Robert Hudson: Early Years
My late summer vacation was a road trip to Northern California. I was invited to stay in an old bunkhouse in a semi-rural area, on property owned by artist Bob Hudson and his wife, writer Mavis Jukes. I often think about the biggest privilege of my job: being so close to the artists. I am lucky to see the work first, at the studio, and to intimately understand the artists’ process.
I am sitting at a desk that Hudson lovingly set up for me in the pitch-roofed pump house. To my left are bookshelves. On the top shelf, one of his assembled ceramic sculptures sits with a book of landscape photography. The next shelf is stacked with 7 new art publications from Yale University Press. But just below lies a collection of hawk feathers.
The lifestyle and art of Robert Hudson are essentially rustic, but marvelously eclectic. Though Bob is notoriously quiet, his work speaks eloquently of the artist’s mind—a kind of melding of collage, surrealism, and poetic juxtapositions. He works in a large metal building, one of several structures on an old farm near Cotati, north of San Francisco. His materials are found objects—the detritus of our mechanized and industrial world. His sculpture, rooted in the Assemblage movement on the West Coast, is most often a combination of welded steel and joined, cast-off objects. He usually adds color by painting in bright primaries. I walked into Bob’s spacious studio, and entered the world of the brilliant poet-welder.
Hudson’s earliest works were exhibited in legendary Bay Area galleries during the late 1950s. There were shows at the Batman Gallery in S.F.—where Hudson showed his early drawings in 1961 alongside some of the Assemblage movement’s main practitioners Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and George Herms. According to Hudson, the Batman Gallery’s walls were black, and the floor was covered with squares of green grass-like material. He also showed in 1961 and ‘62 at the Bolles Gallery. Later, in the early 1960s, Hudson showed at the Lanyon Gallery in Palo Alto. Nicholas Wilder did some of the exhibition programming. It was Nick Wilder who spotted rising talents in the Bay Area (Bruce Nauman had been a graduate student at U.C. Davis, and Hudson was teaching at S.F. Art Institute), and brought their work to Los Angeles. Hudson’s show with Wilder in L.A. opened in 1966.
The then-fledgling magazine Artforum featured an article by Phil Leider on three Bay Area artists, and placed Hudson’s work on the cover of the September 1964 issue. Leider’s text noted, “Elements of neo-Dada, suggestions from Pop Art, assemblage, junk sculpture have all found their way into the work, which is dominated by the employment of humor as a major value. It is a humor which is raucous, dirty, mimicking and subtle, and which is the life-line of the best sculpture being produced in San Francisco.” Hudson’s work has continued to employ many of these elements, as he combines found objects with a poet’s sensibility. The welded masses of metal bulge with allusions to art and spring out like an exploded painting.