Hudson (1950–2014)

Hudson. Photo: Ann Bobco.

HUDSON, a legend of the art world, is no longer with us.

A friend sent an email recently and asked, “Do you think he had any idea how much and how many people loved him?”

The list of artists and writers he discovered and worked with is long. I will leave it to the history books to tell that story. Here and now I am trying to chronicle some of the remarkable things about Hudson as a person. He started out as an artist (painting and performance art) and a dancer, and he continued to make visual art from time to time under the pseudonym Johnny Pixchure. As an extremely visual and sensual person, he clearly thought about every detail of his appearance, the food he ate, the furnishings in his gallery, and the way he moved through the world. He respected hard work and was such an example to many of us in his willingness to participate in every aspect of his life’s maintenance, be it scrubbing the toilets himself or making his own lunches daily. His gallery, Feature Inc.,was a meticulous creation, carefully controlled in spite of aspects that might have seemed casual or unmediated. For instance, his insistence on keeping his “office” out in the open was critical both for the sense of openness it conveyed and the control it afforded him as gatekeeper.

The first time Hudson came to my studio was in 1986. He had on jeans, a white T-shirt, a black leather jacket, and he had a shaved head. Nowadays, a shaved head on a man is a classic style, but back then it was unusual. He looked intently at the artwork. Neither of us said anything for quite a while—I came to know that silence as a very important part of his processing. Finally, he made a comment, I can’t remember exactly what, but it signaled his strong interest in the work and the beginning of our relationship.

The shaved head remained for as long as I knew him, but was accompanied by an ever-changing array of inventive facial-hair combinations. The jeans and white T-shirt also remained a uniform until the T-shirts became colored and expanded into an enormous collection decorated with text and imagery. Hudson even designed his own T-shirt, an orange one with the words HELP OTHERS printed very small on the front. The back had a vertical stack of fascinating found-logotype imagery. Later, the T-shirts gave way to his beloved Alpana Bawa shirts. It was always a treat to see him in those gorgeous shirts with their amazing colors, patterns, and embroidery. On cold days, he would wear unusual hats and coats.

Even though to many of us Hudson loomed larger than life, he was the first to admit how very human he was. He knew he was full of contradictions. I know that because he was often so up front about telling me things. At the same time he could be very mysterious. He loved having a lot of people around, but could also be very reclusive. There were times he would be sweet and jokey and then at other times very cold and blunt. When I would go into Feature, and he was at his perennial perch at his very public desk (no back to the chair), I would ask him how he was. The answer would never be “Fine,” like so many of us might automatically say. He would tell you how he really was. “I’m doing great!” or “Mm. Not having a good day.” His response would never be a complaint, just honesty. If he wasn’t having a good day he might say something like, “Tomorrow should be better.”

Sometimes we had long, hilariously liberating laughing sessions filled with Monty Python–like craziness. I remember a discussion of electrolyte imbalance where the words morphed into Electrolux vacuum cleaners. Who knows what it was about some of those conversations that made us laugh so hard? He loved language, hence his support and interest in certain writers. He was a really strong writer himself, as exemplified by perceptive and clear statements about his artists’ work. Press releases often took the form of interviews he did with the artist, with brilliantly appropriate questions. He also just loved to play with words, and that found its way into memorable emails as well as the names for group shows he curated: “Godhead,” “Sparkalepsy,” “Hairy Forearm’s Self-Referral,” “Running in Flip-Flops,” “Mighty Graphitey,” “ITSY BITSY SPIDER.”

Oh, and music. He loved music too. When he and I met in 1986, we were both fanatic fans of The Smiths. I saw an art performance Hudson did in Chicago in ’86 in which, among other things, he cooked onions while The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” played, and then he hoisted himself upside down on a wall where he uncapped two laundry detergent bottles that were attached to the top of the wall on either side of him. Pink liquid spewed out to the floor. Later, through one of the many compilation tapes and CDs he made for friends, I was introduced to the music of Stephin Merritt. I too became a huge fan of The Magnetic Fields and other Merritt projects. But if Hudson wasn’t listening to his music, he wanted absolute quiet.

Right now there are many artists, gallerists, critics, curators, and collectors who are making, exhibiting, writing about, selling and/or buying art for all the right reasons. The pall that hangs over the art world of obscene amounts of money and power and overrated art objects is only part of the picture. Hudson was surely a prime example of an almost impossibly pure form of art dealer. He was true to his vision and principles, yet things didn’t always go so smoothly for him. However, there is an important lesson to be learned here, particularly in relation to those less-than-admirable traits of the current art world. Hudson did things his way and managed to stay in business for thirty years without ever once receiving financial backing from anyone. Running Feature more like an alternative space than a commercial gallery was his delight. “What a loss for us and for the art world, which needs him more than ever right now,” wrote another friend in an email. I remember having a discussion with Hudson years ago (just prior to a show I was to have at Feature) about my art sales, or more precisely, the lack of sales, and he said to me “B., you don’t need to worry about me. Money is not my primary interest.” There was something so direct and unconcerned about the way he said it that we immediately moved on to talk about something else.

His generosity was beyond measure. This is just one example: He published a book some years ago, a Feature publication which he funded himself. It was a fairly large, four-color book that consisted of works by different artists and writers. Many of the artists did not show at Feature. Except for the name of the artist and/or writer accompanying each work (along with website information) there was absolutely no other text: no colophon, no publisher, no title on the cover or inside, and Hudson’s name was nowhere to be seen. The book was given away. That project so represents the way Hudson wanted to bring art to the world.

I have met so many incredible people because of him. What a huge impact he had on my life, a sentiment that would be echoed by many others. Goodbye, Hudson. You will never be forgotten.

B. Wurtz is an artist based in New York.