Hughto Essay

"Painting" says Darryl Hughto, "is the main event. Nothing should distract from that."1 Indeed, well into the twenty-first century, the act of painting, making full use of the physical properties of his chosen materials -- acrylic paint and medium -- to enliven and enrich his images, to articulate his aesthetic, has been a sustained, driving force for Hughto. As a young artist, moving from series to series, process, technique, and tools were clearly a fascination. In some early work, his love of color is clearly suppressed by the process of creating. As he came into full stride in the mid-1970s, however, color regained the upper hand. Hughto's dazzling Diamond series represents the weaving together of years of professional discipline, artistic exploration, and a passion for history, literature, and philosophy. Just as important for Hughto, however, these abstract canvases present very real images of both his changing life and evolving career.

Born and raised in Dexter, New York, near Watertown, Darryl Hughto attended Buffalo State, graduating in 1965 with a BS in Art Education. Buffalo offered an enviable constellation of resources to a young, aspiring artist-teacher in the 1960s: coursework in literature, philosophy, and history alongside lessons on creativity, style, and technique. Buffalo State also offered proximity to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of the nation's most distinguished museums for the display of modern and contemporary art. Here, the north-country art student was exposed to extraordinary collections of European and American modernism, works that can take one's breath away.

There were also the ground-breaking exhibitions. If the winter 1962 Albright-Knox exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh, then the largest-ever show of the artist's work in the United States, sent Hughto over the moon with joy, an Andrew Wyeth exhibition in the fall brought him back to Earth with disappointment. The staggering list of exhibitions from 1961 through 1965 exposed Hughto to California art, Charles Burchfield, Hans Hofmann, and Mark Tobey, to cite only a few. Hughto was energized by the great art he saw.

Hughto continued his studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. There, the visionary MFA program in painting was guided by Zoltan Sepeshy, who readily accepted Hughto into his graduate program. Working with Sepeshy, a distinguished teacher with a reputation for creative brilliance, Hughto developed a particular taste for West Coast painters Wayne Thiebaud, who was closely associated with the Pop School, and Richard Diebenkorn, who was active with both the Abstract Expressionists and the Bay Area Figurative School. These painters, whose work Hughto had seen in Buffalo, represented a broad stylistic cross-section of 1960s painting. They held Hughto's interest with their attention to both the traditional and the innovative. It was, however, the common ground of color that captivated Hughto: The pulsing edges of Thiebaud's painted pastries, for example, or Diebenkorn's striking canvases, in which landscape and color field painting merge.

One year into Hughto's graduate studies Sepeshy retired, resulting in one of the most fortuitous periods in Hughto's formation as an artist. Rather than hire Sepeshy's replacement immediately, the Cranbrook administration opted for a series of visiting faculty. As the graduate assistant in the department, Hughto was responsible for shuttling the visitors, who included Color Field painter Jack Bush and critic Clement Greenberg.

Jack Bush's work, as well as his counsel, made an enduring and profound impact on Hughto in fall semester 1968. Toronto-based painter, Bush painted canvases that can be characterized by daring juxtaposition of geometric and organic shapes using brilliant, often pulsing color. His paintings are breathtaking in their economy and disarming in their simplicity. Using his own work as an example, Bush admonished Hughto that narrative and traditional conventions such as modeling and perspective distract from the act of painting. His words centered Hughto, bringing him back to the concept that his work was about painting, not trumped-up ideas. Painting is about a visual dialogue between color and form.2

It is clear that the time Hughto spent with Jack Bush constituted one of the defining moments of his studies. Spring 1969, Hughto's final year of graduate study, brought Clement Greenberg to Cranbrook and saw the beginning of a relationship between painter and critic that would continue until the critic's death in 1994. The friendship the two men cultivated at Cranbrook transcended the traditional relationship of artist and critic. Each was gifted with articulate language, keen thought, and an eager willingness to debate. It is true that Hughto responded to Greenberg's eye, his experience, and his views on paintings, particularly the flatness of the picture plane and restraint in color. For Hughto, however, it was not just the time spent with "Clem" in the studio that was important, it was sitting around a table talking and arguing.3 Paint, together with philosophy, bonded the two men.

In 1970, Hughto experienced a breakthrough: A catharsis in response to Mark Rothko's suicide. In agitation, he hurled paint on a canvas and left his studio. Upon returning, he found the canvas not ruined and wasted, but rather surprisingly interesting. This accidental experiment led to Hughto's first series: the Opens. These canvases had big, splashy, poured blobs, moved with squeegees and sponges. Paint was allowed to do what it did naturally: settle and flow. The magic for Hughto lay in the sedimentation that revealed myriad hues at the edges. In a final artistic gesture, in the great tradition of humanity against nature, Hughto imposed architecture on the paint by applying with a squeeze bottle a line of bright color. The paintings at once recognized Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and Hans Hofmann's paintings, in which paint was squeezed directly from the tube.

