Contemporary Art

Discovering Carl Pickhardt, Pioneer of the Shaped Canvas

By Sotheby's

A n originator of the shaped canvas, artist Carl Pickhardt (1908–2004) began creating his free form paintings in the early 1950s. These works had no fixed orientation and each possessed its own unique, geometric silhouette; the nearly sculptural artworks hearkened a new pictorial structure freed from horizontal or vertical reference. A new exhibition Carl Pickhardt: Free Form at Sotheby’s San Francisco presents sixteen canvases by the under-recognized artist, on view to the public now through 28 September 2018.

Three neutral color canvases with geometric design.
Carl Pickhardt’s Abstraction #13 , Abstraction #15 and Abstraction #14 (left to right) on view in Carl Pickhardt: Free Form at Sotheby’s San Francisco through 28 September. Photograph by Demian Becerra

Before he began creating what Pickhardt dubbed “abstractions in new shapes,” the Massachusetts-born artist attended Harvard University and studied under noted painter and art instructor Harold Zimmerman, who later influenced Expressionist painters such as Jack Levine and Hyman Bloom. Pickhardt's innovative canvases were in many ways art-historically prescient. His first free form painting dates to 1953, some seven years before Frank Stella’s first experimentation with “deductive” pictorial structure and nine years before Kenneth Noland’s lozenge shaped chevron paintings.

A trapezoid-shaped canvas with shapes of light-gray purple, darker bluish-purple and a small detail of yellow,
Carl Pickhardt, Abstraction #599 .

Like Hans Arp before him, Pickhardt derived pictorial structure from the physical character of the picture support itself. Each of the free form paintings may be revolved like a turntable, appearing in any position around its axis, fixed at its center to the wall. As art historian Parker Tyler notes, "each outline quivers, expands and contracts, the way the heart does in a human body, sending out waves of energy.” Unconstrained by the traditional boundaries of a rectangular frame, Pickhardt’s spontaneous paintings "combine the cerebral and the intuitive, with a critical independence and a controlled passion and intensity in his forms and shapes."

Three abstract, geometrically shaped canvases in a room with two chairs and a glass table.
Pickardt’s canvases range from the black-and-white attractions of Abstraction #283 (left) to the overlapping multicolored planes of Abstraction #520 (center) and Abstraction #575 (right). Photograph by Demian Becerra

Carl Pickhardt’s artwork has been included in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; and the National Academy of Design, New York. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Brooklyn Museum; Library of Congress, Washington DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A trapezoid-shaped canvas with beige, rose, light green and purple-gray colors.
Carl Pickhardt, Abstraction #575 .

Carl Pickhardt: Free Form is on view through 28 September at Sotheby's San Francisco, located at One Sansome Street, Suite 750.

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