Catalogue note for ‘Royal Academicians in China’ exhibition

Fragmented Conventions

It is common, in an era of pluralism in art and culture, to be used to the notion that development in art follows no particular thread. Contemporary art presents itself to its audience in myriad forms, media and styles, from the digital, constantly changing as technology develops, installation and the expanded forms of sculpture that can include the completely ephemeral, the invisible, existing only as a thought or a sound. Now in the early years of the twenty-first century with the linearity of modernism succeeded by the plurality of post-modernism, if there is anything that can be said to approach a constant within this fragmentation of sources, media, culture and ideas, it could be claimed to be painting. Time and again audiences are reminded of painting’s ‘New Spirit’ or ‘Triumph’. As if every few years an astonishing discovery has been made; artists continue to paint.

Today many artists operate, to use Nicolas Bourriaud’s term, as ‘navigators of knowledge’ often in association with institutions that are in place to support the teaching, production and display of contemporary art and which define to a great extent what art is. But the viability of art’s institutions has been stretched by the nature of contemporary art practice as artists increasingly produce work that is incompatible with established conventions. Cultures collide and vie for predominance as centres for contemporary art emerge around the world. Asia, Africa, South America all have centres with their own trajectories of art practice with indigenous artists pursuing professional careers within their own broad cultural context. Increasingly, it seems, there is not one centre but several.

For some years a debate has continued about the primacy of the mainstream ‘centre’ over the ‘other’, running alongside a separated but related discussion about the primacy of media. Western institutions were accused of making stereotypical responses to Asian and African cultures, for example, from a hierarchical position that revealed the vestiges of colonialist attitudes. Acting as gatekeepers for the promulgation of art and ideas displaying a partiality and bias that said more about the prejudices and preconceptions of their institutions than it did abut the art exhibited by them. The northern hemisphere was accused of curating the southern hemisphere, the West for attempting to curate the East. All part of a process in which cultural dominance had been given as read and not regarded as problematic.

From a broader perspective exclusion occurred as much as an effect of the influence within the mainstream (western) art world as from the attitude of the mainstream to the other (non-western). With non-western artists being denied, not always consciously, the right to be equally contemporary by curators and galleries unless they adopted the mannerisms of the consensually constituted mainstream. A consensus exists within the international art scene that allows certain artists and art forms to the fore. More often than not ‘western’ can be transposed with ‘international’. American, British, Italian and German artists can be international but Chinese, Nigerian or Indian are culturally confined to local non-western aesthetics and styles in order to be of interest to the west. However, a new awareness is developing. The playing field is not level but cultural institutions are more aware of their own partiality and the basis of their bias and emphasis.

For artists and curators in the West it was not always thus. The origins of modern art lie in Europe. Modernism is essentially a European phenomenon. Albeit that the post- impressionists looked at art from Asia for the source of some of their work, the modernist project in its various forms began with the early reductionism of Impressionism, to eventually embrace, dada, surrealism, cubism, futurism and so on. The major figures of early modernism are European and their influence has been global. For the West, the history of twentieth century art has been entirely Eurocentric.

The saga of modern art is a tale of two cities. First Paris then New York became the focal points for artists determinedly challenging the orthodoxies of art making. But the multifarious forms of contemporary art and the discourses around authenticity and authorship, the centre and the other, were not in play when Picasso and Duchamp were in their prime. Then, accepted art historical thinking regarded the development of modern art as moving along a linear path, dissected by cross currents but nonetheless, fundamentally, with one theoretical movement spawning the next, impressionism begat post-impressionism, dada begat surrealism and so on.

Paul Huxley is fittingly placed within the spectra that contain the constancy of painting, the pedigree of European modernism and the global cross fertilisation of post-modernism. Born in London at the beginning of the second world war, Huxley was just a little too young to be a part of a generation of British painters who had located themselves at a critical and, some might argue, parochial distance from their American contemporaries. Huxley’s immediate predecessors in London in the early sixties were artists like John Hoyland, William Turnbull, Bernard Cohen and Robyn Denny. Artists who had established links with the latest developments in painting in New York. It has been pointed out elsewhere that Hoyland was ‘one of the few British artists of the time with an American command of scale’(1) but like his contemporaries in Britain he maintained a complexity of composition that the Americans did not share.

