Catalogue note for ‘Marks on a Canvas’ exhibition

It is not too extravagant to think of these utterly abstract blobs, pools, ellipses, squares, cubes, diamonds, triangles and cones, as personages — in the sense Miro's images are. The way they are painted and their juxtaposition describe their idiosyncrasies and their action.

The interrogatory nature of our relationship to a portrait is paralleled in Huxley's insistence that a painting should not make a statement or tell a story, but should be about the questions it raises. It should be about its effect on the person who looks at it, what they may see, what they understand, what they may never know. The means he employs go back to the foundations of abstract painting — to the juxtaposition ot two colour areas and finally to the brush mark itself.

He had been interested in abstract painting since he first went to art school and consequently in the European tradition from the Post-Impressionists, through Matisse, to de Stael. However he left dissatisfied with School of Paris abstraction as practised by Soulages and Riopelle. His first contact with contemporary American painting was at Institute of Contemporary Arts exhibitions in the late fifties. In 1959 he saw the second big American show at the Tate Gallery. But his great landmark was the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in November 1958, where for the first time he felt he was „experiencing modern painting in a physical rather than an intellectual way". His first "true" abstract paintings were made in the subsequent year and a halt, before he left the Academy Schools: gestural paintings done on the floor in the manner of Pollock — with drips.

His leaving art school coincided with a desire to make something more formal than the Abstract Expressionist performance permitted and he attempted for a time a rather unsatisfactory relationship with flat designed areas of colour, often using diamond (lozenge) shapes. The way to a more coherent development can be related back to two sources: one within his work, the other outside. The results are embodied in paintings of late 1962 and early 1963 — a square (the canvas) with a diamond shape on top of it and, disrupting the formality of the diamond, one or more separate gestural marks.

All the time he was working gesturally he had made a practice of rehearsing his paintings through a long series of drawings on rolls of lining paper in brush and black paint. Similarly when he abandoned gestural painting for the formality of geometric design, he went on making brush drawings in which he used the diamond shape as a target for tree, stabbing, gestural brush marks. These grew interesting in their own right, not simply in their function as gestures of crossing out, smearing or blobbing into the target. Incorporated into the paintings, they increased in size and importance to become graphic descriptions of their own personal peculiarities.

This logical development from his Pollock-based painting probably has certain connections with paintings by Morris Louis, which impressed him at the ICA in May 1960. He was not interested in the staining of the canvas, but the compositional formalities of Louis's painting and the process by which the image developed. In its final state it represented the bringing to a standstill of a flowing form, in execution it entailed painting in a prescribed way, not allowing alteration other than extension. The result contained as much of the history of its execution as a Jackson Pollock, but with a different kind of control and a means of isolating the elements one from another.

At this stage Huxley also set up conditions so that the painting had to progress in a certain way, with an element of risk: the backing lozenge shape would be painted in plastic paint and the disruptive one in oil, so there was no possibility of reworking, only of enlargement. Altering its limits by gradual adjustment, he expanded the mark in slow ripples: a free gesture, but considered.

A painting might include disruptive marks of differing personality — one carefully delineated like a cartoon "speaks" balloon, another a brush scrub, but too big in scale to be in tact freely drawn, a third a brush scrub back and forth, but the scrubbing limited by a straight line. It was a kind of formal scrutiny of gestural painting, but without the satire or dramatisation of Lichtenstein's 1965-66 brush-stroke paintings. He was not interested in Pop Art, but he accepts the Pop reference of the cartoon speech bubble as he would the formalized swirl of ice cream as advertised on an ice-cream van. The connotations are reasonable on condition they are only in the mind of the spectator (or artist). A form may have many meanings, but it must be steered so that they can never be pinned down.

