Hard Edge Painting and How it Changed the Course of Abstraction

Hard-Edge Painting. Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967. Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967. Image courtesy of Rob Corder via Flickr.

From Frank Stella’s spectrums, to Ellsworth Kelly’s expressive color and Kenneth Noland’s precise geometrical forms, Hard Edge painting’s reaction to the gestural style of Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s introduced the world to flat expanses of color with clearly defined hard edges that would inspire Minimalism and change the course of abstraction.

Hard-Edge Painting. Barnett Newman - Onement V.

Barnett Newman – Onement V. Sold for $22,482,500 via Christie’s (May 2012).

Striving for order and formality through simple form, line, and color, Hard Edge Painting was given its name by Californian critic Jules Langsner in 1959. Referring to the precise aesthetics and clearly defined colors of abstract painters on the West Coast of America, Langsner created the term for artists adopting a purposefully impersonal approach in reaction to the painterly or gestural forms of Abstract Expressionism. Devoid of emotion, Hard Edge was closely related to Post-Painterly Abstraction and Color Field Painting, but with monochromatic fields of clean-edged colour that exaggerated a picture’s flatness.

Hard-Edge Painting. Frank Stella – Point of Pines.

Frank Stella – Point of Pines. Sold for $28,082,500 via Christie’s (May 2019).

Combining Geometric Abstraction’s clear composition with the color and singular forms of Color Field Painting, Hard Edge Painting was initially the title of a 1959 exhibition that included West Coast artists, Karl BenjaminJohn McLaughlinFrederick Hammersley, and Lorser Feitelson. Today the phrase is used to describe one of the most distinctive branches of abstraction throughout the United States in the 1960s.

Coining the term ‘hard edge colorforms’ to describe the paintings on display and the new burgeoning abstract style growing in popularity in California, Langsner compared Hard Edge to the Geometric Abstraction of Piet MondrianJosef Albers, and Ad Reinhardt. Standing in proud opposition to the gestural nature of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Hard Edge painters strived towards a more geometric approach, inspired by Barnett Newman’s open fields of color.

Geometric Emphasis

Hard-Edge Painting. Frank Stella - Gray Scramble IX (Single).

Frank Stella – Gray Scramble IX (Single). Sold for $5,155,500 via Christie’s (November 2019).

Known for its impersonal nature, economy of form, smooth surface, and bold color, Hard Edge Painting’s name was derived from the solid, (or ‘hard edges’) separating color. Devoid of any emotion, and in some cases without obvious sign of physical application, Hard Edge Painting adopted a precise approach that produced precise results.

Contrary to the emotion and gestural nature of Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge painters shunned these feelings and instead incorporated formal elements like lines and shapes that emphasized the art’s structure and design. Eventually leading to a complete absence of visible brushstrokes, the style required a dedication to sharp composition that was both unitary and in uniform hues.

Hard-Edge Painting.Frank Stella - Valparaiso Green.

Frank Stella – Valparaiso Green. Sold for $2,841,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2008)

Influenced by the sense of ‘wholism’ and composition of Barnett Newman and other Color Field painters, this new abstraction differed from Action Painting, as paint was so very carefully applied without any soulful expression. Frank Stella was typical of Hard Edge painters distancing themselves from the drama of Action Painting, which by the mid-1950s was becoming a popular movement to bandwagon, and instead espouse sharp composition.

Notable Works

“I feel that the freedom of colors in space is very much what I’ve always been involved in,” explained Ellsworth Kelly of his unassuming use of line, color and form. Single-minded in his quest to remove personality from his art, Kelly wanted to make the brushstroke invisible and eliminate any trace of the artist so that his works were, as he put it, “objects, unsigned, anonymous”.

Despite this impersonal approach, Kelly’s art didn’t look robotic in execution. Quite the opposite. The art was restrained in the extreme, but thanks to Kelly’s surprisingly expressive representation of the world, his vast canvases and large-scale sculptures could produce emotional reactions.

Hard-Edge Painting. Ellsworth Kelly - Red Curve VII.