In 1964 Paul Huxley showed as one of the ‘New Generation’ in the first of a series of annual exhibitions held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The ‘New Generation’ exhibitions took place at the Whitechapel Gallery for five years from 1964 to 1968 and were intended to represent the latest developments in contemporary art in Britain. Huxley exhibited alongside, among others, Bridget Riley, Alan Jones, John Hoyland, Patrick Caulfield, Derek Boshier, Brett Whiteley and Patrick Proctor, in an exhibition that consisted almost exclusively of painters and marked a moment in British art that echoed what was taking place elsewhere in the western art world, the primacy of painting as the medium through which iconoclastic experimentation in art could take place. At that time, despite the influence on British sculptors like Anthony Caro by the American sculptor David Smith, it was the impact of American colour field painters like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland that set the standard against which new developments in painting and in contemporary art in general were gauging themselves. Painting was perceived to be more advanced than sculpture because of its ability to engage with the abstract more effectively and contemporary art was starting to be understood as something to which the development of ideas was as essential as the exploration of the medium.

For the colour field painters, the flatness of the painted surface was sacrosanct. The suggestion of image and ground created the effect of naturalistic space that they considered seriously compromised the integrity of painting as a self-referential autonomous activity, one of the tenets of which was the idea of the self repairing surface. The term self repairing surface meant that the eye of the spectator was unable to penetrate into any kind of naturalistic space in a painting. This notion was popular among British abstract painters at the time and stems from the doctrine of formalism as espoused by the American critic Clement Greenberg. He vigorously rejected ‘neo romanticism’, particularly that of the surrealists whose deficiencies Greenberg would point out at every opportunity. He insisted that the two-dimensionality of the picture plane must be respected and criticised any abandonment of the precepts of modernism passed down from Cezanne to the cubists.

Huxley has observed that Cubism and Surrealism are the two cardinal moments of twentieth century art and his painting refers to them consistently. This view aligns him to a tradition in painting that goes back to the time between the two world wars when ‘Art for Arts Sake’ grappled with ‘Art for the Revolution’.  The American critic Barbara Rose in her account of the period wrote:

Between the two wars, the only major international art movements to arise were dada and its offspring surrealism. Neither contributed to the continuing evolution of pictorial form which the pioneers of modernism had envisioned. Disillusioned with the myth of political progress through the triumph of reason, dada and surrealism set out to destroy the concept of progress in art. By the time World War 2 broke out in Europe, art had polarized into two camps: cubist derived abstraction, including the purist geometry of the non-objective styles, de Stijl and constructivism: and surrealism. To synthesize cubism and surrealism in an entirely new pictorial style became the goal of American artists.(2)

Immediately following his success in the New Generation exhibition when Huxley was awarded first prize in the Peter Stuyvesant Travel Awards and, subsequently, a Harkness Fellowship which funded a two year residency in New York, he left the periphery of the art world in London for a sustained period of work at its centre. One can only speculate what the impact of visiting the New York artists’ studios and discussing painting with artists of the stature of Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman must have been like for Huxley as a young painter still in his twenties. In the aftermath of the generation of Abstract Expressionists who had widened their authority in what had been a small isolated New York artworld in the thirties, the influence of Greenberg, the high priest of modernist criticism, still held great sway over the opinions of the older generation. His criticism centred on the domain of form, maintaining that cubism had to be respected as fundamental to the modern tradition. In an article entitled ‘Modernist Painting’ written in 1965 he observed:

Art is among many other things, continuity. Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such things as Modernist art would be impossible.(3)

And in 1969 in an article called ‘American Type Painting’ he went on to write:

The first problems these young Americans seemed to share was that of loosening up the relatively delimited illusion of shallow depth that the three master cubists - Picasso, Braque and Leger - had adhered to since the closing out of synthetic cubism. If they were to be able to say what they had to say, they had also to loosen up that canon of rectilinear and curvilinear regularity in drawing and design which cubism had imposed on almost all previous abstract art.(4)