Thus in 1963/64, when he was dealing with the controlled movement of paint, he was interested in the possibilities of the abstract form's resembling a plausible material, doughy or liquid — something with substance like ink, meringues or mud. An early 1963 picture is called Candle, this could be partly because it is a dark form seeming to illuminate the ground behind, but it also relates to the growth of dripping wax. Later paintings have no such titles (only numbers) but they have shapes that pour predatorily like cake mix, or hang about enigmatically like pools. Throughout Huxley's work there is always the suggestion that the shapes are more than one-dimensional. They are often drawn in terms of perspective according to what they are doing or where they are supposed to be on the canvas. They and the spaces they occupy have definite, though entirely imaginary spatial significance in Huxley's mind. He treats the forms objectively, as if they really existed. Certain parts of the canvas tend to have particular functions suited to certain types of form or action. The bottom is regarded as the floor of the painting and contains supine forms; the central area is structural — suited to the building of columns; the upper part is equated with sky and the province of free, floating shapes.

The ground and the images are painted in flat colours. Perspective is implied by drawing, tone and position. There is no ambiguity of surface and image, no difficulty in deciding which is which, no doubt about their status. However, this does not exclude play between the two, and this has become more subtle since the disrupted diamond period. Here there was a certain kind of graded perspective — Cubist if you like — between the three planes of mark, diamond and square. Since then the image itself offers the main spatial clues. Nevertheless the original interest in a dark mark on a light ground has continued and it is extremely rare to find cases where the situation is reversed. Huxley's practice is to put down a whole field of colour upon which he places his image: thus the ground is the context for the image. It is activated by the way the outline of the image cuts into it and locks with it in terms of structure — as in literal space. The flatness of colour functions as both infinity and absence of space, so that it is not possible to forget the question of what a painting is or is not.

Aside from the pouring and pool shapes, there is a linear theme, which moves from the original rippling brush-stroke motif, through single and double lines sinking to the ground, to an active bipartite line exploring the whole canvas. The drawing of the image is extremely important to Huxley, essential in combining character and event — in contrast to John Hoyland's view that the ideal treatment of the linear theme should be a single sweep of colour uninhibited by graphic description of its edge. One of Huxley's images (No. 27) is of two lines falling together to the bottom of the canvas. They intertwine, but the details of where they overlap are almost insignificant in relation to the general scale of the image, in a way that is typical of Huxley's view of the importance of the minutiae of delineation. The artist has sometimes thought of this painting in terms of Rapunzel letting down her golden hair — which substantiates the personage/fairy tale viewpoint. He also sees in it something of the great capitals in the Book of Kells. While these lines have no actual connection with Celtic or other convolutions it is significant that Huxley admits to feeling closer to ancient rather than Renaissance traditions. He confirms that there is no specific influence, in his river-like twisting lines of black on green, of the Japanese paintings John Hoyland admired around 1963, though since then he has made a point of looking at ancient oriental art when visiting Museums. This line moving across the complete canvas in 1965, travels with the precise intention that it should be followed and not registered as an image at a single glance. It was a partial expression of Huxley's feeling that one reads a canvas in a certain way, which can be emphasised to give an added measure of control over the spectator.

The paintings that follow introduce more geometrical forms but combined into an organic progression. The key or corner stone of the sequence is a square locked into the top left hand corner of the painting. Squarish shapes move away from this pouring-off point in a chain of stepping stones, diagonally across the canvas to the bottom right. They are held together by an action of gradual melting metamorphosis — so that the formally painted square can become a fluid oval almost gesturally brushed in, lying at the bottom of the canvas. Characteristically there is a teasing element in this whole evolution and a sense of mockery, like a dropped keystone, in the improbability of the square form tucked up in the corner of the canvas. Compared to the original gestural concept, it suggests a more complex kind of metamorphosis, which not only permits of a form growing, but equally of becoming another in the process. It also allows one form to have the characteristics of another (a square of two triangles) and to present more than one aspect: where a square is also a cube, it can just as well unfold itself into a chain of squares. It is worth mentioning that the artist has always been fascinated by the trompe I'oeil skull in Holbein's The Ambassadors.

