An Interview with Artist June Harwood ( 1933-2015 )

January, 2011

June Harwood was born in Middleton, New York. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University in 1953 and a Master of Arts degree from California State University at Los Angeles in 1957. From 1958-70 Harwood was an instructor at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, and from 1972-94 she was Professor of Art at Los Angeles Valley College, Van Nuys. Harwood’s work has been widely exhibited on the West Coast. She was included in several major exhibitions that helped define the West Coast Hard-edge movement, including California Hard-Edge Painting curated by Jules Langsner in 1964, and The Los Angeles School curated by Dave Hickey in 2004-5. Harwood’s work can be found in numerous private, corporate and public collections, including in California: California State University, Los Angeles; the Long Beach Museum of Art; Los Angeles Valley College; the Newport Museum of Art; the San Jose Museum of Art; the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Harwood lives and works in Studio City, California. [June Harwood passed away in January, 2015]

Julie Karabenick: Both your paintings from the 1960s through 70s as well as your recent work are characterized by crisp geometric forms, both rectilinear and curved.

Electric, acrylic on canvas, 107 x 107 cm (42 x 42 in), 2009

June Harwood: In nature most shapes can be reduced to geometric forms. It seemed to me to be a logical approach to use geometric forms as a basis for painting.

Hopscotch, acrylic on canvas,
127 x 112 cm (50 x 44 in), 2009

As a result, my work became associated with a movement known as Hard-edge—flat shapes with hard, clean edges.

Untitled (Sliver Series)
Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
119 x 89 cm (47 x 35 in), 1962

The non-objective forms I used were first comprised of vertical, horizontal and diagonal edges—angular, jagged, wedged …

Untitled (Colorform Series)
Untitled (Colorform Series), acrylic on canvas,
102 x 152 cm (40 x 60 in), 1964

… and then by various types of curved shapes, sometimes circular or elliptical …

Target (Loop Series)
Target (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in),1965

… sometimes more freely looping across the canvas.

Untitled (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas,102 x 165 cm (40 x 65 in), 1965

JK: You experimented broadly with hard-edge geometric forms until the mid to late 70s, when you moved away from simple, large geometric shapes.

JH: The shapes began to splinter, divide, and ultimately to suggest natural forms, for example, ripples in the water.

Reflections, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1978

JK: Then there was a fairly long period during which your painting suggested landscape, though the imagery was primarily abstract and suggestive rather than literal.

Currents, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 2004

JH: Yes. These were often aerial views or fleeting impressions of rural geography.

Laavender Hill
Lavender Hill, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 152 cm ( 60 x 60 in), 2003

Recently, seeming to have come full circle, the non-objective instinct has reappeared in my work.

Cadence Brown/Blue
Cadence Brown/Blue, acrylic on canvas,
107 x 107 cm (42 x 42 in), 2010

JK: Do you believe there are consistent concerns that run through your visually diverse body of work?

JH: Yes. First instilled in me long ago as an undergraduate at Syracuse University, formal, classical, structural composition has remained the consistent theme in my painting throughout these many years. Much of my painting develops intuitively and sometimes accidentally or serendipitously. But in all cases, the result should be to make all of the pieces fit, that there should be a “sense of rightness” about the total configuration.

Album, acrylic on canvas, 137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 2006

JK: Your paintings often involve variations on a form or forms. This type of repetition seems to create both cohesiveness in the composition as well as establishing rhythms or counterpoints across the canvas.

Untitled (Loop Series)
Untitled (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas, 114 x 152 cm (45 x 60 in), 1966

JH: Repetition with variation is constant in all of my work. It seems that in nature that no two blades of grass are exactly the same—no two snowflakes, no waves in the ocean, and so on. Repetition with variation for the painter, poet, or composer is generally accepted as a natural progression. It’s the Yin and the Yang. It completes the harmony of life—sameness and difference.

Zest, acrylic on canvas, 127 x 102 cm (50 x 40 in), 2008

JK: Let’s examine more closely the interesting evolution of your art. What first interested you in painting?

JH: My early years were spent in the Adirondacks in northern New York State very close to the town where my mother’s family—boat builders and guides—had lived for generations. While she was not a trained artist, my mother had considerable talent and painted landscapes of the mountains and the lakes. I was extremely fond of my mother, and it was a severe loss to me when she died. I was seven years old.

