In the late 1950s, Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999) developed a crisp, hard-edge style for paintings that oscillate visually between geometric abstraction and wide-open landscapes navigating between the natural and built environments. As a recent retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum showed, the best examples date from the late-1950s to the mid-1960s.
Four excellent examples from those years are at Louis Stern Fine Arts, where they are paired with 11 similarly fine works by Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, John McLaughlin and Lorser Feitelson (Lundeberg's husband). The four so-called Abstract Classicists purged landscape references from their hard-edge paintings, making them distinct from Lundeberg's direction. Absent such references, they used color and form alone to open visual space on resolutely flat surfaces.
The surprise here is a small McLaughlin study in gouache on cardboard. A pattern of two horizontal rows of three interlocking color-shapes is repeated four times. The gouache is dated "circa 1949" — intriguingly early, since his mature geometric abstractions didn't emerge for about two more years.
A nearly imperceptible break in the pattern in the center of the second row from the bottom suggests this gouache is an unfinished study, emblematic of McLaughlin's self-taught exploration. Or perhaps he was up to something else; perhaps he was breaking the pattern of conventional perceptual expectations that would soon mark his incomparable abstract paintings.
Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Through July 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 276-0147, www.louissternfinearts.com