RA Magazine Autumn 2008
Issue Number: 100
Brave new world
Nigel Billen _talks with leading abstract artist Paul Huxley RA about old friends, new work, and his first foray - at seventy - into sculpture.
A light grilling in exchange for lunch is, as regular readers will know, the deal. As long as the restaurant is in walking distance of the Royal Academy, our academician guest can choose the venue. But, when Paul Huxley RA suggests the New York inspired Automat on Dover Street, it seems particularly appropriate.
The trip Huxley made to America, on board the Queen Elizabeth, was a watershed. It was 1965 and the New York art scene was hot. But, although the year before he had been chosen to exhibit in the influential ‘New Generation’ show at the Whitechapel and had won a travel scholarship to the States, he was still unprepared for what he found. ‘I knew about the leading New York artists, but never expected to meet them,’ says Huxley. But in America they behave differently.’
One of his first New York acquaintances, and later good friend, was Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock. ‘She was a very good artist in her own right and is still not well enough known in this country.’ Robert Motherwell, the Abstract Expressionist, and his artist wife Helen Frankenthaler invited Huxley to their seaside home in Provincetown, giving him the chance to meet a wider community of artists and writers such as Hans Hofman, David Smith and Norman Mailer. ‘Barnet Newman was another wonderful guy who liked to meet young painters. And I met all the Pop Artists too.’
It was a long way from the London of Huxley’s childhood. As we tuck in to our Argentinian steaks, he recalls being evacuated during the war, then, as nothing seemed to be happening, being sent back to Ealing. ‘My brother and I shared a bedroom. One night, he climbed into bed with me. A few hours later, we were woken up when the window was blown in by a bomb. There were shards of glass sticking into his pillow where his head would have been.’
Huxley’s parents were commercial artists who, among other things, designed window displays for London department stores. ‘One was so eye-catching that the police asked for it to be taken down because it was creating congestion on the pavement. I grew up surrounded by coloured paper and collages and still have lots of their designs.’
While his siblings won scholarships, Huxley, struggling after the break-up of his parents’ marriage, was eventually told there was no alternative - he would ‘have to go to art school’. ‘I remember my mother announcing it as if it was the disappointment of her life, but landing a place, aged thirteen, in the junior department of Harrow School of Art, was wonderful.’
Huxley soon knew he wanted to be a painter, but, as he was too impatient to complete the course, the head refused him a reference. He had only one option. ‘The Royal Academy Schools didn’t require a reference or an interview - you just sent in your work.’ Happily, he was accepted.
‘In the four years that I was there, a revolution took place in the art world - and in my own development.’ At first, the Schools’ formal life classes and traditional teaching style seemed natural, but gradually, Huxley evolved the disciplined but abstract work for which he was to become famous. Although he had won prizes for his landscapes, in the final diploma he admits, he was ‘sort of faking it’.
Huxley’s art-school experience seems to have made him, when his turn came, a generous teacher. At the Royal College of Art, he nurtured Tracey Emin RA and Dinos Chapman. Being in touch with younger artists has, he says, been good for his own art. He has also dedicated much time to helping run the Royal Academy, where he is still the Treasurer. ‘I enjoy it. I would otherwise become a recluse in my studio.’
Hardly a recluse, his latest show, at the new Lyon & Turnbull gallery in London, will refocus attention on his work. Partly a retrospective, celebrating his 70th birthday, it is also a new departure: a series of maquettes - miniature versions of sculptures, in stacked, geometrical shapes, which he calls his ‘critters’. He hopes they may eventually be produced on a larger scale. ‘Not having a background in sculpting, I’m very innocent about the fabrication process. At the moment, they are my playthings.’
Finally, I ask him about his commission from the Royal Mint to design a coin to mark the Beijing Olympics. Although approved by the Mint, the design appears to have been vetoed by the Treasury. All Huxley will say is that he is ‘disappointed’: ‘Even if it did create a scandal - if people did say, "How dare the Royal Mint produce something with a Chinese image on it!" - I doubt that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would get much stick for that.’
We settle our bill. The French fries and the steak come particularly recommended, even if this chic Automat is nothing like the coin-in-the-slot vending restaurants that were all the rage in the New York of the 1920s and still thrived when Paul Huxley first knew the city. Maybe they are set for a return - but only, please, if they accept his Beijing coins.
- Paul Huxley: New Sculptures and Paintings
Lyon & Turnbull, London, 020 7930 9115; www.lyonandturnbull.com
, 10 - 24 Sep
- Automat 33 Dover Street, London, 020 7499 3033
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