During the summers that followed, I returned to her family home, and I recall the halcyon days when I was allowed to row a boat across the lake by myself, anchoring it in some inlet and painting small watercolors. Those times no doubt contributed to my interest in art and, specifically, in landscapes, which recur in various forms during the middle part of my painting career.

JK: Your undergraduate studies at Syracuse University from 1949-53 were especially important to your development as an artist.

JH: The atmosphere at Syracuse University at the time was what I would call fairly intense. These were the years when Expressionism was new and exciting, and it seemed that the students were divided into two camps as were the instructors. Among the art instructors who made serious impressions on me were Maurice Doueck and James Dwyer. Their emphasis was more traditional and classical, concerned with ordered composition. Cézanne and the Cubists were the hallmark of civilized painting.

I can recall that, oddly, de Kooning’s paintings were analyzed in the same regard—using the same language as if discussing Cézanne: how a line intersecting a shape would change the direction of the shape, or the repetition of a color would cause the viewer’s eye to move around the picture plane—rarely emphasizing the verve or energy of de Kooning’s painting or the intensity of his brushstroke. Despite the dichotomy between Formalism and Expressionism, I have always admired both Ben Nicholson and de Kooning. Along with a handful of other students, I assumed the visual trappings of a bohemian lifestyle—listening to jazz, going to foreign films, incomprehensible poetry readings and the like.

JK: Were you painting abstractly at that time?

JH: We painted from still life set ups where the critiques were not concentrated on the accurate rendering of the objects themselves, but rather on the formal aspects of design and composition. Of course we drew from the human figure when the concerns were anatomy and draftsmanship as well as composition. I never at that time painted non-objectively. I think the only students who did that were in the “opposite camp,” with different instructors whose emphasis was on Expressionism. I’m fairly certain that they didn’t know what they were doing, or how, in fact, that sort of painting—at that juncture—could have been evaluated.

During the summer between my junior and senior years, many of the group of students whose views I shared received scholarships to a camp on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, which was owned by the university and used for conferences, study groups, and so on. We painted with Jim Dwyer. We took turns posing, we went on trips to Montreal, and because it was a more relaxed setting and there were fewer of us, the instruction was more personal. It was a memorable time and a turning point in my growth.

That following Spring semester when I was to write my thesis, the title suggested by another student was “Cubism—Its Heritage and Its Consequences.” As I recall, the title was the most impressive part of the thesis. I can’t remember what I imagined as the consequences.

JK: What artists did you particularly admire at this time?

JH: As I mentioned, I liked de Kooning, Ben Nicholson and also Bradley Walker Tomlin.

JK: After graduating, you moved across the country to California.

JH: I graduated from Syracuse University when I was 19 years old and without an idea of what I was going to do with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Painting. Not desirous of remaining in Upstate New York, I went to California where at first I worked many odd jobs.

During the mid 50s, I worked at the Los Angeles Art Association and became acquainted with the art scene. There were about eight galleries in LA and not many showing women. A dominant visible group of painters there in the 50s included, in part, Larry Bell, Ed Kienholz, Craig Kaufman, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Walley Berman, Ken Price, and John Altoon. This group belonged to the early Ferus Gallery directed for many years by Irving Blum, and the artists were bonded together not by style, but by the tightness of the gallery itself.

At the Art Association I met artists Lorser Feitelson and his wife, Helen Lundeberg.

JK: At that time Feitelson was making hard-edge compositions with each shape painted in a single color.

Magical Space Forms
Magical Space Forms, oil on canvas, 114 x 168 cm (45 x 66 in), 1952-54
(Image courtesy Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood, CA)

JH: Lorser was a strong supporter who encouraged me considerably. In fact it was he who first mentioned my work to noted writer, critic and art historian, Jules Langsner, who in 1965 became my husband.

Ultimately I realized that teaching was the only likely direction for me. I received a Master of Arts degree and a teaching credential from California State University at Los Angeles, and in 1958 I began teaching at Hollywood High School where I taught for 12 years. I had some very good students, many of whom went on to universities and art schools and became successful largely as art directors or in various other capacities in the movie and television industries obviously prevalent in this area.

