Article in ‘Studio International’ Volume 178 Number 916

Paul Huxley’s paintings

A painting by Paul Huxley is a departure rather than an arrival. Alternatively, the painting postulates a question with certain implications, slanted if you like ( or if Huxley intends ) in a particular way without attempting a comprehensive answer. There is, quite suitably, a partial reaction to such delicate prompting. If the terms of departure no less than the presentation of the question are definitive, there is also an explicit division between departure and arrival, question and answer, which, if fine as a hair line, is also razor sharp. This division, intermediary state, or pause, is wholly subliminal, but it’s reverberation is strong and what the painting is ultimately about: its essential definition, however ulterior. We are left with evidence but no sight of the crime, which has to be detected by inference rather than through pragmatic deduction.  The marks or shapes in Huxley’s paintings are clear enough, in themselves, but they are not propelled into activity so much as propelled into a state of collusion: both with each other and with their supporting ground or space.

The oft-quoted story of Gertrude Stein’s death is worth recalling here. Rallying from a coma, the writer (who had absorbed with innovatory creative results all of William James’s philosophical insights into a continuous present ) said to her friends: ‘What is the answer ?’ There was no reply. Gertrude Stein laughed, and said: ‘In that case, what is the question?’ She died some minutes later. Equally apposite in the light of Huxley’s approach to painting, and free of Miss Stein’s profound paradox, are the words of the biologist, T.H. Huxley, at a public address: ‘The thoughts to which I am now giving utterance and your thoughts regarding them are the expression of molecular changes in that matter of life which is the source of our other vital phenomena’ (1). The physical reality of Huxley’s paintings is concrete and explicit enough to be perfectly, if elusively, identifiable in straightforward terms of colour, pigment, and mode of painting. If their ‘matter’ subsists, also, as readily describable marks or shapes, then it is the total action implicit in each painting, the ‘collusion’ and it’s impact, which first requires interpretation given these preliminary claims of ‘departure’ rather than arrival, and ‘question’ in preference to answer.

For the way in which Huxley projects his images in their totality, the entire action in each case as a combination of paint, colour, marks or shapes, ground or space, degree of opacity, luminosity or darkness: all this in it’s application engenders an oddly dispassionate presence. No individual work of Huxley’s can be called happy or sad, gay or sombre: the climate of all the paintings is severely constant, if temperate. Each painting has a disconcerting objectivity which exists outside the constraints of time or emotional distortion.

The progression of ideas from 1961-2 suggests an air of research conducted under tightly controlled conditions; and it is in this sense that Huxley’s painting, though never clinical or cold, has the engrossing character of a series of biochemical experiments in morphology, conducted with relentless discipline by an artist aware of the potential life of forms as well as the processes of painting.

Such a heady combination of factors is, of course, impossible. Huxley has had no scientific training; all his instincts are toward painting. But he has said that if he were not an artist he would prefer to work as a scientist, and he has been absorbed since childhood by those scientific books from which the layman can gather a sensation of the order underlying the physical world. Some attention has been given to the books of Farbre, the Lorentz of his day, whose studies of the behaviour pattern among insects, though now superseded and always qualified by a degree of poetic licence, are well attuned to the imagination of an artist.

Morphology, after all, is the study of the organisation of shape; morphogenesis means the making of shapes or forms and the implications of their resultant structure; structure itself is organised shape; biochemistry is the study of the chemical or physico-chemical processes and products involved in the life phenomena of plants and animals. When considering art, we speak of ‘culture’ but possibly forget that a culture is a living growth. In aesthetic terms, it demands the continuous act of exploration. Culture, in short, is something you create as you go along and it emerges like tradition, from behaviour, circumstances and environment, as different units and factors activate each other.

From the beginning, Huxley’s paintings have comprised different units seen always in tensile response to each other’s stimulus. The paintings are in some ways existential; but the interaction of shapes, even the registration of an individual, insulated brushmark, achieves the restrained intensity of morphological enquiry. Huxley shows no interest in Gestalt theory, but it is essential, in any consideration of his work, to be aware of the precise differences between mark, sign, symbol, shape, form, and image. An equally vital impulse, but kept at a discreet distance, is a concern for the pure act of painting and a vigilant scrutiny of it’s vocabulary both in isolation and in over-all relation to the language it may achieve. In the painting of 1962 entitled Shades, for example, Huxley made a statement on the nature of brush marks with greater imaginative consequence, certainly with more acute originality, than the later embalments by Lichtenstein of the superficial marks, in vacuo, of abstract expressionism. Huxley is not an art critic or a satirist, though his work is not without humour, and he is unconcerned with commentaries on taste or stylistic asides. 