Hughto brought a roll of the Opens to New York City and submitted to three New York City galleries, resulting in Hughto's first show in fall 1971 at Tibor de Nagy. Being represented meant Hughto met established and new artists and visited their studios. These artists would have tremendous impact upon him: Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Dan Christensen, for example. With his first show under his belt, a tight community of painter colleagues, and appointment in the painting program at Syracuse University, 1971 was a good year for Hughto.

With the success of the Opens, Hughto continued to explore palettes, techniques, and tools. His Combs series of 1972 was inspired by nineteenth-century American furniture making, with the combed, faux wood grain of a rocking chair arm or a cabinet front transferred to monumental scale with a wallpaper brush on canvas. The virtuosity of the surface stands in elegant contrast with the restrained, pale palette. This led the following year to his Splits series, for which Hughto would mask a line down the center of the canvas and paint one side, working the pigment with large brushes, including those designed for scrubbing floors. Once dry, he would work the other side, looking to counterpoint and symmetry to define and arrange the surface. The unmistakable reference -- or inference by many -- to female genitalia and pubic hair spoke volumes of the confidence and passion of the young artist, by now just thirty years old.

Hughto's focus on symmetry continued with his Folds series of 1974. Divided now from corner to corner, the canvases were painted on one triangular side, folded, pressed with a roller, and pulled apart. Again, the unmistakable work of a young artist, but now for the brute strength required to liberate one side from the other, revealing a scintillating surface of pulled paint. Like all-over Rorschach Tests, the paintings amuse and beguile the viewer. The visual hum of the painting was made even more dynamic, however, by hanging on the corner: Square to diamond, static to dynamic, Renaissance to Baroque. The power of the diamond as a compositional device has a strong place in the history of twentieth-century painting: Piet Mondrian in the mid-1920s and Kenneth Noland in the mid-1960s. Hughto claimed the diamond in the mid-1970s.

The Folds series gave way to the Braids, with diamonds giving way to rectangles, circles, ovals -- any shape. Once tested, only the diamond remained, the strongest of shapes as agreed by Hughto and his muse and former student Susan Roth, with whom he shared a studio and was building a life. The year 1974 ended with Hughto's first painting of a diamond in a rectangle, Mirror, now in a private collection.

Hughto has worked on series throughout his career. As with the work of masters before him, Claude Monet or Morris Louis, for example, it is tempting to see in each canvas of Hughto's Diamonds a mere detail of the complete work -- the series -- with each painting offering a clause or punctuation in the larger statement. The paintings provide immediate gratification. John Russell of the New York Times, in fact, in a review in the early 1980s remarked that a Hughto show is like "a meal consisting of desserts."4 If the Diamonds are challenging to write about, they are easy to appreciate. Each canvas is a satisfying, fully-resolved whole, yet made fuller by the context of other canvases. Individually and as a group, the diamonds represent the artist's exploration of form, color, and -- ultimately -- idea and aesthetic.

The year 1975 was a watershed year for Hughto. He had just finished his fourth year of teaching at Syracuse University and his first class had graduated. (Hughto received tenure in 1977.) He was living and working with Susan Roth, whom he would marry in 1976. He was showing often and his work was selling. This was the beginning of an extraordinarily productive and satisfying period of his life. In a review of Hughto's 1976 exhibition of the Diamonds at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery on West 57th Street in New York City, Village Voice critic Rob Barnard wrote, "This set of paintings looks a bit contrived, but Hughto has the skill and nerve to get away with it."5

Not surprisingly, these dazzling canvases, with their explosive color and bravura technique, can be read in autobiographical terms. The Diamonds reflect a joyous life and successful career. The colors and shapes speak of passions: Searing reds and oranges are refreshed with waves of green and blue; the diamond, itself, is a compositional device, but also an ancient symbol of female sexuality and fertility. Finally, St. Gingerbread, perhaps the most brilliant canvas of the Diamond series, a design of perfect harmony, was painted in the summer of 1978; Hughto and Roth's son Jeremy had been born in March.

To dismiss Hughto's brilliance as emotion and documentary, however, is wrong. The paintings are complex constructions, an amazing tightrope walk of process and color. To admire the paintings from a distance is to be absorbed by the color; to scrutinize the surface closely is to participate in the process with the painter. This is eloquently expressed by Love Letter (1976).

Painted on the floor (which he had been doing since 1968), Hughto began Love Letter with a piece of canvas, on which he marked in pencil the largest rectangle that would serve as the edge of the painting. He then proceeded to divide the canvas, overlapping diamond in diamond on diamond. Here, the first diamond was masked with 3/4-inch tape, the raw canvas revealing the artist's initial step and later serving as the conduit for a pulsing current of color, the lifeblood of the painting.