As soon as I started teaching, I rented an apartment, changed one room into a studio, and painted on the weekends. I did many collages—in part because space was limited—and some paintings from the collages. Some of the early paintings resulted rather obviously from the still-life collages.

JK: Here is one of your collage works from 1959.

Still Life
Still Life, pencil, chalk and collage,
61 x 46 cm (24 x 18 in), 1959

JH: This is a chalk and pencil still life drawing superimposed over abstract colored paper shapes. It reflects my interest in both the work of Ben Nicholson and Cubism. The pitcher and other objects, while representational, overlap one another, reversing their relative positions.

I suppose I could have chosen to continue with representational still life in the manner of Morandi, whom I also admired, or Nicholson, but my training as well as my interest did not lead me there. The non-objective direction that the collages and paintings took seems to me today as inevitable as it did at the time.

JK: You soon moved to completely non-objective work.

JH: This was not at all a leap—the transition was simple, almost anticipated.

Untitled (Sliver Series)
Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
152 x 112 cm (60 x 44 in), 1960

This group of paintings I referred to as the Sliver Series due to some of their sliver-like shapes.

 Tread (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
103 x 89 cm (51 x 35 in), 1960
Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
165 x 112 cm (65 x 44 in), 1960

They were derived from colored paper collages, the images retaining the same rigid, hard edges, then translated into acrylic paint on canvas.

Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
122 x 76 cm (48 x 30 in), 1961
Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
152 x 112 cm (60 x 44 in), 1961

New in the 50s, acrylic paint was at first not sufficiently refined for artists, but meant for house painters. Many paintings done at that time by artists who used this new acrylic paint became cracked and checked in later years.

I continue to use acrylic paint because it dries faster than oil paint and only requires water to thin the paint and clean brushes. Of course, the quality has improved considerably. As a matter of fact, I convinced Feitelson to use acrylic paint. He, naturally, had similar problems as I did. His wife, Lundeberg, was more cautious, and wisely waited to use acrylic paint until it was time-tested.

Dark Hour (Silver Series), acrylic on canvas,
127 x 71 cm, ( 50 x 28 in), 1963
Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas,
127 x 97 cm (50 x 38 in), 1964

Some of the shapes in the collages overlapped one another, thus appearing to be foreground. Yet in the same paintings, the shapes often” reversed out,” and what appeared to be foreground would appear as background. This ambiguity is the raison d’être—the intention.

Untitled (Sliver Series)
Untitled (Sliver Series), acrylic on canvas, 79 x 150 cm (31 x 59 in), 1963

JK: In the mid 50s your future husband, art critic and writer Jules Langsner, identified common stylistic elements among the work of four Southern California painters—Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin, and Frederick Hammersley. In 1959, he curated what was to be a movement-defining exhibition, Four Abstract Classicists, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In his catalogue essay, Langsner described these four artists as “form conscious,” a description that certainly applied to you as well. He coined the term “hard-edge” to refer to art in which forms are “finite, flat, rimmed by a hard clean edge.” Your work at the time was also hard-edge.

JH: Yes. I always have used tape in painting forms—except when it was obvious in the middle years that I wanted to include some brushy areas. My paint application was uniform, that is to say that no brush strokes were evident, creating impeccable, flat surfaces. Thus there would be no distraction from the intent, which was to create an interplay of “colorforms.” Jules used this term to mean that color and form are one. One would not exist without the other. These flat, abutting forms could be read as both positive and negative shapes.

JK: In 1964, Langsner organized another important exhibition, California Hard-Edge Painting, held at the Pavillion Gallery in Balboa, California.

JH: I was included in this exhibition along with 10 other artists. This was one of the first important shows that launched my career.

JK: In that same year, you were also working on your own series that you called Colorforms.

Blue/Black (Colorform Series)
Blue/Black (Colorform Series), acrylic on
canvas, 147 x 79 cm (58 x 31 in), 1964

JH: Yes. To some extent, the Colorforms were a natural extension of the Sliver Series—only now the shapes are clearly interlocking.

JK: You were still carefully planning your compositions with colored paper collages.