Shades is one of a series of paintings made in 1962-3 in which the square format, consistently employed by Huxley to the present time, was counterpointed by a diamond-shaped area of warmer or lighter tone placed inside the square and up-tilted, with one point resting on the base of the canvas. Inside the diamond shape, varying from canvas to canvas, extremely concentrated distensions of marks or signs are placed, centrally or at the base of the diamond. These marks or signs also imply shapes with a distinct identity, ranging from a loose, heavily loaded brushmark registered as a solid, palpable object to a sharper and clean-edged sign, like a serif. There is an element of ‘presentation’ in all this, but as well as the exploration of format, and sign, mark or shape, the paintings suggest philosophical states of being. For sometimes the diamond is contained exactly inside the square; at other times, the points disappear from view, extending in various degrees beyond the boundaries of the four sides of the canvas. There is, first, a sense of an absolute condition, calm and resolved, as opposed to a more fragmented, temporary or dispersed state. The marks, as units, then contribute additional factors of equilibrium, containment and poise, or their energetically disruptive opposition.

In Shades, the square is an inner light brown; the diamond a softly glowing plum-red. In descending order, the brushmarks are cold greenish black as a humped mound with a contour fractured by a ragged brushmark on the right; warm brownish black as a controlled ‘slash’ mark with something of the resolution of a hieroglyph opened or pierced to show the plum colour of the supporting diamond shape beneath; and intense blue-black, merging into graded and vivid blues, as an abruptly aggressive and more loaded brushmark. There is a deliberate change of speed between the three sloping horizontal brush strokes, as well as variation in shape and modulation of colour and density. The painting also embodies Huxley’s typical use of dark against light. In other respects, the painting is a symposium of light: passing through veiled, dull brown to incandescent red, with passively cold and warm blacks, offset by a flashing blue-black applied more raspingly from the exterior of the canvas.

The square format is used by Huxley because of its neutrality. A canvas with a horizontal axis is more related to the influence of gravity; a vertical canvas can deny this gravitational conformity. In addition, a horizontal canvas evokes the idea of landscape, the earth, and a recumbent body; whilst a vertical canvas, in defying gravity, can instantly become a spiritual vehicle implying elevation, portraiture, and religious subjects: the mind and the spirit as against gravity and the earth. Huxley’s paintings have nothing to do with these subjects or restrictions. He often plays, however, with the visual conditioning of his audience by changing the perspective of shapes from top to base of a painting; but floor and ceiling are non-existent: the optical manoeuvres are thrown back to the spectator as a stricture on his optical habits in angles of perception, to stress the centre of the painting and what converges or diverges from it. Whenever, rarely, light areas are set against dark, our retinal responses are similarly challenged.

What is remarkable about Shades, and true of all Huxley’s work, is the way in which autocratic control and self-consciousness evaporate under the impact of what is finally disclosed. In this respect, and in others, he shares common ground only with Bridget Riley: both in the sense of something unforeseen taking over from what would appear to be wholly predictable elements, and in the way in which simple elements are made to yield complex results which radically extend the painting’s dimensions. In Riley’s case, for example, cloud-like patches of soft yellow light will be generated within our retina by the conjunction of cold or warm near-primary bands of colour separated on the canvas by white strips of space. With Huxley, we are in the disquieting area of transmutation and potentiality, edgier alternatives to transformation.

These transmutations of shape, light, and atmospheric density, are achieved by directional stress, by alignment and abutment, by proximity, and recently a singularly radiant establishment of remote control in which shapes or warm or cold, thin or opaque black against a light lime-yellow ground are deployed in diagonal movement, changing perspective and shifting from flat shapes to solid forms, by contour, as they progress upward. They refer back also to our level of vision if directed at the centre of the canvas. Their potential identities in colour are camouflaged by black, and implied by a separated area in which bands of solid colour are stacked like a colour chart of differing widths, finely calculated to correspond prismatically with the ‘weight’ and scale of the uncoloured shapes. Sometimes a clue is provided, in Untitled no. 91 of 1968 for example, by means of flickering colour accents, barely visible, along the contour of the relevant but otherwise neutrally black shapes. This painting exemplifies both the optical gambits and the detached orchestration of colour: the ‘subliminal’ action referred to earlier in this text. In more recent work, the colour key has gained access to the composition as a whole by a grouping of forms integral to the entire composition but separated and fixed in more cohesive, less transient, positions.

The awareness of perspective and illusion is always apparent in Huxley’s work. A climactic point was reached when a slowly moving, vertical serpentine shape implied a non-existent horizon line, in an otherwise unbroken ground of pure colour, by bending and appearing to recede at a certain point like a river undulating back into space. There is invariably a connection between the colour of a shape and its enveloping space. Human beings move in air, fish in water: Huxley’s colour is determinate and conditional. The dominant colour of the ground or space has always the exact pitch required to provide the appropriate milieu, disposition, or substance for the form. This colour is unrelated to mood, which we provide later by our own reactions.

