Leaping steel and combed paintings: The world of Duayne Hatchett

By Bruce Adams
Images of Hatchett installation at BPAC by kc kratt.

Duayne Hatchett’s Galvanized Steel Column, 1983 and Shaped Galvanized Strips, 1983
Hatchett’s Winner Circle, 1998
Hatchett’s Up and Back, 1968
Hatchett’s Open V, 1968

When the new Burchfield Penney Art Center building opened last November the splashy inaugural exhibition hinted at the facility’s possibilities. With the museum’s second major show, however, we get a glimpse of the full curatorial potential of this new space. Duayne Hatchett: Form, Pattern, and Invention–A Retrospective is a sixty-year overview of the life and career of a former University of Buffalo sculpture professor who is one of this region’s most enduring artists. Hatchett is an ideal subject for such a comprehensive review. His often large-scale works in both sculptural and flat media are well suited to the voluminous East Gallery, and his constantly evolving and inventive approach to art provides enough variety to keep viewers engaged.

The exhibition plays like a biography, beginning with the earliest works and moving chronologically decade by decade. Abundant wall text assists viewers through Hatchett’s many stylistic and technological permutations, beginning with his work as a young printmaker. The earliest item on display a small social realist style lithograph from 1949 titled Escapedepicts a woman shielding a boy as they flee an ominously glowing city on the horizon. Hatchett provides the subject with an appropriately dramatic composition, with stark angular shapes, in strikingly high contrast. He acknowledges the influence of Mexican art, and there’s also a strong similarity to WPA printmaking of the 1930s.

The young artist then tears through a series of backward-glancing influences, sampling what the early twentieth century had to offer. By the 1950s, while America is in the throes of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Hatchett catches up with cubism. Seascape and Painted Strip and Burlap Collage owe a debt to Paul Klee. Snatches of Picasso and Miro can be seen in his early cast and welded sculptures. Later the influence of sculptor David Smith, whom Hatchett met and got to know, is unmistakable. Early in Ohio (1964) employs the same angularity and counter tension in abstract welded steel as those in the two-dimensional Escape, with the stark physical presence of Smith’s later work. Around 1968, at the time of his arrival in Buffalo, Hatchett hits his stride, both sculpturally and in a return to painting. Science and geometry become his twin muses, and his lifelong penchant for experimentation erupts in innovative explorations into new techniques and media. His sculpture transforms from expressive oxidized steel assemblages and vaguely figurative totems to sleek reductive aluminum, bronze, and Plexiglas forms conveying rational objectivity. As with the “concrete art”� of such sculptors as Max Bill, all evidence of the artist’s hand is polished away, suggesting principles of physics or aerodynamics. Also evident is a constructivist concern for space. Even the title of Encircled V draws our attention to the inverted and distorted v-shaped open area defined by the yellow semicircular Plexiglas and welded aluminum planes that make up the piece.

Two similar wall-mounted works–Number 169 and Number 269 (1969)–act as transitions between Hatchett’s sculptural work and his reentry into painting. The large square compositions are constructed of graphite-coated wood strips attached in parallel lines to black canvas surfaces. Though difficult to describe in print, the effect is of ribbed interlocking geometric shapes, like a square tangram puzzle. What follows in the 1970s is a series of hard-edge paintings employing two-dimensional geometry. Some, like Closure (1973), are vaguely illusionistic; white lines on a grey surface define geometric shapes–or are they illusionistic forms? A clash between picture-plane flatness and the mind’s fondness for perceiving pictorial depth presents something of a sensory tug-of-war. In his well-researched and insightful catalogue essay, critic Richard Huntington argues that Hatchett’s approach differs from the “radical empiricism”� of minimalism. To this reviewer, however, Hatchett’s emphasis on mathematical regularity and pared-down design places him well within the scope of the minimalist impulse, especially in painting. Whatever road Hatchett was traveling, to the viewer these works function as minimalism.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Hatchett is at his most creative. Fully comfortable in his own skin now, he devises a series of innovative mechanical tools and techniques, moving restlessly from one idea to the next. He invents a crimping device, enabling him to assemble undulating lattice forms like Dual Force, a painted galvanized steel structure that seems to leap nimbly off the gallery wall and back on again. Airy and delicate in appearance, its open woven structure allows light to pass through, casting lace-like shadows that account for half the work’s impact. To fully appreciate this, walk upstairs where similar pieces are exhibited sans spotlight, to much diminished effect.

Another series of works on paper is created with an artist-built harmonograph–a pendulum-driven device that mechanically draws elaborate biomorphic designs. A large sampling is on view, demonstrating the machine’s capacity for endless variations. Hatchett also experiments with spray paint (Spray Paint #1 and #2) achieving an atmospheric geometric effect; he explores the malleability of lead in a series of pressed reliefs (Diva Slam I and II); he binds stacked logs within steel geometric frames, pitting math against nature (Study in Time).

Hatchett’s most enduring innovation is his “combed” paintings, in which the artist drags a variety of self-made trowels through thick layers of wet paint to form intricate patterns. Hatchett’s trowels are on display, along with numerous paintings that seem to adhere to an established format: large, nearly square, limited or no color; they suggest systematic order, with the trowel marks invariably forming curves, arches, or semi-circles. Hatchett’s inspiration could be the patterns that occur by troweling ceramic mortar while laying down floor tile. Some, like the exceptional Red Grid, are organized around a grid pattern. Others are only slightly more freeform. These paintings are best savored meditatively; their subtle complexities emerge with sustained contemplation. Arranged here in rat-a-tat assembly line fashion, they are almost overwhelming.

There is a literal sideshow in the adjoining Corridor Gallery spotlighting Hatchett’s recent return to printmaking. Numerous prints are displayed with their assemblage-like print blocks as complimentary artistic works. Elsewhere, there’s a table packed with recent small-scale sculpture, and a showcase displays multiple miniature Mobius-strip-based works from 2007. Lately Hatchett has switched his attention to mobiles–some fashioned from yardstick–of which a couple are suspended above viewers heads.

This profusion of art, wall text, and historical documentation makes for one busy show. If there are many more artists as productive as Hatchett, the Burchfield Penney should begin planning an addition now. Out of admiration for his subject, director Ted Pietrzak squeezes in more work than a gallery even this large can comfortably hold. Okay, it’s a new space, and documenting such a long and fruitful career–with Hatchett’s penchant for producing multiple variations–is a daunting task. Fewer examples, though, would have allowed more room for the work to breathe. That said, it’s an auspicious beginning for the new museum, and an appropriate tribute to a WNY art maven.

Bruce Adams is is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.