Paul Huxley. Photo from personal archive

I want to do something that looks fun, even if I’m not having fun 0

An interview with British painter Paul Huxley

Monta Gāgane

“Six Decades” is the title that one of Britain’s most renown painters, Paul Huxley, has given his latest solo show. It is a concentrated display of Huxley’s most popular works over the last sixty years, and a good illustration of how his style has changed over time. In fact, some of the works in this retrospective are entirely new, as they were created just a few weeks prior to the opening of the show. The exhibition is currently on view at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center, through 9 October. Having reached a venerable age, the master painter has achieved a great deal in his career – in addition to being an internationally recognized painter who has worked on art projects in many different countries, and whose artworks have been exhibited in both the UK’s and the world’s most notable museums, Huxley has also served as Professor of Painting, then Professor Emeritus, at the Royal College of Art in London.

Since artists don’t especially enjoy being classified according to a concrete style of art, and Huxley has usually been grouped together with the abstract expressionists, Huxley has tried to go against the current; for instance, unlike Jackson Pollock, whose technique was the expressive splattering of paint, Huxley challenged this approach and created his works in a diametrical manner. Especially in his earlier works, Huxley painted his large swathes of colors very slowly, and in contrast to the impression that they gave off – carefully and thoughtfully.

Nevertheless, Huxley’s choice to work in a style directly opposite of that of the great artists of the 50s and 60s was what led him to the mecca of abstract art at the time – New York, and to the developers of this style. He first went to the USA for a few months in 1964, thanks to winning first prize at the “Stuyvesant Travel Awards”. A year later, he returned to America and stayed there for two years with the backing of the Harkness Fellowship; the stay culminated with his first serious solo show. While in New York, Huxley met with many of the leading artists of the time, including Mark Rothko, Jasper Jones, Andy Warhol, and Robert Motherwell, among others. Many of them continued their friendships with Huxley even after he left the US.

Paul Huxley was present for the opening of his retrospective in Daugavpils, and it was already his second time visiting the art center dedicated to his friend from long ago, Mark Rothko. Huxley was very pleased and honored to speak about his works, and even took me on a personal tour of the exhibition, commenting on each piece – which ones were inspired by Disney films, which ones referenced the guitars and cubist metronomes characteristic of Picasso, and so on. I made sure to use this opportunity to ask Huxley all about his time spent with the master artists of the New York School, as well as his own artistic development during that time.

View from Paul Huxley's exhibition at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center, 2016

How did the opportunity arise for you to get to know the artists from the New York School?

There were two aspects for that. There was a clear difference between the society of artists in my country, and those in New York. In England in the 1950s and 1960s, there were some very successful artists that were very celebrated and recognized, such as Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Paul Nash and others. As they become more and more successful, they tended to separate themselves from the art world and society, and they lived outside of the city centre – to keep quiet and to develop their work. So, it wasn’t easy to meet these people. By contrast, in New York I found the art world much more democratic and open. Even the famous artists that were very rich and successful still lived in the city and still mixed with other artists. It was possible to go to a private viewing of an opening exhibition, and then go to the artists’ party in the loft afterwards, which is where everyone gathered later in the evening for drinking and dancing. It wasn’t unusual to recognize an important artist and just go up to him and say, “Hello”.

View from Paul Huxley's exhibition at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center, 2016

Another aspect is that I was lucky. I had my first exhibition in London three years after I graduated the Royal Academy School as a student in 1963. It was visited by the very well-known Tate Gallery director, the art curator Bryan Robertson. He was running a very important program of exhibitions, and was bringing over people or their works – like Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock – to London. Robertson was responsible for educating London artists and art-world people to important work that was being done, particularly in America, at that time. He liked my work, and he invited me to be an artist in a quite prestigious exhibition called “The New Generation”, in which Bridget Riley, David Hockney and Allen Jones, among others, participated as well. I remember that it was sponsored by a cigarette company – that wouldn’t happen today anymore.

Robertson gave awards for this exhibition, and I won the top prize, which was enough money to travel to America. So, I went there not only with the prize, but also with Bryan Robertson’s contacts, who were able to introduce me to these important artists in America.

In advance of my going there, a few of the American artists came to London as well, and that is how I met Robert Motherwell, who also came to see my works in my studio. I was able to stay with him and to meet his wife – the important artist Helen Frankenthaler. Later, Robert wrote a reference for me to help me win the fellowship which brought me back to America, this time for two years. He was very supportive, and it was a very exciting time for me.

