Roger Hilton: Works on Paper
Flowers New York
1000 Madison Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, N.Y., 10021
February 20 – March 27, 2004
“Art if it is anything, is a blood and death battle, into which you have to throw everything you got.”
- Roger Hilton
Along with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, and others, Roger Hilton was an important part of the post-war artistic vanguard in Britain. The critic Lawrence Alloway ascribed avant-garde status to Hilton in 1954 due to his non-figurative proclivities. Like members of the New York School, Hilton exploded the cubist grid with his compulsive love of the intuitive mark. Although Hilton exuded existentialist drama, in part due to his drinking and also as a product of his times, he thought about art making in a pragmatic way; as if it were something he needed to do everyday, not unlike a bodily function. The typical modernist was ambivalent about the act of making; partially convinced it was a necessity, something they could not do without, and at the same time ironically circumspect about their misanthropic existence in a free market society. Not unlike other twentieth century painters, Hilton believed in the notion of inner necessity, that the artist had to transform their entire existence, to translate their being into works. The modernists who strove to regain the “genius” of childhood, believed in an idealized regression, as compared to realism’s idealized progression. As his body wasted away Hilton’s compositions became more like annotations; confident scribbles hovering over and slicing into the void of the blank page.
The gouache and pencil drawings in this small exhibit were done in 1973-4 when the artist was bedridden. A year before the artist died he wrote, “Because I have peripheral neuritis I have largely lost the use of my legs, the arms and midriff are going. I have a skin condition which is driving me mad. All this is caused by alcohol.” Hilton drew all the time. What do abstract artists perfect after years of making? Perhaps their line takes on a life of its own, suggesting many things but avoiding specificity. Achieving complexity using simple means might be a goal. Hilton embraced ambiguity and avoided references to his own identity, his autobiography. He strove for the timeless.
In the same letter he said that “I no longer have any balls.” “I have been left-handed from birth, but because I lean on my left hand, I have been forced to paint with my right.” So the naivete of these drawings may be due to the artist’s use of his non-dominant hand, but this does raise interesting questions about the nature of abstract art. How important was the final product, and was the transmission of energy and the act of making more important? As conceptual artists have pointed out again and again, the final product was certainly important with regards to the art market. There is something heroic about his efforts in these final years. The alcoholism had destroyed his body and sapped his vitality, but he still derived pleasure from the act of mark making. He learned from Matisse that less is more, that blank spaces could be as charged and meaningful as the imagery and that a few lines could conjure forth a plethora of associations, especially the complexities and nuances of the female form. The female form played an important role in Hilton’s oeuvre and even though this might not be immediately obvious, these drawings are infused with a strong sense of carnality.
Some of these gouaches suggest landscapes, the meeting of earth and sky, and the presence of plant life and/or the human figure. This anthropomorphizing of abstract shapes in the mind of the viewer is unavoidable. The same way we cannot stop the constant stream of thoughts and images in our minds, we can’t stop ourselves from translating ambiguous marks into something identifiable.
The rectangle, which appeared in many of his early oil paintings, is present in only one composition in this exhibit. It has a bright yellow square with crayon line drawing over it. The rest of these gouache drawings could easily be mistaken for the inspired artwork youngsters make at school and parents proudly display on their refrigerators. This is not a put down. Hilton had tremendous drawing skill, but he rejected representation. This fit in with his existentialist mindset. The fact that he was always sloshed added to the drama, the urgency and fury of these works. Picasso claimed that he wanted to recover the purity of childhood in his work, and the playful sloppiness and simplifications and distortions of the human form found in many of his late oils testifies to this. Hilton manages to recapture the pure abandon or lack of self consciousness found in children’s art in these gouaches.
By drawing for so many years Hilton could balance a composition with ease. Although he liked to think he was struggling with the materials, he must have known that he could “get it right” whenever he wanted to. An artist feels a private sense of pleasure when making a drawing that is the offspring of years of experience. Hilton loved to cut into a painted surface with a pencil. He also liked using unmixed colors, and reacted against preciosity. He wanted to “humanize Mondrian” and a love of mark marking eventually consumed him. He did three to five gouaches a day during his final years and was proud that they were selling quite well.
The pencil drawings in this exhibit are metaphysical meditations on the female form and imaginary creatures consisting of symbolic orifices and phalluses. Hilton displays tremendous sensitivity and visual wisdom in the way he varies the amount of pressure he applies to the surface of the paper with the tip of the pencil. He caresses imaginary forms with pent up sexual energy and allows his mind to travel to very odd places while he doodles.
When do you stop? When is a work that consists of tapering scribbles and half formed shapes finished? Like the traveler in Frost’s The Road Not Taken, Hilton “took the one less traveled by.” An abstract artist is a wanderer in the wilderness in the sense that the masses prefer realism and tend to scoff at abstract art and the artist must constantly turn inward which can be a meditative or hellish experience depending on the artist’s temperament and mental makeup. There is an overwhelming sense of clarity in these works on paper, but we can never be quite sure what we are seeing or what the artist was feeling. These are enigmas, a triumph of will and energy over emaciated matter. And the playfulness that is apparent in all of the them attests to the fact that Hilton derived enjoyment from making stuff until the very end.