Art must create a bridge between the turbulent internal world of the artist and the external world of the viewer.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
It is my belief that art must be a provocative and enriching experience for an audience although its origin is in the most personal areas of its creator.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a German Expressionist painter who worked in the first decades of the twentieth century. Following the lead of predecessors like Francisco de Goya and Vincent van Gogh, he used highly saturated color and deliberate distortions of form to reflect the tensions and anxieties of his era. As such, Kirchner functions as an aesthetic “godfather” for San Francisco artist James Huber, whose powerfully expressive paintings were, like the German’s, not only visually spectacular, but also potent emotional responses to the times through which the artist lived.
Born in Santa Cruz in 1950 and educated in Northern California, Huber died of AIDS-related complications at the much-too-young age of 38. As it happens, Huber was born in the same year that San Francisco artist David Park rejected abstraction and re-introduced representational imagery into his work. Park and other San Francisco artists had mastered Abstract Expressionism (taught in the region by AbEx practitioners like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt), then rejected it. They explored figuration to initiate the Bay Area Figurative Style, Northern California’s seminal avant-garde movement, usually dated 1950-1965.
Huber’s work can be situated in what is considered the second or third generations of Bay Area Figurative artists. Educated by local artists Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown, Huber continued their use of lush color and thickly impastoed surfaces. The subjects of his paintings are often simplified, sometimes distorted, and frequently positioned in flattened but energized environments. Although most of his works focus on human figures, others portray the landscapes of California and Mexico, and still others are non-objective abstractions.
The Figurative Work
Huber’s depictions of the human figure range from realistic (especially early in his career) to wildly expressionistic, sometimes disturbing compositions. Few artists have been able to depict people with such a wide range of formal and emotional impact.
Huber’s 1977 work, The Conductor (Portrait of Andrew Meltzer), portrays the man holding his baton and lifting his left hand as if to direct the members of an orchestra. Meltzer wears a tuxedo and is surrounded by a pitch-black environment; only his hands, face, and white shirt are caught by the spotlight. Yet the delineation of the gesture and the expression on the conductor’s face are resonant enough to make this a poignant characterization.
Huber, who has been described as a “Renaissance man,” was a committed music lover. He often attended the opera. He became interested in German Lieder and fairly late in life, began to take singing lessons. A series of paintings is based on texts by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Huber was also an accomplished athlete and many of his paintings involve runners, gymnasts, etc. His Running Figure (1976) is a diptych of two 6′ x 6′ panels. An isolated black shadow races through a silvery gray field, perhaps referring to the beach south of the Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy morning. Splatters of black paint surround the figure, giving him an agitated sense of motion. The background is divided into thick stripes that appear to be simply gray and white. But on closer examination, the black lines separating the gray and white are in fact edged in red. The subtle addition of color enriches the space beyond its apparent grisaille monochrome.
Late in his life, Huber created several paintings of men overwhelmed by emotions. Figure with Arms Extended (Resignation, 1984) presents a lone figure standing in front of a full yellow moon. His skin is dark, with pale highlights. He extends his arms and bends his hairless head in an anguished grimace. Huber has given the man exaggeratedly large hands and arms. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner similarly distorted human anatomy for expressive purposes, as in his Street, Berlin (1913), where people’s bodies are reduced to sharp, knife-like wedges. Like Kirchner’s Berliners, Huber’s figure seems desperate and quietly sad.
Huber’s Pacific (1987) is a large diptych of white-edged waves crashing against mauve cliffs. The sun shimmers through azure skies. The movement of the tide creates a strong diagonal thrust, which is in turn enclosed by the dark silhouette of the plant-lined shore. Huber uses both color and line–drawn as well as implied line–to imbue the composition with remarkable expressive power. The shore is almost threatening in its spiky contours; in contrast, the distant cliffs are serene in their gentle undulations.