JH: Every aspect of the Colorforms—their placement with regard to each other and to the edge of the canvas—was well thought out in advance. I altered and changed shapes while working on a collage until it felt right.

Rouge et Noir (Colorform Series)
Rouge et Noir, (Colorform Series), acrylic on
canvas, 69 x 53 cm (27 x 21 in), 1965

For Rouge et Noir, I cut the colored paper shapes and adjusted them until the variations of the circles achieved a rhythmic flow. Frequently, the colorforms would “reverse out” because of similar color values in the same painting. Here, however, the bright red successfully contrasts with the value of the black. As with all of my hard-edge paintings, the edge of the canvas does not confine the forms, but rather suggests that they continue beyond its borders.

In this black and white painting, tension is created through the diagonal placement of the shapes.

Untitled (Colorform Series)
Untitled (Colorform Series), acrylic on canvas, 102 x 152 cm (40 x 60 in), 1965

As I previously mentioned, I also create tension through the use of combatant colors or complementary colors of similar values.

Coupled (Colorform Series)
Coupled (Colorform Series), acrylic on canvas, 64 x 107 cm (25 x 42 in), 1966

Bulls Eye is one of my more eccentric paintings where the colored shapes “edge” the canvas, leaving white floating on its own in the center. I think that in this painting, the idea of color extending endlessly into space seems to me to be successful.

Bulls Eye (Colorform Series)
Bulls Eye (Colorform Series), acrylic on canvas,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1965

JK: You called your next group of work the Loop Series.

JH: In this series I was delving into kinetics.

Target (Loop Series)
Target (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1965

With the Targets the forms suggested spinning wheels, where parts of the image seem to disappear.

Target (Look Series)
Target (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1965

After the symmetrical loops came floating loops loosened and free with a kinetic energy of their own …

Untitled (Loop Series)
Untitled (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 1966

… swirling and moving into the canvas and then off again.

Untitled (Look Series)
Untitled (Loop Series), acrylic on canvas, 102 x 165 cm (40 x 65 in), 1965

JK: You used an interesting technique to develop the paintings in your Ribbons Series.

JH: Just by chance, I curled a ribbon of paper by rubbing it against a scissors blade, then used an opaque projector to project the image onto a canvas. I drew an outline of the image I wanted. In the surrounding area the paint was brushed on, but in the ribbon-shaped area it was applied with force through a spray gun, thereby producing a different, somewhat grainy texture even though the color used was precisely the same. The painting looked different according to the light source and the position of the spectator.

Teal (Ribbon Series)
Teal (Ribbon Series), acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1967

JK: As with the Loops, feelings of energy and movement appear again in your Network Series.

JH: This series was done largely with metallic paint on black or gray, giving the paintings a sort of three-dimensional, somewhat optical look.

Untitled (Network Series)
Untitled (Network Series), acrylic on canvas,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1968

The lines could be imagined to move beyond the edges of the canvas. Once again, the images changed with the light and position of the viewer.

Untitled (Network Series)
Untitled (Network Series), acrylic on canvas,
137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 1968

The paintings that followed were an obvious extension of the Network paintings …

Untitled (Network Series)
Untitled (Network Series), acrylic on canvas,
137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 1968

… once again changing depending on the position of the viewer and the circumstances of the light.

Whirl (Network Series), acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1967
Pool (Network Series), acrylic on canvas,
152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1967

JK: You also did a series based on hexagonal shapes that appear to recede into the distance.

JH: The honeycomb shapes went from larger to smaller, seeming to curve despite having been derived with only straight lines.

Untitled (Hexagon Series)
Untitled (Hexagon Series), acrylic on canvas,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1969

The two networks of hexagons differed in color and went in different directions, thereby creating tension.

Untitled (Hexagon Series)
Untitled (Hexagon Series), acrylic on canvas,
127 x 127 cm (50 x 50 in), 1970

A series of three-dimensional pieces followed. The images were taped and painted on a piece of Lucite that was then heated in an oven and molded to fit inside a previously built glass form. Polyurethane was poured over the surface and cooled.

Pyramid, Lucite, 46 x 18 x 13 cm
(18 x 7 x 5 in), 1972

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