Hassel Smith (1915-2007) was a California Bay area abstract expressionist painter, painting instructor at the California School of Fine Arts, and a lecturer at the University of California. His students included Roy De Forest, Sonia Gechtoff, and Frank Lobdell. Smith was also associated with the famed Los Angeles Ferus Gallery.
Hassel Smith was born on April 27, 1915, in Sturgis, Michigan, settling later with his family in San Mateo, California. He attended Northwestern University with the intention of becoming a chemist, but switched his majors to English and Art History and graduated in 1936. Returning to California, Smith enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA), and studied with the painter Maurice Sterne.
In 1937, he left school and shared housing with his adopted brother Lewis in the Haight-Ashbury district, where he maintained a studio on Steiner Street. At the same time, as a social worker for the California Relief State Administration, he worked with men on "skid row" in San Francisco. Declared 4F by the draft board, Smith served various government agencies during World War II, including the Farm Security Administration and the U.S. Forest Service. During this period, he met and married June Meyers. He later described his government service and social work as having a strong influence on his art and politics.
In 1941, Smith was awarded the Abraham Rosenberg Fellowship from the University of California, Berkeley, which allowed him to travel and paint outdoors at Angel's Camp in the Mother Lode of the Sierra foothills, along with Richard Hackett.
At the end of the war, Smith began teaching at the CSFA, joining faculty members Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Clyfford Still. Smith taught there until 1952. His students included Roy De Forest, Sonia Gechtoff, and Frank Lobdell. Smith continued to paint and exhibit work throughout the 1950s, and in 1958 became affiliated with the Ferus Gallery founded by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz. His wife June passed away in 1958. One year later, Smith remarried Donna Rafferty Harrington, and they had their son Bruce in 1960.
After an exhibition at the New Arts Gallery in Houston, London-based dealer Charles Gimpel invited Smith to exhibit his work in England. As a result of this, Smith moved to England in 1962, and spent a year living in Mousehole, a fishing village in Cornwall. He moved back to California and between 1963 to 1966 was a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1966, Smith accepted a position as Senior Lecturer at the West England College of Art in Bristol, England where he stayed until 1978. He finished his teaching career as a Principal Lecturer at the Cardiff College of Arts in Wales from 1978 to 1979.
Smith spent most of the next two decades painting and exhibiting, which included exhibitions at the Oakland Museum and the San Jose Museum of Art. In 1991, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the San Francisco Art Institute (formerly the California School of Fine Arts). Due to failing health, Smith was forced to stop painting in 1997. Smith died in 2007 in Warminster, England, at the age of 91.