Ellsworth Kelly – Red Curve VII. Sold for $9,809,000 via Christie’s (November 2019)

Working with minimalist simplicity of form, shape and colour, Kelly’s art was contradictory. On one hand, he was dedicated to the impersonal, but his art also featured sensual curves and homoerotic collages dedicated to his long-term partner, Jack Shear. Influenced by the abstraction of Mondrian, Kelly was steadfast in his approach, as he converted snapshots of everyday life into euphoric shades and geometric shapes. And Kelly’s art has been hugely popular at auction in recent years. The 13-part painting Spectrum VI (1969) sold for $5.2 million at Sotheby’s in November 2007, before that record was broken in November 2019 when Red Curve VII sold for a $9.8million.

Similarly known for his exacting symmetry, “the aim of art is to create space” according to Kenneth Noland, and his precisely articulated geometrical forms made him a chief exponent of Hard Edge Painting. Recognized for his concentric circles on square canvases, Noland’s marriage of colors with geometric forms focused on a variety of shapes, including targets, chevron motifs, stripes, and even diamond or lozenge-shaped canvases.

Hard-Edge Painting. Ellsworth Kelly - Yellow Panel with Red Curve.

Ellsworth Kelly – Yellow Panel with Red Curve. Sold for $4,415,000 via Christie’s (November 2021)

Noland’s style was to stain the canvas with color to remove any trace of the artist’s brush. In later years, he covered the entirety of his canvases, making his lines and colors seem unending, prompting the critic Clement Greenberg to suggest Noland’s art was “capable of repeating the picture beyond its frame into infinity.” This has made him an appealing prospect at auction, with Baba Yagga selling for $1,950,000 in May 2018, before Spring Call sold for $2,765,000 in October 2020.

Frank Stella also rebelled against the gestural brushwork and existential angst of Abstract Expressionism and gained recognition in 1959 with his series of coolly impersonal black striped paintings. He would expand his initial monochrome palette to include bright colors in repetitive shapes, separated by a hard edge of color. The pattern forced “illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate,” according to Stella.

Hard-Edge Painting. Kenneth Noland – Baba Yagga.

Kenneth Noland – Baba Yagga. Sold for $1,950,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2018)

Today, Stella is in demand at auction, where Gray Scramble IX (Single) doubled its low end estimate to sell for $5,155,500 in November 2019, but that figure is dwarfed by Point of Pines, which sold for $28,082,500 in May 2019. In the 1990s, Stella explored surrealist printmaking with The Fountain, as well as sculpture, while his Black Paintings seriesof black parallel stripes in smoothly applied house paint proved to be an important catalyst for Minimalist art.

Pushing Boundaries

Hard-Edge Painting. Kenneth Noland – Spring Call.

Kenneth Noland – Spring Call. Sold for $2,765,000 via Christie’s (October 2020)

Turning its back on the romanticism and emotion of Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge Painting changed the idea of what constituted abstract art. Gone was the soulful expression of Action Painting and in its place was a formal art of meticulously applied paint that promoted order and formality, as form, line, color and the artist’s interaction were all that mattered.

Pushing the boundaries of abstraction, Hard Edge painters transformed the medium as they experimented with new materials, in particular the newly available acrylic paint that helped them to remove any trace of the artist’s brushstroke, and challenge existing conventions of flatness.

Embracing crisp and clean-edged color to exaggerate the flatness of the picture surface, Hard Edge Painting would grow to inspire Minimalism, which relied on aesthetic formalism not just in painting, but also sculpting, installation, video art. Hard Edge Painting typified an impersonal approach in which nothing mattered more than the painting, which was perfectly summed up by Ellsworth Kelly, who said “the form of my painting is the content.”

Sources: Widewalls.ch – Hard Edge Painting | Tate – Hard Edge Painting | The Art Story – Hard Edge Painting | Apollo Magazine – The Unwavering Art of Ellsworth Kelly | MoMA – Ellsworth Kelly | TheArtStory.org – Frank Stella | ArtUk.org – Kenneth Noland | Artealdia.com – Expanding Abstraction