple orchard outside Sebastopol, Sonoma County, painting in a self-built redwood-sided studio. His work from these years, referred to by critic Allan Temko as the "Thunderbolt period", had significant impact on artists along the entire West Coast. Smith was one of the few artists, along with Sonia Gechtoff, Jay DeFeo and Bruce Conner, then based in northern California, to be exhibited in Los Angeles by Irving Blum and Walter Hopps at the Ferus Gallery during the late fifties and early sixties. His shows at Ferus ensured Smith's singular influence on southern California painters. His paintings were shown also in San Francisco, New York, London and Milan, and were acquired widely in both private and public collections.

June Myers Smith died of cancer at the age of 40 in August 1958.[4] Smith subsequently married Donna Raffety Harrington in 1959 (their son Bruce was born in 1960 - adding to Donna's sons Mark and Stephan, and Hassel and June's son Joseph). In 1962-63 Smith moved for one year with his family to Mousehole in Cornwall, England, occupying a studio on the quays at Newlyn.

During 1963-65 Smith taught part-time at UC Berkeley. In 1965 he moved his family to Los Angeles, teaching at UCLA. He had contact with several southern California artists, most notably the painter John Altoon (a close friend since the fifties).

Smith moved permanently to England in 1966 accepting a tenured teaching position at the Royal West of England Academy of Art (later Bristol Polytechnic, Faculty of Fine Art).

Having returned to representational painting in 1964, Smith began the series of hard-edged "measured paintings" in 1970, which continued into the late eighties. He returned as guest professor to the West Coast periodically during the seventies, at UC Davis and SFAI. Major retrospectives followed at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1975, and at Oakland Museum in 1981.

Smith retired from teaching in 1980 and moved to an eighteenth-century rectory at Rode, north Somerset. The following seventeen years were a prolific period with output in painting, drawing and printmaking. The final decade of work saw two significant stylistic shifts characterized by aspects of gestural abstraction. Illness forced suspension of work in late 1997. Hassel Smith died nine years later.

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