Huxley was well versed in the doctrine of formalism as espoused by Greenberg. He first met Greenberg in London before his first trip to New York and his longer stay there on the Harkness Fellowship beginning the following year. He had already been making paintings that began to dispute the conventions of formalism as practiced by the American hard edge painters and to challenge the utter seriousness of high abstraction. In a series of paintings he made in London in the mid-sixties before his stay in New York, Huxley adopted a sequence of fluid forms. One painting, ‘Untitled no. 48’ from 1965 is executed in acrylic paint in two colours on a 68 inch square canvas. The largest area is a rich plum, the three other smaller areas are darker. Running from the top left hand corner of the painting down the left hand edge to nearly half way down the left hand side of the painting is a narrow dark strip of colour. In the centre of the painting is a second strip, this time horizontally placed, in the same dark colour. Finally a third dark area emerges from the bottom right hand corner of the painting in two strips. The first runs from the corner along the bottom edge almost to the centre of the canvas, the second strip runs diagonally from the corner upwards towards the mid point of the painting. Although younger British painters were more fascinated with pictorial ambiguity than were their American colleagues, Huxley’s painting was a subtle departure, undermining the formalist convention by teetering on the brink of image and ground. The dark shapes appear to float on a plum coloured background. The lower two pronged shape vacillates between pushing into the illusionary space of the painting to providing a structure for the flat picture plane. An abstract narrative is established between the three images.

While working towards his first solo show in New York, Huxley would have been embedded in the debates that circulated around Greenberg’s ideas. As a young artist trained in an art school system far more rigorous than those in the US and with early success already behind him, he was aware that he could play with these ideas in a manner that challenged the new orthodoxies of New York. Remember, London was already seeing the early figurative work of the young British pop artists, far more lyrical than their American counterparts, and a change was in the air. Greenberg opposed a growing lyrical tendency in abstract painting as a move against the tenets of cubism that he insisted had to be respected as fundamental to the modern tradition. Huxley in the centre of his first engagement with the culture of New York painting intuitively responded to what was in the air

Over the following few years Huxley, now resident again in his native city of London, developed the ambiguous characteristics of his painting, lightening his palette and extending the tonal range of the colours he used. The implicit narratives that underlay the association of shape and colour in his work gradually gave way to the harmonics of geometric form.  During an approximate six year period from nineteen sixty eight to seventy four, Huxley made paintings that began as tight, theoretical exercises and gradually as they progressed, dissipated. Using a central motif in the manner of Adolph Gottlieb or Mark Rothko he began to paint a comment to one side of it. Like the visual equivalent of a commentary to a main literary text, Huxley proposed a metalanguage, providing his own narration to the inner rationale of his work in which the language of painting discussed itself. A block of coloured rectangles appeared in the top right hand corner of the paintings intruding into the main body of the work, disrupting the picture while simultaneously informing it. These coloured rectangles function like keys to the paintings, somewhat like the key to a map. They provide clues as to the direction in which the painting is taking the viewer. In ‘Untitled no 92’ from 1968 and the later ‘Untitled no 112’ from 1970, dark geometric shapes recede into the atmospheric space of a brightly coloured ground. Their distance is contradicted and commented on by the surface tension that the smaller coloured key in the top right corner provides. Slowly the geometric shapes became more painterly, softening and dissolving. In ‘Untitled no 141’ painted in 1974 rather than receding into space as a counterpoint to the painting’s key, Huxley’s forms started to cross refer to such an extent that counterpoint of the composition ceased to exist. This dissolution created a crisis for Huxley in which the inner discussion of the painting became so circular that the paintings (as theoretical models rather than objects) virtually ceased to exist. He withdrew from painting for two years concentrating instead on drawing and teaching.

