Catalogue note for ‘Magic & Strong Medicine’ exhibition

Huxley is an outstanding example of a painter totally—as totally as is possible for any human being to be anything—intent on exploring his pictorial language. Language? The tongue has little to do with it, but it is reasonable to read Huxley's forms as phrases or statements which he uses again and again, always in different ways which become more importantly different as we study his paintings one after the other. One can also experience them as events: his canvases as arenas on which colour forms meet or pass by, come into conflict or stand together convivially.

What is shown here is a small selection from a series that he has been developing for about five years. Other painters have worked in series—Monet looking at Rouen Cathedral, or at haystacks, or poplars, or at Charing Cross Bridge or the Houses of Parliament, for instance, or Mondrian who from 1919 (when he was 47) until his death in 1944 worked incessantly with his home-made grammar of vertical and horizontal bands, usually of black or grey, and rectangles of red, yellow or blue, white or grey. Artists of this kind see a whole world to be explored in their limited activity and products and feel no need to try other worlds. Each work implies the possibility of others. The process is not unlike that of the composer who writes variations on a theme, or, better perhaps, the composer who composes at length on the basis of a group of notes which may be the theme of a fugue or the tone row stated at the start of a 12-tone work.

Nor is it, as this already suggests, a pursuit limited to the moderns. The Old Master, painting yet another Madonna and Child, not especially different from those that preceded it, may only be fulfilling a commission, but he too was developing an investigation into formal relationships and the meaning they carry with them. So too was, say, the Dutch or Flemish painter of still lifes, and Rembrandt in his self-portraits.

Huxley's particular quality, in these paintings, is a kind of nakedness. Without imposing on himself a specific vocabulary of forms, as Mondrian did, he is using simple shapes that we recognise easily and holding them in a fine balance between geometrical exactness and individual life. His colours are not at all self-evident or habitual; it is striking that he always keeps a substantial degree of contrast between the field colour of his picture surface and the colours of the shapes that he establishes on it. The shapes exist on and in this field colour. Apart from that they have only their identity as shapes: they do not suggest things and their behaviour remains that of shapes, not things. I suspect it is quite difficult to stop all hint of Disney goings-on creeping in, but Huxley manages to avoid personifying his images.

On the other hand, all sorts of things do happen. Because of how Huxley places his shapes—the way some are given family likeness, or even imply that they are the same shapes re-encountered like the saint in some Sienese panel painting, while others are marked out as different and perhaps even in some sense opposed—his paintings become stages on which pictorial events are enacted. Shapes advance or recede, relationships between them are established and then questioned by some disagreement in size or proportion.

The longer you look at a Huxley, the more it becomes a mass of questions. Are these two shapes the same, or if the same family in that their only difference is size (in which case, are they at the same distance from us or is one in front of the other and therefore only appears larger) ? Does the group of forms that often appears in the right-hand top corner explain something, like the colours in maps, or is it some sort of summary of what each painting contains, or a static counter to the events in the body of picture?

These questions, which are themselves a sort of pictorial activity, spring from Huxley's fine adjustments. The shapes are not as pat as they look. They are worked on over long periods (as the dating of some of his pictures implies) and by eye. They are painted as seen, not as pre-determined by a straight edge and by measurement. And it is our experiencing them through all the complexities of perception and conception, plain seeing and then interpretation in terms of what we think we recognise, that makes them live for us. The abstract world of Huxley's paintings, at first remote and uncommunicative, becomes a dramatic and emotional transaction.

© Norbert Lynton 1973