Frederick Hammersley was born January 5, 1919, in Salt Lake City. His father's work took the family to Idaho, back to Salt Lake City, and then to San Francisco where Frederick took his first art classes. Later he studied at the University of Idaho from 1936-38, at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now California Institute of the Arts) from 1940-42 and 1946-47, and at Jepson Art Institute (also in Los Angeles but now defunct) from 1947-50. While serving as an Army sergeant in World War II from 1942-45 he was stationed in Paris and took the opportunity to study at the École des Beaux Arts after he was discharged in 1945.
After the war, Hammersley taught art in Southern California from 1948 to 1968 at Jepson, Pasadena Art Museum, Pomona College, and Chouinard. In 1968 he moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he taught at the University of New Mexico until 1971 when he resigned in order to devote himself full time to painting. Throughout his career, however, he also explored a range of other media—including drawing, watercolor, printmaking, photography, sculpture, mixed media, and "computer drawings"—and consistently drew from the figure, in addition to producing the hard-edge "geometric" and "organic" paintings for which he is best known.
Hammersley first gained critical recognition in 1959 as one of the "Four Abstract Classicists" along with Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin, whose work was featured in an exhibition of the same name, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and traveling to the San Franciso Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland. The critic Jules Langsner, writing for the catalogue, is credited with coining the term "hard-edge" painting as a description of the artists' use of flat, colored shapes applied to the canvas with sharply delineated edges.
Since 1950 Hammersley had been exploring his "hunch" method of creating paintings and drawings by starting with a shape for which he intuitively chose a color and then proceeded to complete the work by adding shapes and colors by "feeling," or "hunch." In 1959 he transitioned from the "hunch" to the "geometric" or "hard edge" paintings which evolved from preplanned compositions and color schemes tried out in sketchbooks. The first phase of "organic" paintings, which he also called "organic hunch" paintings—composed of curving, hand-drawn shapes outlined in pencil and filled in with mostly flat unmodulated color—lasted only from 1963-65 during which time he also cut up "organic" compositions and reassembled them into a grid format.
Hammersley continued to explore large "geometric" paintings primarily based on a grid, and in the early 1980s reintroduced "organic" paintings which he mounted in unique, wooden frames he crafted himself. In the mid-1990s he shifted to working exclusively on these smaller scale "organic" works. Each "geometric" and "organic" painting is accompanied by a title which Hammersley considered an integral part of the work. Chosen from pages of phrases he recorded in a stream-of-consciousness process in response to the completed canvas, each one informs the visual composition and vice versa, often through the use of puns and turns of phrase.
Beginning in the mid-1990s a renewed interest in Hammersley's work, as well as in the cultural milieu in which "hard edge" painting was formed, resulted in a number of significant exhibitions and a commercial success he had enjoyed only intermittently during his career. Although his health had been failing for several years before he died in 2009, he continued to paint whenever possible until the day before his death. He left a legacy of artwork, students, colleagues, and friends, and a vibrant attitude toward life that carries on in his paintings, drawings, and writings.