When Huxley returned to painting in the late seventies it was to produce a series of grey monochrome works that acknowledge the influence of Picasso and De Chirico. Retaining the format of the square, these paintings are divided down the centre, splitting them visually in two vertically. Huxley’s painstaking progression from painting to painting allows him the opportunity to systematically explore the minutiae of his ideas on canvas. In his earlier paintings (like ‘Untitled no.48’) he had introduced elements that were strictly outside the canon of formalist art. Apparently adhering to the tenets of formalism he discreetly extended its conventions to include, as discussed above, an abstract narrative and, as a direct result of that, atmosphere. De Chirico had inspired and influenced the surrealists and was fascinated by the fact that the real can appear unreal and the unreal can seem real, that banal subjects can contain fantastic components. When writing about his inspiration, Nietzsche, de Chirico remarked that what interested him was Nitezsche’s, “strange, dark poetry, infinitely mysterious and lonely, based on atmosphere…”(5) Huxley began to adapt this disquieting atmosphere and the toughness of cubist forms into purely abstract paintings. They contained allusions to reality (just as de Chirico suggested in his conflations of reality and unreality) but were unequivocally abstract. The structural discipline that underpinned the colourful harmonics of Huxley’s more youthful works was foregrounded as colour was drenched from the canvas. In his 1978 painting ‘The Studio’ Huxley presents the viewer with a canvas divided down the middle, painted in six greys. Although entirely abstract, the image on the left hand side clearly has human connotations and as such it informs the column of geometric forms to its right. Read in the other direction, from right to left, the abstract linear arrangement of shapes is emphasised by its relationship to the geometric forms to its side. The association of abstraction and figuration, of image and ground, is a lesson in the abstract objectives of cubism, an extension of de Chirico’s fascination with the real and the unreal and the analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Two years later, Huxley completed a painting ‘Interior’. Again divided in two, the tone and colour range of grey is even more restrained than that in ‘The Studio’. But here it is hard to ignore the references to furniture that exist in both parts of the painting. The image of a chair appears on the right and a table on the left. With ‘Interior’ Huxley approached the borders of figuration more closely than at any time before in his practice. He approached it, however, from the standpoint of an abstract artist playing with the idea of figuration not from that of a figurative artists abstracting from external reality. Huxley’s images emerge form a language of abstract formalism that has been extended to include the lexicon of high modernism. In Richard Cork’s illuminating essay (written to accompany a 1998 solo exhibition of Huxley’s in London) he discusses the dichotomy between cubism and surrealism in Huxley’s painting, writing:

These twin loyalties help to explain his persistent preoccupation with duality. Attracted by logical procedures and irrationality in equal measure he dramatises the division between them by splitting each canvas into halves. The two opposed parts seem to embody a recognisable human state of tension and Huxley makes no attempt to hide their differences. On the contrary, he offers us an invitation to become involved with the perpetual dialogue between labyrinthine restlessness on the one hand and calm, calculated harmony on the other…Our eyes are continually being pulled from one section of painting over to its neighbour.(6)

However, despite the serious endeavour of Huxley’s paintings, he is never far away from the desire and ability to express the lighter side of his nature. His earliest paintings were in part jibes at the seriousness of his immediate artist predecessors and there is a joie de vivre running throughout his work that the rigour of the monochromatic paintings could not suppress. Progressively colour was introduced into the dialogue between the divided halves of his canvas. His 1988 paintings from the series ‘Modus Operandi’ consist pictorially of coloured rectilinear shapes piled up or cascading down the left hand section of the painting. On the right, monochrome negative shapes, more drawn than painted, appear as the surface of the painting pushes and pulls in illusory space, the negative turns into the positive as the eye travels across the painted surface all the while maintaining a perfect pictorial balance with its right hand counterpart. The successful overall balance in these paintings is maintained by the skilful application of colour, shape and tone. Never allowing one part of the variegated image/surface equation to dominate another.

The logical progression of Huxley’s painting continued into the 90’s. The divided image now the sine qua non of his art. From the monochromatic works of the eighties on tightly disciplined drawing was always central to their construction and as Huxley embarked upon a long series of new paintings he integrated curvilinear rhythmic drawing on the left half of the canvas and shifted the coloured columns of flat shapes to the right. Again Huxley plays with pictorial space. Sometimes, the shapes although holding tight to the surface, create the illusion of moving in atmospheric space as if they were the separate planes of a slowly turning mobile caught for a moment in stasis. Once more Richard Cork’s description of Huxley’s painting captures the poetic harmony of their appearance as he writes of the ‘Modus Operandi’ series:

