Frank O. Hamilton, San Francisco painter, dies at 92

Frank O. Hamilton, a ceramist who taught himself to paint, worked primarily in acrylics.
Frank O. Hamilton, a ceramist who taught himself to paint, worked primarily in acrylics.

Frank O. Hamilton, a San Francisco abstract painter whose exuberantly colored pictographic shapes and squiggles brought Miró and medieval maps to mind, and a philanthropist who contributed to many institutions, died Friday at the San Francisco Towers retirement facility. He was 92.

A onetime ceramist who taught at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1950s before teaching himself to paint, Mr. Hamilton made a name around these parts in the 1960s with the lively canvases he painted in flat, brilliant acrylics. They were shown in galleries and landed in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum and other institutions.

Reviewing a show of Mr. Hamilton’s paintings in 1967 at San Francisco’s Quay Gallery, then on Pacific Avenue, Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein praised the artist’s use of acrylic without gestural brushstrokes, making up for “the uneventful surface with a riot of small formal incidents — organic forms, geometric forms, fluid forms and static forms — somewhat reminiscent of both Miró and Kandinsky.”

High praise

Acrylic, Frankenstein went on, “has changed the whole atmosphere of color in modern art like the modulations in Schubert’s symphonies, and Hamilton handles that new chromatic key with breath-taking virtuosity, radiance and joyous effect.”

Born an only child in Virginia and raised by a grandmother in Tennessee, Mr. Hamilton, who rarely spoke of his childhood or the source of his apparent family wealth, flew missions in the Pacific during World War II as a torpedo bomber pilot in the highly decorated Composite Squadron 21.

Lucky break

He was serving stateside as a Navy flight instructor in 1945 when a chance encounter at the Art Institute of Chicago with the painter Kay Sage — whose painting he was admiring without knowing it was hers — helped foster his artistic ambitions. They became friends, and after graduating in 1948 with a political science degree from Stanford, where a scholarship and fellowship now bear his name, Mr. Hamilton went to Paris to study art with a door-opening introduction from Sage, who was married to famed French Surrealist Yves Tanguy.

Mr. Hamilton, who kept art-filled homes in Belvedere and Palm Springs, settled in San Francisco, where he was a trustee and donor at SFMOMA and contributed time and money to other organizations and institutions, including UC Berkeley.

“He was a lovely man,” said Jonrie Dávila, the senior associate director of planned giving at Stanford, where Mr. Hamilton funded an unrestricted undergraduate scholarship, as well as a graduate fellowship in the School of Humanities & Sciences intended to increase diversity among the graduate student population. “He was extremely generous and the easiest donor I ever worked with,” Dávila said.

“He was very, very modest. He didn’t want a lot of recognition. Frank knew a great many wealthy and prominent people, but he didn’t seem to need his name in lights.”

Mr. Hamilton, who had no survivors, did not want a funeral or memorial service.

Jesse Hamlin is a Bay Area journalist and former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.