PRINT November 1967

Robert Hudson: Space and Comouflage

THE ARTISTIC SITUATION IN San Francisco has been described so often as cloistered, inbred, and idiosyncratic that the contributions of individuals have the tendency to be overlooked. One such case is that of Robert Hudson. While many of the prevailing cross-currents of influences, attitudes, and tastes are clearly prevalent in his sculpture, within this framework of time and place, a closer examination would reveal a vital worker with a set of conditions suggesting an important approach toward an optical sculpture.

Hudson began his career as a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute, attracted by the atmosphere of such fellow students as William Wiley, William Allen, Joan Brown, and Manuel Neri. His pictorial training was in the prevailing (at one time first hand but subsequently modified) mode of Abstract Expressionism. The emphasis of the style was directed toward both the physical and spatial—the textural range of pigmentation countering the diffuseness of fluctuation and ambiguous imagery—and these continue as the constituent involvements of his sculpture. Added to this mode was a more direct measure of the paradox and close focus of Surrealism than the myth-oriented Still or Rothko could have anticipated.

Finding painting too personally limiting in its concern with fewer physical and optical properties, he turned to welded steel assemblage and carried over to it his entire arsenal of painterly moves. In the past five years Hudson has produced a completely consistent body of richly emotional work, densely and complexly polychromed.

In configuration his early work was located in its imagery somewhere between the anthropomorphic similes of Stankiewicz and the ungainly zoomorphism of Dr. Seuss. Gestural, gawking neck-and-head-like elements usually rose from a substantial body-like lower mass. These configurations later gave way to totally abstract organizations which are remarkably Baroque in their variety of axial directions. He moved surely to abrupt diagonals angling through space, weighted often at the uppermost end by a conflicting heavy mass. They all blend qualities of witty gymnastics and compulsive intensity. Exploiting the cantilevering possibilities of the welding technique, as well as of volume creation, he enthusiastically activates axial projections and interpenetrations. The majority of early works were made up of found materials but used without overt associative or biographical references, though he points out that certain of the crushed, bent, and collapsed pieces carry the implication of “mutilations.” Plate steel is welded into new bar and planar relationships and utilized to form geometric solids. He executes drawings, but no detailed plans precede a work; rather, a shape or main motif is made and turned about in space, then added to, or a model might be built. Along with bars and geometric solids, drums, tubes, and organic volumes constitute Hudson’s repertoire. Dealing recently with fewer found pieces, he is likely to make the shapes he requires himself, or to have them fabricated or machined by others.

Several spatially activating shapes deserve special mention. One is the slot piercing of extended bar lengths so that the strip retains its strength but permits a narrow view to the forms behind. Another method, which had its origin in drawings, crams space by piling slightly separated sheaf-like planes in overlapped formations. The most potent of his illusory distortions is supplied by the parallelepipeds of warped rectangles. By their very nature they are obliquely foreshortened and appear overly affected by perspective or pressure. They provide a flexed step sequence of straights and folds that cause the eye to slip quickly back into space.

The organization is typically a quick rise from the ground or a marked establishment of points in space. The altered, found material (and even the new forms) is placed with a kind of cartoon reasonableness of ingratiating logical sequences of cause-and-effect. Thus in Charm a collapsed section of the main drum is located at the base as if affected by the weighty pressure of the entire work. In one work a roughish end beam pierces through an opened solid and appears deformed by its passage, and in another a drum is pressured into a flattish oval by the bars which buckle through it. One of Hudson’s contributions is this ability to fit together more than a dozen parts of extremely different sizes, lengths, and characters with an energized arbitrariness balanced by an intuitive system of logic.

Vivid polychromy, first brushed and more recently sprayed lacquer and enamel, color more richly diverse than those used by any other contemporary sculptor, has always been a major factor. His color limitations are placed at several versions of each of the primaries and the secondaries, filled out by a few more unusual mixtures. His color imparts a solidity to the material, thickening exposed edges and adding weight, so that one’s first response is not to fabricated hollows.

From the earliest, each piece carries a full panoply of Expressionistic energies modified by Pop and Optical painting amidst several basic hues covering the entire work. Only on a superficial level of observation could these breaks across the surface be appreciated or dismissed as mere decoration. The designs, patterns and references first are an ingenious conversion of previous calligraphic experiences. They draw attention to a slow reading of the surface relationships, placing high demands upon viewer participation. The repertoire includes solid and irregularly rubbed variegated areas, several hues blended together, forced shading edges, and such devices as skeins, drips, strokes, spots, screens, large dots, checkerboards, diagrammed outlines, map-like contours, and trompe l’oeil clouds and boxes.

