Obituary: Malcolm Hughes
Thursday 25 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.
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