Motherwell dinner party. August 1964, Provincetown, Cape Cod, Mas. USA. Left to right: Paul Huxley (painter), Bryan Robertson (Museum Director), David Smith (sculptor), Francine Du Plessix Gray (writer), Cleve Gray (painter), Robert Motherwell (painter) and Helen Frankenthaler (painter)

What were the differences, at that time, between the art in London and that in New York?

We know that America was peopled and developed by Europeans. They went there and established the society that gradually became a new culture. In spite of that happening many hundreds of years ago, in my early life, America seemed very separated [from us] because it was so expensive to go there. I had never met anyone who had been there until I met Bryan Robertson. In spite of that, American culture was getting to us, and influencing Europe, through their movies. Productions from Hollywood were very accessible here, and particularly in the United Kingdom because of the shared language. American movies were very popular and dominant in British society. It was the same story for literature and music, jazz especially, and pop music – that was very powerful in America. That time was the beginning of more interaction.

The art, literature and music that Europeans made went in a slightly different direction. I find it hard to describe exactly what it was, but it was just a cultural difference.

When I was young and first went to other countries, even a next door/neighboring country – for example, France – it seemed to me like a very foreign place. Not just because of the language, but because of the way they did things. But as time goes by, we are becoming more similar, I think. A lot of it has to do with commercialization. Traveling to other countries, sadly, doesn’t make for so many surprises as it used to.

Mark Rothko wouldn’t have liked to be called a modern abstract expressionist. No artist likes to live under a label, because they are individual and have invented their own self. If they are great artists, they invent their own way of working – usually in their younger years, when they are developing, forming friendships, and sharing their ideas and discussing them with other artists. But at the same time, they are very different from each other. Even if there is a label called “pop artist”, there is not very much in common between Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, or Roy Lichtenstein.

View from Paul Huxley's exhibition at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Center, 2016

What are some of your most colorful memories from your New York days?

One of my most interesting meetings in New York was with Andy Warhol. I met him only two or three times. Once, I went to his community studio “The Factory”, which was painted all silver inside.

One day, his friends and some of us decided to go to Coney Island amusement park. We went on a ride that was a wheel in which you go inside of a cage; the wheel then spins around, which is very frightening because it goes very fast. We were all inside – screaming with fear and pleasure at the same time.

Andy always wore sunglasses, and he was very difficult to talk to. If I wanted to say something to him, or tried to get him to talk about paintings, he didn’t really want to respond; he’d just say: “Oh! Yeah!”, and nothing more. There is a famous interview in which Andy almost doesn’t speak at all; he just repeats this phrase. The interviewer tried harder with other questions, but Andy wouldn’t communicate. I don’t think that my, or the interviewer’s, experience was very different from other peoples’. But obviously, Andy was a very original artist. I didn’t initially know how to read Andy Warhol’s works – was he criticizing commercials, or was he celebrating them? I think I tried to ask him about that, but he didn’t tell me. Of course, he shouldn’t have told me; that is the mystery behind the paintings.

Three Ellipses, 2014. Acrylic on linen (152.5 x 152.5 cm)

It sounds as if the artists were a bit arrogant at that time. Did you have any more experiences like that?

Starting from the Rothko generation, they had to work hard to get there where they were. Initially, America held the belief that great art couldn’t be made in America – all of the great painters, such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali, came from Europe. The generation of Mark Rothko and Barney Newman had to struggle to make very qualitative paintings and intelligent works that would start a whole new aspect of art. These artists had to wait a long time before they were recognized.

When the Rothko generation finally was recognized, they were more mature, bitter, and also angry about having been neglected. They even formed a group of American abstract artists called The Irascibles, to protest about the way the Metropolitan Museum of Art was running their exhibitions. So, I don’t see that, consequentially, they should have been arrogant; it is quite the opposite.

For example, Barney Newman was a wonderful and very amusing man – a great raconteur and joker. I became quite friendly with him. Barney used to dress up in a particular way: he wore a monocle and spats – old fashioned things that men wore on the top of their shoes. Nobody had dressed like that for at least thirty years, but he made himself look like he belonged to some earlier period.

Barney was very close to his wife. She supported him all those years, when nobody wanted to buy his work. I am very interested in the relationships between husbands and wives. For example, there were two artists, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, who had a thirteen-year age difference, but they worked together and they had a lot of interaction with each other.