For the beaded texture reminiscent of orange peel, Hughto sprayed on acrylic medium Rhoplex and added color while the medium was still wet. A second diamond was masked with a piece of paper, a small blur on the left edge the result of a tear, adding a note of spontaneity to an otherwise rigorous process. Another masking sheet was added for a ghost diamond at the bottom. The green inner diamond was the last, topped with squeegeed red ripples.

Neither left to right nor top to bottom, Hughto works from the outside in. The process involves the systematic shifting of masks and masses, resulting in the creation of an image of tremendous dynamic tension, a projection of color and shape forward, off the canvas, only to be pulled back to the surface plane. The gutsy juxtaposition of bold color seems to vibrate. "[Hughto's Diamonds are] like time travel," Suzanne Shane wrote, "our sense of space is redefined by the sensation of speed."6

Effects are the product of both intention and chance. As diamonds vie for attention, as they separate or overlap, boundaries are tested, defined, and made real. Paintings such as Bugaloosa, for example, and Whipporwill & Wind seem almost topographical, like brightly colored maps of the square states west of the Mississippi River, with sprayed-on plains, masked-out waterways, and squeegeed mountain ranges. For Hughto, acrylic is the perfect medium7 and color is, indeed, an expressive tool. It harmonizes in some paintings and contrasts in others. It seems to be used in modes: Hughto's color can be smooth and gracious or raucous and dissonant. His color can also be descriptive, like the arid breathiness of Love Like a Desert, the tough austerity of El Paso, or the mottled tonalities of Brown Trout. Critics had trouble accepting Hughto's colors, while acknowledging his mastery at painting. In a 1980 review, Karen Wilkin described Hughto's color as "glitzy," "abrasive," and "on the edge of vulgarity."8 Yet, Wilkin tempered the comments with a reference to his "extraordinarily refined drawing and paint handling."9 In 1984, Grace Glueck called Hughto "an erratic colorist," but nonetheless in his show singled out a "knockout."10

More than thirty years have passed since the first Diamonds were painted, shown, and critiqued. Their daring sounds clearly, while their clash and controversy have calmed. Even the most exuberant and audacious combinations, Oh Happy Day or Toot Sweet, for example, have acquired a respectability that 1970s nostalgia has made possible. In a cogent comment about Hughto's color, Karen Wilkin wrote in 1980 that "It is neither the color of nature nor the color of twentieth-century art history."11 Indeed, it is the color of popular culture, of Hawaiian shirts, NASCAR, and Yellow Submarine, an aesthetic comfort zone of a whole generation.

Hughto's Diamonds are restless. The artist's love of exploration, of testing the boundaries of technique and pushing the limits of form and color, continued through the 1970s, simultaneously working on both rectangular and shaped canvases, creating images of both flux and permanence. The diamond as a defining form had started out in 1974 with Folds, as squares hung on their corners. These soon yielded to square diamonds in rectangles in such paintings as Love Letter and St. Gingerbread. At the same time, however, the diamonds stretched and pulled into wonderfully expressive variations, such as Thirty-Three & 1/3 and Thunder & Lightning. As Hughto admitted in retrospect, "The problem was always in the corners."12 Critics also had commented, with Karen Wilkin referring to the challenges of the diamond shape as "provocative," with the problem being the corners and the solution lopping them off.13

In 1979, with Persimmon, Hughto took a strong step in resolving the corner question on the rectangular canvases by brushing a coat of paint, more opaque than transparent, over the triangular corners, asserting the diamond, however irregular it might be, in the middle of the canvas. The next step was not disguising, but rather discarding, the corners. In a brief review of a 1980 exhibition at Meredith Long Gallery, Times critic Vivien Raynor described the paintings: "abstractions, either the image or the canvas itself ... shaped like a lop-sided diamond."14 Hughto's diamonds had been liberated, freed from the constraints of a rectangular border. With independence, however, the diamonds lost the dynamic tension of the 1970s. The challenge and dialogue between edge and inside, corner and middle, layer and layer, yielded to the confident stride of a painter who remained preoccupied with both form and color and the levels of expression to which he could take them.

Steven Kern
Everson Museum of Art
Syracuse, NY
1. This and many other observations are based upon regular studio visits and interviews from May 2008 through June 2009.
2. Studio interview.
3. For discussion documenting regular studio visits well into the 1980s, see Karen Wilkin, "Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Eye," Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Collection, p. 25.
4. Vivien Raynor, about an early 1980s review in "Two Visions of Paint, Applied with Abandon."
5. Rob Barnard, The Village Voice, March 1, 1976, p. 55.
6. Suzanne Shane, Mirror Eye, p. 11
7. Karen Wilkin, unpublished manuscript, 1980
8. Wilkin, 1980
9. Wilkin, 1980
10. Glueck, "Madison Avenue: Uptown It's Couples," New York Times, Feb 17, 1984
11. Wilkin, 1980
12. Artist Open, with Susan Roth and Steven Kern, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY, April 16, 2009.
13. Wilkin, 1980
14. Raynor, New York Times, May 30, 1980
©2009, Steven Kern