But the forms within the right half of each canvas refuse to be discomfited by such territorial incursions. They remain poised. Sometimes their corners impinge on each other, either slicing into a border or overlapping in a more comprehensive manner. Their separate identities are never in doubt, though. Unlike the serpentine convolutions on their left they do not seem embroiled or ensnared. Their predominant mood is playful. They indulge in perceptual game, teasing us with hints of perspectival recession…On the right they look as paper-thin and agile as in a late Matisse cut-out. But on the left, their restless rhythms and rough striations are more allied with Africans sculpture.(7)

Huxley has evolved a systematic method to the production of his paintings from an early impromptu approach. And this process of working has subsequently remained consistent throughout his career. Huxley works out his ideas on a series of note pad sized sheets of papers, working quickly and roughly almost in a stream of consciousness as he draws out his thoughts until he has a pile of little drawings to refer to, superimpose and revise until, with the utmost precision, he transfers those combinations of forms that he considers most successful onto small paintings on paper. At this stage he starts to introduce colour, develop the formal relationships in the paintings until he has produced a series of small paintings exactly as he wants the final larger versions on canvas to appear.

In the spring of 2004 Huxley was invited to visit China by The Red Mansion Foundation and stayed in the country for several weeks visiting Beijing, Kunming and Shanghai. Whilst there he started to think about a new series of paintings that would move on from the curvilinear works he had been working on throughout the late nineties. This was Huxley’s first visit to China and as he absorbed the richness of a new visual culture his attention was caught by large red symbols painted directly on to walls by the sidewalk. He did not know the meaning of these symbols and, in fact did not need to, because what Huxley was struck by was the abstract form of each. These were not calligraphic images but signage and their large, bold, emblematic presence caused Huxley to reflect upon the appropriateness of language and the manner in which our perception of visual stimuli is conditioned by our own history and cultural context. Relocated in a new and unfamiliar culture, Huxley brought his years of fascination with the possibility inherent in abstract painting into symbiosis with Chinese street slogans.

In his studio in London Huxley began to make literal reproductions of the sign shapes that he had photographed in Shanghai. Applying the process of drawings developing into small paintings then to final canvases as outlined above, Huxley embarked upon a new series of paintings. Still divided in two, Huxley adapted the division of the canvas from equal halves to a split that was based upon the dimensions of the Chinese emblem. That is, the formal qualities of the emblem dictated its size and place on the left hand side of the canvas and governed the size of the second part on the right hand side of the square. There is therefore a new inner logic to these works that originates from the found properties of the original images, properties that include their colour, red. For the first time Huxley was working with something given, a source that he decided not to transfigure and something that was outside the referential system (European modernism) that he had used in the past.

The contemporary reality of artists and cultures moving backwards and forwards across the world is nowhere better demonstrated than in the exhibition to which this essay contributes a small part. The realpolitik of the western artworld is one in which the ‘new’ is constantly being sought. And the ‘new’ if often linked to place, to a region or a nation where the most recent developments are regarded as suddenly interesting. The relationship between fashion and contemporary art is too complex a one to explore here but nevertheless it exists. In the nineties, Chinese contemporary art was ‘discovered’ anew by western curators. This form of discovery often overlooks the fact that it takes place from a euro-centric point of view touched upon earlier in this essay; the continuance of an attitude that all development in art stems from the linear progression of the western mainstream. Huxley’s latest paintings contradict this view and as such are truly of their time. Paul Huxley has extended the finely tuned balance of conventions that is the mainstay of his work, to encompass an exchange in language where Chinese pictograms become equally significant with abstract shape. The consequence of this is to create a dynamic visual relationship, whose method is entirely western but whose subject both acknowledges and transcends the difference between the Occident and the Orient.


(1) Edward Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art since 1945, London, Thames and Hudson, 1969, page 115.

(2) Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900, London, Thames and Hudson, 1975, page 105

(3) Clement Greenberg, ‘Modernist Painting’, The New Art, ed Battock, New York, E.P.Duttton and Co Inc. 1973, page 77.

(4) Clement Greenberg, ‘American Type Painting’, Art and Culture, Boston, Beacon Books, 1969, page 211

(5) Uwe M.Schneede, Surrealism, Harry N.Abrams Inc., New York, 1973, page 17.

(6) Richard Cork, Paul Huxley, exhibition catalogue, Jason and Rhodes, London, 1998.

(7) Richard Cork. ibid.

© David Thorp 2005