Another important artist I met was Lee Krasner – Jackson Pollock’s wife, who greatly supported him. I spent many days with her, and she told me about the days when she first met Pollock, their problems, etc. Lee was a strong artist, and in 1942 she was selected to exhibit at the McMillen Gallery, together with Clyfford Still, Pollock, and some other artists from Europe. At the time, she looked at the artist list and asked who this Jackson Pollock is. Lee didn’t know him, so she found out his address and went to his studio. When she went up the stairs and knocked at the door, suddenly the door opened, and there was Jackson Pollock with all of his paintings. She said that that moment immediately became the beginning of their relationship. It was in the period when Pollock didn’t yet do his drip paintings, but he was obviously a strong force to cope with, and very dominant; that was difficult for her.

Once, before they were married, she wasn’t at home and he entered her studio and worked among her paintings. That was very rude and insulting, but obviously, I don’t think he meant to hurt her. He was so energetic and enthusiastic that he thought he could just join in on these paintings. Sadly, he became an alcoholic and it began to ruin his life. So, she saw it as her task to save him. It was her idea that they would leave the city and go out to Long Island, where he could work without going to the bars with his friends. Lee didn’t develop as an artist at that time; she had to worry about Pollock’s health and his behavior.

They had a plan to go to Europe together. They bought their tickets and got their passports, but he was in too bad of a state to travel with her. Eventually, she just made the trip on her own, to Paris, without him. While in Europe, she received a telegram informing her that her husband had died in a car crash; it was a very tragic moment in her life. She had devoted herself to him, and probably felt that she had failed at the end, since he had destroyed himself. Pollock was also a good friend of Rothko.

Mell, his second wife – the mother of Christopher and Kate – used to call him Rothko. They also had a dog called Christopher, with the nickname of Chris. So, when they had a little boy, they also called him Christopher, but they couldn’t call him Chris, so they called him Topher.

So, there are different kinds of relationships, but there is always an interesting connection between two strong artists or persons. 

Sea Change, 2016. Acrylic on linen (188 x 188 cm)

What was Mark Rothko like when you met him?

I think he was always a rather melancholic person, and he had gone through a lot of problems in life. He was very serious about his work, and it was all that mattered him. At the same time, he wasn’t incapable of making a joke once in a while. I’m afraid my time with this artist was very limited, but I remember one time when he was staying with his family in Long Island, at the beach. We were together in the car, and the Beach Boys were playing on the radio. I asked him if he had ever listened to the words of that song, and I remarked that they were quite amusing. Of course, he didn’t know it, and he wasn’t very interested in pop music and young people at all, but then I repeated the lyrics: “Wendy what went wrong...”. Mark suddenly started to enjoy the lyrics of that song, and he began to sing along to the music. Not many people realize that Mark Rothko would sing along to a Beach Boys’ song. 

How did living in New York influence your works?

I don’t think I changed much during the time I lived in New York. My development as an artist was gradually consistent. I did like to explore new ideas, and I liked to work in series, but it wasn’t influenced by the style of the New York painters – I had already made a lot of things like that when I was just a student. When I began to paint more ambitious works, I stopped imitating abstract expressionism and started to evolve my own way of working. I’m a very stubborn person. I don’t easily conform to everything, but of course, I’m not saying that there was no effect on me from meeting these wonderful artists and seeing their work in their studios. I wasn’t really following in their footsteps, but it was very stimulating to hear their thoughts about their work. We could share ideas, and even talk about technique, such as what kind of paint to use.

Barney Newman liked to talk about this, and he was very entertained by the fact that we both were working on big paintings. He even asked me what kind of ladders I liked to use. We both preferred wood ladders to aluminum step-ladders. After all, we were at such different ages that he couldn’t talk about things that really mattered to him – like spiritual or political things that are not so easy to discuss.

In general, I can’t remember all that was discussed because a lot of drinking was going on. If you would ask me the next morning what we talked about, I probably wouldn’t have remembered. So now, 45 years later, I can’t remember it either.

Untitled No 29, 1963. Oil on cotton duck (171.5 X 171.5 cm)

You have spent a large part of your life teaching. What do you think is the best way to teach art?