The element of distortion implicit in the process of metamorphosis is typical of Huxley's intermittent desire to disrupt the shape he works with. Also at this time he did some paintings of squares and cones with deliberately delineated rough-edged outlines, so that it is difficult to consider them as geometrical shapes — something equally characteristic of his organic view of formality.

These paintings also make use of minute drips and blemishes. Huxley employs these genuine or simulated accidents "to act as clues for the spectator". They are ambiguous touches which suggest without being, and relate to the spectator's questioning relationship with the painting. They are not floating forms but bring one to the surface of the canvas. A parallel might be the reminder of mortal existence in observing the life of a flea.

The last paintings he did before going to America on a Harkness Fellowship in 1965 are of a progression of sharply defined squares moving from the top of the canvas to lie in watchful perspective at the bottom. The tension in the spaces between them contains a foretaste of the more detailed, even ticklish, relationship between the geometrical forms of the ensuing period, which is quite different in character from that between amorphous or evolutionary shapes. He also later developed the large-size square or cube to give it almost claustrophobic proportions.

The first New York pictures have an element of not quite having found his feet with the completely geometrical shape. They are about large interlocking squares which have a closer play with the ground than usual, almost seeming to make a solid form out the whole painting. They are notable for his first use of yellow, having an intense yellow square at the top left hand corner. (He remembers being impressed by a yellow painting by Gottlieb at this time.) This is particularly unusual, being lighter than the ground, but it makes for a closer locking of the total painting.

His first brief two month visit to America in 1964 had had little or no effect on his work. What he saw was a confirmation of what he already knew. The effects of this second visit are more visible: canvases became bigger and the paintings more formal in drawing and higher pitched in colour — lime green, lemon yellow, green, purple, violet, orange; at first very bright, in the later stages growing more personal — yellow turning to lime green and green to deep olive. Huxley feels that unconsciously the colour of New York City life probably had its effect.

A brilliant procession of red and yellow taxis, lime green garbage trucks and so on clicked past his first floor studio overlooking a busy cross-roads. The "Cubist" New York view up from his windows may also have been significant, particularly that of one of the criminal courts with a triangular shaped roof. The kind of detached amusement implied in the juxtaposition of geometric shapes is now elaborated. It happens in the way forms touch at the corners — of two triangles for example.

Pin-point relationships play with touch where drawing peters out. The relationship is not definable in terms of subjective analogy as before. It is perhaps the kind of attitude that exists between the child and his building blocks, a kind of appreciation which is extremely detailed, totally unromantic, constantly changing, absolutely open-minded and completely absorbing. His original interest in sequence of forms is still important, but there is a new element of balance involved, where the bottom image is locked to the edge of the canvas. Circles are included for the first time. And just as there is always the possibility of forms being solid — even when no perspective is implied in the drawing — Huxley considers the question how will this ball/cylinder/disc work between other shapes? Will it fall off and roll down and the whole thing collapse completely?

At this period the shapes in his pictures begin to work as established characters reappearing in various situations of a continuous drama. In 1967/68 he extended the significance of this field of action by introducing a rectangular colour key. In particular it serves as a record of past processes which have resulted in the situation as we see it. Thus in two paintings of 1968 he proposes the absence or removal of shapes. In one a series of triangles is obliterated by black paint, in another they exist only in terms of the lighter patches on the ground where it seems they must once have lain. The colour key records their passing.

Subsequently the key becomes an object in its own right, even to taking up almost half the painting. It functions rather like the mirror in a picture by Matisse which reveals another dimension, suggesting that more can be deduced from the painting than actually appears there. It is a means (in the manner of Robbe Grillet) of piecing together the situation behind the painting which has not actually been described there.

Recently Huxley seems to have abandoned this deductive parallelism and returned to a more straightforward descriptive method. A triangle balancing a square, balancing a diamond has an element of personage, and of a combination of personages. The painting is about these particular shapes and about what happens when they become one another as much as when they touch one another.

© Anne Seymore 1969