Nocturne-San Francisco (1987) forcefully pairs representation and complete abstraction. A silvery moon rises over an inverted triangle of shimmering reflections on a deep black sea. The pink, blue, yellow, and gold highlights capture the iridescence of moonlight on water; they also function as abstract smears of gesture and texture. Huber’s title recalls James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s notorious Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket (1875). Whistler took the word “Nocturne” from musical precedents–think of Frederic Chopin’s 21 compositions dedicated to the night–and merged representation with what was, at the time, shocking and controversial abstraction. Like Whistler, Huber situated clear references to landscape elements (moon and water) in an otherwise abstract painterly field.
Running Horse (1988) similarly merges representation and abstraction. An immense diptych of a dark horse racing through a fiery red landscape, Huber’s painting recalls Albert Pinkham Ryder’s The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse ) as well as Russian Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Rider (1903). Huber’s blazing intensity contrasts markedly with Ryder’s shadowy dusk or Kandinsky’s fertile green grass. The red evokes the cataclysmic fires that periodically rage through California. The color can also be interpreted as symbolic of blood and passion–or, alternatively, as violence, danger, and anger.
In 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote his brother Theo about the painting now known as Night Cafe, saying that he had “tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green.” Surely, Huber’s extravagant use of red also alludes to “terrible human passions.” The dark horse can represent the freedom of the human spirit–or death, evil, and destruction. The multivalent symbolism instills richness and depth to any interpretation of Huber’s Running Horse.
Abstract (Purple, Yellow, Black, 1974) has a deep purple-black background that is subtly textured to resemble the tracks of raindrops sliding down the surface of a darkened window. The composition is activated by splashes of yellow–some of the drops resembling city lights flashing through a starless night–and hieroglyphic marks in shiny black. There are three small rectangles at the bottom of the canvas: a vertical one edged in orange, a horizontal one limned in gold, and a tiny black one hovering on the right. Over all three lies a thick stroke that resembles a cord or wire binding the diverse elements to the surface. The geometric shapes on the lower edge encourage a reading of landscape, with earthy physicality below anchoring the stellar lights above–but the painting resists such a reading by remaining adamantly non-representational. Those aren’t lights, after all, but slathers and drips of bright yellow paint. And the “earthy” ground is entirely composed of textured pigment. Huber plays with our perceptions, shuttling us between hints of representation and insistence on the materiality of his medium.
Abstract (1974) is part of Huber’s Requiem Series, a group of works done in homage to the artist’s deceased brother Stan who committed suicide in 1974. Huber was the one who found him, and the artist later wrote:
“Death is in so many ways the transference of energy. A brother can’t clean out his dead brother’s death chamber, read his last two days of thoughts, and pack those things most important to him, and then forget. That room with its lush green carpet drenched with blood not yet dry is crystalline in my memory–a certain vision to carry though life. A new sense, a new awareness that can never pass.”
Huber used art to articulate that awareness when, a decade later, he watched as the AIDS epidemic raged through his community, taking friend after friend, and ultimately the artist himself.
One of Huber’s last abstractions (Untitled, 1987) is large square composition dominated by deep purple and lavender. The canvas was painted over in black, and the colors seem to emerge out of a roiling tenebrosity. Bright orange, yellow, and turquoise explode in dense, fervent brushstrokes. At the very top, a line of rich turquoise seems to contain the coloristic dynamism. This abstraction, in particular, highlights the artist’s extraordinary sense of color, his realization that different hues push space forward or pull it back, activating the composition so that an essentially flat surface takes on palpable dimensionality.
James Huber deployed the strategies of painterly expressionism to grapple with the joys and losses of his personal life as well as his community’s responses to the social and political traumas of the late twentieth century. He did so with formal devices, from intense color to spatial and figural distortions, that he adopted from historic expressionism in general and the Bay Area Figurative Style in particular. He mastered the lessons of various artistic traditions and made them adamantly his own.
— Betty Ann Brown, Ph.D.
Art historian, critic & curator