I think the best way to teach art is in an advisory way – not by saying what is a certain way how to do something. You can say where a student is doing better or not, or where, perhaps, he should develop. I think an art teacher is more like a consultant. When I became a professor, I worked with postgraduate and PhD students who worked on their own projects, and who were quite developed in their work already. On that stage, I was able to invite artists who I thought would be beneficial and suitable to the development of their work, so I was leading a school of painting in which there wasn’t one given style. Students had the ability to develop their own way.

When I went to China twelve years ago, I gave a lecture on this topic and told them about the way I teach. The Chinese professors in the hall got up and left because they didn’t approve of that; they didn’t want their students to learn in the same way. Students there are very disciplined, and they are taught to work in a certain way – and that is the only way possible.

Fluid Forms 1, 1964. Oil on cotton duck (127 X 127 cm)

You have made works with Chinese characters without knowing their meaning. How important is it for an artist to understand his or her works? How have your works been received in different countries?

That’s right. I have always believed that an artist should be the greatest authority on their own work. You should know more about your work than other people. But maybe that’s not true, because sometimes people respond to my paintings and say things I haven’t even thought about.

In 2004, I was invited to go to China on an arts program which was trying to build bridges between China and the UK. The only condition was that my work should reveal my response to China. At first, I replied that I can’t do that; I didn’t believe that after going to China, I would be able to come back with paintings of this country. Then I went home and spoke to my wife, and she said that I was stupid – I had to accept the offer because I didn’t know what was going to happen. So, I changed my mind and decided to go to China.

While there, I saw public signs, graffiti and other examples of Chinese letter forms. I recognized that many of it looked like my paintings. Then, I remembered that once, one of my Chinese students said that my paintings are like Chinese; I asked him what did it say, but he responded that he is not going to tell me.

I try to know everything I can about my work, but if I write a Chinese character, and I don’t speak and I don’t read Chinese, it communicates to a Chinese-speaking person something that I don’t know anything about. So, I tried to paint only with characters that I knew the meaning of. I asked Chinese speakers for help, and I enjoyed that because, afterwards, I was able to extend the story further. But the first paintings with these characters were made at random, just because I liked the shapes. I have also made a work with a whole Chinese sentence in it. In one of them, there is a sentence that is made from the Chinese character for “blue” two times; the English translation is: “People, let’s get together and make the blue sky even more blue!” I had a good response to that one, and then I made works based on the names of colors – a little bit like pop artists would paint the word “green” in green and red. 

Anima Animus III, 1998. Acrylic on linen (195.5 X 195.5 cm)

You also participated in the Venice Biennale with your exhibition “Viva Vitali”, which was displayed in one the two Azerbaijani pavilions last year. How did you come to the idea of using concrete data in the creation of this work? In this case, it was data on the impact that humans have had on the planet.

I realized that a lot of my paintings over the years had to do with measured proportions, different ratios of size, and incremental scales. I understood that I could do some paintings based on statistics. I developed that idea and did some research. I showed my ideas to the organizers of the exhibition, and it was exactly what they wanted – because no one was making large-scale paintings for this exhibition, and it needed some big, colorful works. I was happy that I could make something that could fit into the theme. This was also a new thing for me, and it was very specific. At the same time, the viewer can also look at the work without any additional explanations, and just think what they want about it. 

Pythagoras' Dream, 1995. Acrylic on linen (172 X 172 cm)

People are used to saying that art comes from a place of suffering, but your art seems so playful, and you seem s so excited about it, that I get the impression that for you, art comes from a place of joy. Am I right to think that?

I am so pleased to hear you say that, because let me tell you – I suffer when I make my work, and I don’t experience pleasure while I’m making it. I feel miserable and depressive. Sometimes, I read in interviews with other people – with someone who comes from a completely different profession, like an actor or politician – who says that, in their spare time, they love to paint, and that they feel very relaxed when they paint. When I hear that, I think: “Bloody Hell! I don’t find it relaxing!” I find it hard and demanding work, and I have to struggle while doing it. It’s not fair that other people think it’s an easy thing to do. It’s not. I remember what Henri Matisse once said – it is not easy to make a painting, but you have to make it look like it would be easy. If I can achieve that, then I’m very pleased. I don’t want to make paintings that make the viewer feel that they were a struggle to make, and that it was difficult for the artist. Some artists do that; they make works that look like they are revealing all of their efforts and misery. I don’t want to do that. I want to do something that looks fun, even if I’m not having fun while I’m making it.

Untitled (King),1969. Acrylic on cotton duck (172 X 172 cm)