An appropriate comparison may be drawn with Miró’s The Harlequin’s Carnival from the critical period (1924–25) when that artist was moving from his solid and provincial version of Cubism to the randomly accented poetics of Surrealism. Hudson’s progress might be described as the reverse condition: a movement from the forceful ambiguity of action and impasto to the severity of a geometric area. Whereas color is common to much recent sculpture, and several dozen figures multicolor parts, fewer (Roy de Forest, Lee Mullican, William Wiley, William Geis, and Kenneth Price) have altered the tangibility of volumes by crossing them with involved sequences of pattern. Common to these West Coast painters and sculptors (and to such other diverse artists as Lucas Samaras, Eduardo Paolozzi and even Roy Lichtenstein who have applied “decorative” surfaces to forms) is a concentration on the creation of fetish-like objects, coming out of the primitive arts and the evocativeness of Surrealism.

The colored surfaces and painted devices are more than a caprice of wit, though certainly that is part of it. Hudson states his aim as the creation of “different kinds of space,” with particular attention to the function of the edges of forms. Color and pattern serve to emphasize and lose volumes as they extend from or overlap one another. In his confounding of the tangible and the illusory he has paralleled a prime method found in nature. Adolf Portman (in Animal Camouflage) and Hugh B. Cott (“Animal Form,” Aspects of Form) have outlined the opposing effects of cryptic or disguised surfaces and of phaneric or display in the coloration of animals. The former pair have to do with the blending of parts or of the entire animal (bird, reptile, insect) with its environment. Clear visibility or showiness describe the latter terms. Cott writes of “contour obliteration” being particularly effective when a pattern runs at right angles to at least one edge of a form and Portman points out that, “concealing patterns are considerably more effective when they appear with strongly contrasted tones which turn attention away from other details and especially from . . . contours” (page 23). The coordination or continuation of designs, when parts are located in a particular position so that one loses the space between and reads the two surfaces as contiguous, Portman describes simply as the “joining effect,” while Cott uses the terms “coincident disruptive coloration“ or “disruptive contrast.”

All this might be merely interesting until we are reminded that in 1942 Arshile Gorky, whose exotic imagery could be cited as a possible, source for Hudson, initiated a course on the subject of camouflage. At the very opposite of a concern with objectness and presence, Hudson directs the viewer to a highly complex set of optical conditions set at various depths and seen at various angles. The entire sculpture is phaneric and the multiples of paint are coordinated or broken by viewer position and movement. For in combining three-dimensional volumes in space and the painting of illusions he emphasizes the dependence upon the sense of sight, suppressing tactile values, and disorienting kinesthetic responses. Incidents of vision compress spaces by responding to the joining effect and by searching out the numerous alignments of edges and colors across these camouflaged gaps of space. Readily one admits to a traditional reading of the entire work, then to parts in a hierarchy of sequence, but ultimately one is held close to the work, examining the confounding interrelationships between details. The pieces are continuously engaging for they ever provide the opportunity to experience diverse spatial sensations which seem inexhaustible and unrepeatable. One meets with such symbolic or referential colors as “grass green” and “sky blue.” Surfaces are fractured by the vibration of pure hues of maximum intensity. The softness of amorphous and atmospheric instability are suggested by blended transitions. Warm and cool oppositions set up conditions of temperature change. Painted illusions of boxes and other overlappings dig sharp holes into the surface, likewise denying haptic responses. The surface is further broken by the shine of luster—and most recently—by distorted reflections in chrome plating and the transparency of plexiglass.

Any view is totally unexpected and unpredictable, and one experiences a never-final participation in the ultimately futile play of hide-and-seek. The work is best viewed in even indoor light. One expects that the polychromed surfaces require protection, and the liveliness of the assemblage is better served by the horizontals and verticals of an interior.

Two recent small works make clear an increasing involvement with the mirroring of shapes as well as of surfaces. In 4X4 those numerals, one flat and one volumetric, are set in a tete-beche situation, and the pair of half-circular rayed top pieces of Discoflex wrap about a wedge box of clear plastic. The newest major sculptures would strike one as a radical departure were not Hudson firmly concentrating upon a reinterpretation of his clearly stated, previously established interests. The parts are now primarily industrial, the solidly additive juxtapositions of welding are less in evidence, and applied color is used only sparingly. An insect-like cage of events, Twisted Hip is an assembly of poised steel (painted and chromed), aluminum tube and anodized bar, cable and clear plexiglass. Propped up at one end, sprung tightly across to another, and feeling out overhead, the work is as gestural as any before, but more open. More space is captured, but not in the terms of the “drawing in space” of older openwork sculpture. Negative spaces are not just enclosed; his complex sets of forms and events are thrown up so often that these boundary marks activate and compress even more lateral space. Applied color appears, but the thorough covering is replaced by a sensitive response to a variety of fresh, industrial and processed finishes. More subtly now, each part retains an individuality of shape and surface character. Luster, anodizing, reflectiveness, matteness, and transparency still require complex adjustments in our reaction to narrow bands of mirroring intangibility. Protractor, a half circle riding a “z”-shaped rail with a crane truss extending just under two dozen feet, promises to carry his ambitions to a most direct and daring point.

Fidel A. Danieli