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Hassel Smith


Cops Hide/Love Your Magic Spell is Everywhere

Assemblage of collage, paint on wood panel, and found object
9.5 x 7.25 in. (24.13 x 18.415 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

Hassel Smith was a leading artist of the San Francisco branch of abstract expressionism, renowned for his joyful whiplash line but also for the central role he played in laying the groundwork for California assemblage. As early as 1948, Smith produced artworks constructed from debris washed up on the beach near his Point Richmond home, across the bay from San Francisco. The following year, he collaborated with Richard Diebenkorn and Clay Spohn to create the Museum of Unknown and Little-Known Objects, a temporary installation of pseudoscientific exhibits widely acknowledged as a germinal event for the beat assemblage movement.

Cops Hide/Love Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere reveals a dark and profoundly serious wit in keeping with the social and political concerns of the beat generation. Sandra Starr might have been writing about this work when she observed that the “great richness” in assemblage sculpture lies in its “denseness of metaphor, which is laid on as thickly as the paint in San Francisco abstract expressionism.” Incorporating a painted target, this assemblage might seem an homage to Jasper Johns’s treatments of the same theme, perhaps reflecting the limitations of mass media imagery. Smith’s piece, however, is anything but mute. The words “Cops Hide” may have been cut from a magazine or newspaper, but the voice is unmistakably Smith’s, since he was himself a police target as a member of the Communist Party during the red-baiting McCarthy era. Significantly, the color red is reserved for the sheet of cardboard, with perforations suggesting bullet holes, beneath which a couple of phrases can be glimpsed but not deciphered. The absurdity of the title’s suggestion that law enforcement run for cover is reinforced by the carnivalesque montage of peanuts that forms the backdrop of the assemblage.

Susan Landauer

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