New York

Michael Hurson

The Clocktower

The nearly opaque, latticelike marks that obscure and bring attention to the right side of Michael Hurson’s Motel #2, 1972, are the first signs of life in his work on paper, at least as it was presented in this survey of drawings from 1969 to the present. These pieces—many of them remarkable, all of them of some interest—often seem not quite up to full strength until this point. It is as if Hurson either does not know or refuses to confront what it is he wishes to convey. In the portraits of furniture, single sofas or room-sized suites of contemporary banalities, he willingly invests the inanimate with personality; this penchant reaches an apex in 15 drawings from 1969–71, in which ordinary eyeglasses are made to assume the kinds of poses associated with limber models, to comically wistful effect. A similar wistfulness distinguishes the “Palm Springs” drawings from 1971, as Hurson’s choppy, angular technique refuses to synchronize with the pool-side bliss he depicts. The result is an emotional distance between artist and art—one beyond irony in its noncommittal, slightly out-of-focus tone. The cross-hatching over the 1972 motel room view strikes me as a perfect and natural device to acknowledge, fill up, and thus lessen that distance.

The two-part drawing Study for Edward and Otto Pfaff, 1974, shows each of these two Mr. Magoo-ish figures twice, both times seated at a table staring intently at some document. Concisely rendered, eggheaded, with bulbous noses and circles for eyes, the Messrs. Pfaff are pitifully solemn, and landmarks in Hurson’s oeuvre. With them he began the series of portraits, some fictional, many real, that have occupied him for the past several years. Hurson has unflinchingly addressed the question of how best to make a contemporary psychological portrait in the grand Modernist tradition; frankly indebted as he is to Cubism and an array of other 20th-century drawing conventions, he is very much part of that continuum. Hurson’s insistence on flattening everything out, from anatomical features to the domestic props that occasionally bolster a portrait’s anecdotal values, directly corresponds to the troubling distance I find in his earlier work. However agitated certain depictions may become, their uniform planarity binds them together. The cross-hatching of Motel #2 often opens up and moves around over the paper’s surface, a shorthand for space and a medium of transmission for the intensities of feeling that can be implied within the community of marks. In Study for Self-Portrait, 1976, and the compositionally related Study for Portrait of Harriet Hurson, 1977, for example, a horizontal block anchors each picture; the artist confines himself to an angular abstraction which distills the paradox of the simultaneously definitive and tentative gesture. The figure I presume to be his mother is portrayed legibly, off center, her head turned to the left in a posture of both indifference and resignation.

Artist at Work #5, 1981, became the show’s focus as much for its larger-than-usual scale as for its straightforward summarization of Hurson’s concerns. The drawing is divided into a near-white left and a dark right half. Running halfway down from the top is a vertical row of circular scribbles—eyes, spiral bindings, buttons, or clock faces—which in effect bridges the two halves. Standing surrounded by the uncharacteristically unrelieved dark field is the artist, cigar or chalk in hand, looking very Otto Pfaff-ish in undershorts and T-shirt. He peers simultaneously at the whitened left half, where he appears to have drawn over the beginnings of another full figure, and out toward us. His intense bewilderment is galvanizing.

Richard Armstrong