Harold Haydon

Harold Haydon, now in his 84th year, has argued for more than half a century that the spatial and optical traditions of the entire history of Western art are based in error, and that to date he has been the sole artist to approach these elements in an accurate manner. He particularly rails against what he describes as the “Cyclops convention”: the attempt to render a world observed with the use of only one eye, with all elements, whether near or far, simultaneously existing in focus and seen from a single vantage point, positing what Hay-don reads as a patently false universe. Haydon’s paintings instead are based on the observation that humans are binocular, and forever perceive a world of doubled and overlapping images, comprised of continually shifting fields of focus. Never stable, never at rest, the world to Haydon is perpetually oscillating, a dizzying feast of complex and interweaving zones of space and matter.

Since the ’40s Haydon has been applying this system of visual observation to a wide range of subjects, including genre scenes, nudes, portraiture, landscapes, and urban scenes of modern life. These latter, as in Conversation in the Street, 1947, particularly benefit from the oddities in his pictorial approach. The chaos of the bustling street, its up-tempo rhythms, the milling crowds, is reinforced by Haydon’s refusal to permit the eye to rest, echoing the inchoate patterns of the street. A common device for Haydon is to place a figure or two in the foreground of his paintings, and their confusing and doubled silhouettes set the tone. The shadowy outlines comprising and surrounding these figures—as well as the multiplicity of features—serve to depersonalize them, making their particular physiognomies difficult to determine, leaving them hovering in some zone of anonymity. Often this procedure results in figures that curiously resemble those of Edvard Munch, and Haydon’s urban view also seeks a parallel sense of disassociation and dislocation. The Firemen, 1990, shows a dreamy conflagration punctuated with helmeted figures aimlessly moving about, more forcefully manifesting Haydon’s technique than responding to any threat of fire. Always ambiguous, Haydon’s figures function more as objects of the chaos of vision than as agents in a controlled narrative.

Finally, this all succeeds as both an optical system and a pictorial style. Haydon’s dogged persistence, his commitment to an isolated path, and his reordering of the world to suit his fancy becomes a reaffirmation of the significance of the entire practice of artmaking. His unrelieved assaults on the concept of a stable pictorial field begin to reflect the respect he has for what he has spent a lifetime seeking to overthrow. Haydon has chosen his enemy well, and these stubborn essays on visual theory stand as a testament to the ability of art to serve as a platform for an endlessly manipulable universe.

James Yood