For if the differences between sign and symbol, form and mark, must be observed in Huxley’s work, his use of colour has equivalent significance. The colour is totally artificial and abstract but, if devoid of mood, it is quite without the rawness or emptiness of what might be termed ‘uninhabited’ colour: plain colour in which nothing has happened. The paradox here is that Huxley’s colour, whether pale or deep turquoise, cerulean blue, mauve or magenta, cool lime-yellow or warm saffron, is reminiscent of substances, solutions, stuffs, minerals, semi-precious stones (aquamarine, topaz etc.) and, most adamantly in its non-referential character, the colour of unexplored but dreamed-of space, or terrain. This colour has the expectant air of imminent visitation.

It is certainly not purely physical in unassertive resonance, transmitting interior light as a dramatic agency or dimming its lustre; for the pitch, hue and density synthesize as an atmosphere, like a gas, in which these events, that seem to relate to a premeditated future rather than an absorbed, experienced past, may occur. The surface of each painting has a silkily-muted, non-abrasive impartiality. Colour is undisturbed by texture.

Time, place, and situation are additional keys to Huxley’s work. There is of course thesis and anti-thesis, in formal language; and here the artist remembers playing as a child with a box of toys owned by himself, a brother and sister, and, as a family game, holding one toy up at a time with the demand: ‘Quis?’ Whoever wanted the toy called ‘Ego!’ Direct thesis and anti-thesis are thus confounded. The memory came to mind when working on the paintings of 1963-4 and listening to late Beethoven quartets. Isolated themes were extracted by the composer, for his op.135, from other, earlier scores and transposed into the final Introduction and Allegro so that the phrases, in intonation, seemed like question and answer. They are believed to have symbolised in Beethoven’s mind the demand: ‘muss es sein?’ and the response ‘es muss sein!’

Huxley feels no over-riding allegiance to any one figure in the history of art but has, rather, a connoisseur’s regard for particular works of different schools: The Ambassadors of Holbein, with its trompe l’oeil skull; Piero di Cosima’s Mythological Subject in the National Gallery, the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Uccello, Poussin and Ingres. The great Burning of the City Japanese scroll in the Boston Museum and the Court Ladies Winding Silk Chinese scroll in the adjoining gallery have particular meaning for him; the action and calligraphic incisiveness of the one, the unemphatic tension and elaborate formal organisation, through the disarmingly simple arrangement of spatial pauses, in the latter. Its sweet -sharp colour may also touch on Huxley’s liking for certain surrealists, notably Tanguy, Ernst (when unburdened by Altdorfer-Böchlin topography), Dali, and Magritte. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he has never turned his back on Picasso; whilst Léger’s clarity and flat volumetric definition have also impressed him. The phase of Mondrian in which an especially tough pink was used, first in the ovoid, embryonic paintings and then in the paintings of subsequently released rectangles of pink and blue on a white ground: this almost ‘surreal’ use of pink, milky but hectic, is relished as much as the abstract evolution and achievement.

All Huxley’s paintings are invigorated by an exact sense of situation supported by time, in the visual sense of observably fast or slow movement, and place, from the way in which the ‘placement’ of shapes acquires the near ritualistic decorum of the disposition and shifts in posture of personages in the Noh plays, or Kabuki theatre. And here, in addition to balance or disequilibrium, transmutation and illusionism, we have to consider a state of being as opposed to a condition of existence; or concede the difference between custom and tradition, external pressures against internal forces, manners versus behaviour, and causality itself. Huxley was reading Borges in the early sixties; and the compression of time, place and incident, with the undermining of one state of being by another crucially relevant circumstance, combined with that awareness of simultaneity in time that is so peculiar to Borges in his Ficciones, have great relevance to Huxley’s vision, as a painter working on a flat plane.

The Tropisms of Sarraute, also known to the artist, come into this same sensorily compacted category, In the Four Quartets, Eliot speaks a language that is existential and consumed by the recognition of change and passing time as well as the paradox of motive. Certain lines convey something of the non-committal irony as well as the measured, expositorily detached nature of Huxley’s best work. In Dry Salvages, for instance:

We had the experience but missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.

And in East Coker, Eliot writes:

There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,

For the pattern is new in every moment

And every moment is a new and shocking

Valuation of all we have been.

We are only undeceived

Of that, which, deceiving, could no longer harm.


(1) Paintings today should be about question-making, not story-telling ( “it happened like this” ), or recording ( “I was there and it looked like this” ). The sermon and the conducted tour have been dealt with and painting can only be enlightening by posing questions and making reconnaissance trips rather than supplying answers. We become more wise by not knowing. If I were asked to give a guide as to how my work should be understood I would remember Mailer’s quote from Gide: “ Please do not understand me too quickly “, and say that the curiosity that is possibly aroused in the spectator and the queries he may wish to make are the pictures’ subject matter.’

[ Paul Huxley’s statement in ‘The New Generation’ 1964 catalogue: Whitechapel Gallery.]

© Bryan Robertson  1969