Obituary: Malcolm Hughes

Malcolm Hughes, artist and teacher: born Manchester 22 July 1920; married 1947 Joan Barkworth (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1997 Jean Spencer; died London 19 September 1997.

Revisiting the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide in Languedoc in the late summer of this year, I was reminded all the time of the enthusiasm with which Malcolm Hughes had spoken of his own recent visit. The combination of pure structural logic with a settled serenity, and above all the fact that this was a building dedicated to the life and practice of a community, must have spoken powerfully to him.

Malcolm Hughes was that rare thing among British artists: a creative thinker who openly rejected individualism and sought to foster collective strategies for the production and display of works of art. His anti-Romantic stance, and his desire to found his practice on clear, systematic procedures, led him at early stage to take up the tradition of geometrical abstraction: more precisely, he followed the example of the small group of British abstract artists which had coalesced in the 1950s, and chose to make "constructions".

For over 30 years, he continued to explore this path, employing his meticulous craftsmanship to make reliefs and paintings which invariably combined an underlying logic with an intense physical presence. Yet he never forgot that constructivism was, historically and in principle, an international movement. No British artist did more, over this period, to foster the international connections implicit in the common heritage of European Modernism.

Hughes's adult life began with war service as a radio operator in the Royal Navy. His training as an artist began in Manchester, at the Regional College of Art, and continued at the Royal College of Art, where he was one of the students selected to assist in the painting of large-scale murals in the Law Courts, and inclined in his own work to Socialist Realism. By the mid-1960s, he had begun to develop his own constructive idiom, and was showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as well as contributing to the Salon des Realites Nouvelles in Paris.

In this period, he also laid the foundation of his career as a teacher: he taught on a part-time basis at the School of Architecture, in the Polytechnic of Central London, and at Bath Academy of Art, as well as at the Chelsea School of Art, where the constructive artists John Ernest and Anthony Hill were among his colleagues.

His own style, as an artist and group organiser, came clearly into view when he co-founded the Systems Group in 1969 with Jeffrey Steele, and began the extensive process of practical work and discussion which culminated in the Arts Council "Systems" exhibition of 1972-73. Hughes was anxious that this show should not be a mere re-enactment of earlier displays of geometric abstract art: he and his exhibiting colleagues, who were drawn from diverse backgrounds and a wide age-group, collectively committed themselves to extending their range by using new materials and working on a large, in some cases environmental scale. Hughes's own contribution was a tranquil room, bordered on four sides by impeccable white reliefs.

His commitment as a teacher also intensified at this stage. Arriving at the Slade School of Art on a part-time basis in 1970, he took over the running of the Graduate School from William Townsend in 1973, and designed the new graduate programme, involving experimental studies, for the move into the Pearson Building in 1975. The intellectual vitality and sense of adventure generated by this new development left their mark on a whole generation of Slade postgraduate students. Heady ideas were circulating in the early 1970s. But he took care to introduce the practical possibility of fine art computing. Students like Chris Briscoe went on to make a career in this domain; others of a very different bent, like the painter Christopher Le Brun, have testified to the strong impact of his teaching and example.

Hughes had been appointed Reader in Fine Art in 1976, and was to leave his post at the Slade only in 1983. His retirement enabled him to redouble his commitment to his own creative work. He himself (aided by the considerable technical expertise of his son, Chris) produced computer graphics of great delicacy and refinement. He also created a memorable one-man exhibition for the old premises of the Annely Juda Gallery in 1989, and a further one (shared with Alan Reynolds) for the new gallery in 1996. The combination of painting and relief, and the effect of colour transparency achieved through laying one tone over another, made this last show as fresh and distinctive as anything that he had done previously.

Throughout this period, however, Hughes reaffirmed the collective basis of constructive art work. Between 1984 and 1989, he formed part of a group of younger artists who took their title from their small gallery in the East End, Exhibiting Space. With the artist Jean Spencer, his companion for over 25 years, he travelled extensively throughout Europe, following the networks set up by their joint participation in the international Arbeitskreis group, and showing work in Germany, France, Switzerland and Eastern Europe. An evening with Malcolm and Jean was not only a gastronomic treat, but an opportunity to come up to date with this unique and flourishing movement of constructive artists, which transcended national frontiers.

Malcolm Hughes must inevitably have come up against the entrenched scepticism about constructive and systematic art which is still to be found among British critics and curators. He was never offered the chance of a major retrospective exhibition. Over the last two years, however, a sequence of events heartened him: the fine show "Testing the System", organised at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, in autumn 1996; the illuminating retrospective of the great Swiss constructive artist Richard Paul Lohse, shown first at the Annely Juda Gallery and later at Kettle's Yard in 1997; and finally the splendid symposium organised by the composer Michael Parsons, Jean Spencer and Gary Woodley at Kettle's Yard on "Patterns of Connection in art, music and science".

To patterns and connections such as these his creative and personal life had been dictated.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
David Silva strokes home his and City's second goal
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas