Enduring Legacy: Hudson’s body of work lives on
Story by Ramsey Nix
Images of artwork contributed
Gary Hudson’s paintings are larger than life and illuminated by an otherworldly light that appears to shine from within. In his art, he pushed the boundaries, embracing a variety of styles, techniques, and vivid colors. According to friends and family, Hudson’s personal life was similarly expansive and vibrant. When Hudson died of heart failure at the Veterans’ Memorial Hospital in Augusta last Tuesday, December 1, the American art scene lost an exceptional member and the community of Madison lost a provocative and endearing friend.
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Born in Auburn, N.Y., in 1936, Hudson was drawn to art as a youngster. When he was only nine years old, his mother enrolled him in a class where the students worked from a live model, an experience that confirmed his early commitment to art, according to an essay by William Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art.
After high school, Hudson joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1955. A peacetime accident left him a paraplegic, and he was honorably discharged in 1956. According to friends, Hudson was proud of being a marine and intensely interested in military history. His friend Brian Lehman, a retired naval aviator, recalls how the artist always greeted him with, “Hi Skipper,” and how their discussions of military and political events often lasted hours.
Confined to a wheelchair, Hudson moved to New York City soon after his accident. While studying at the New York School of Social Research, he met several of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. Hudson would later write, “I decided definitely that I was going to be a painter when I saw my first Jackson Pollock.”
Hudson read the Beat poets and headed west to bohemian enclaves of California. Then he spent two years in France, where he immersed himself in art. He heard Albert Camus speak and began to think more abstractly as he studied the masters in museums all over Europe.
“He lived over 50 years in a wheelchair, but his life was full and vigorous,” said Hudson’s dear friend, Bill Rushing. “I used to chastise him, saying, ‘You’ve lived more than most people who’ve never sat in a wheelchair.’”
In addition to the education he gained through myriad life experiences, Hudson completed his B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees at Yale’s School of Art and Architecture in 1966. He taught at Yale, Southwestern College, and the University of California, San Diego, but his academic career soon gave way to his artistic pursuits.
By the late ‘60s, he began exhibiting his work and receiving critical recognition. The Whitney Museum’s selection of his acrylic Red Rim in 1969 was a seminal event in his career. Suddenly he was a success, lecturing widely and showing in important exhibitions throughout the country.
Hudson was grouped with a “school” of painters known as “lyrical abstractionists” following a 1970 show at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art entitled “Lyrical Abstractions.” The museum’s founder, Larry Aldrich wrote in a statement about the exhibition: “Early last season, it became apparent that in painting there was a movement away from the geometric, hard-edge, and minimal, toward more lyrical, sensuous, romantic abstractions in colors which were softer and more vibrant…The artist’s touch is always visible in this type of painting, even when the paintings are done with spray guns, sponges or other objects.”
During the heyday of American Abstract Expressionism, lyrical abstraction allowed for more personal composition. Hudson rejected the Pop art movement, because he believed that art was more than a commodity. Regarding that heady and fractious time in America, Eiland wrote, “[Hudson] looked at the world around him and saw chaos, fragmentation, and disorder, and he tried to find ‘the grace to survive’ in his work, an innovation for him that depended more on an intuition of beauty, the instinctual drive toward the beautiful, rather than on formal rules and regulations that bind or control the truth that is beauty.”
Hudson met his future wife, Christie, in New York in 1973. “At that time, he looked like the Marlboro Man in a wheelchair. I was 13 years younger than him, but he’d be a block ahead of me, racing down the street to the next thing. He was in great shape.”
Christie recalls “the big, important arts scene” that brought them together and its impact on Hudson. “In some ways, he suffered a bit,” she said. When they got together, the couple moved into the historic Cornell Steamboat Company building on the Hudson River, where Hudson painted in dark oils that reflected the moods of the river.
After Christie’s son from her first marriage was injured in a car accident, the couple moved south in 1988 to find an appropriate caring facility for him. They landed in Jefferson, Ga., where Hudson slowly resumed painting. “It was a good, healing time for us,” said Christie.
Christie’s couture business attracted plenty of new clients in Georgia, and she began designing clothes for Atlanta interior designer Bobbie Rushing. The two became fast friends and eventually both landed in Madison. Kathy Lehman recalled first meeting the Hudsons at a turn-of-the-century bash the Lehmans co-hosted with the Rushings. “Suddenly through the door came a dashing fellow wearing a tuxedo and white silk scarf and escorting Audrey Hepburn!” she said.
Soon thereafter, the Hudsons moved to Madison in 2001. Always a strong advocate of historic preservation (“He bought and renovated in SoHo before it was SoHo,” says Rushing), Gary bought the building that housed the old hardware store downtown and renovated it to house their loft and two studios. “He did a great job on the renovation,” said Bruce Gilbert. “It’s a real asset to downtown.”
As the Hudsons settled into Madison, they made many new friends. Gatherings with the Rushings and the Hardens resembled a salon in Paris. “He always kept you on your toes,” said Solveig Harden. “He had an amazing knowledge of the arts. He opened so many windows for us, and we had drawn-out discussions.”
“We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we had great debates,” said Don Harden.
David Land also remembers Hudson’s “interesting mind and broad experiences.” “Madison is a community with roots and wings. Gary is one of those who provided you wings. He made you explore ideas, concepts, and issues from different perspectives,” Land said.
At the same time, Hudson enjoyed provincial delights like watching SEC football on his friend, Lloyd Long’s porch. “There wasn’t much in life that Gary didn’t embrace,” maintains Paulette Long, who owns five of Hudson’s paintings, including a two-part series he painted specifically for the Longs, entitled “Loyette.”
Friends were impressed by Hudson’s intellect and artistic ability, but also by his unique relationship with his wife. “Christie made his life. She was his angel,” said Rushing. “Theirs was important beyond most relationships I’ve seen.”
About his creative process, Christie said that Hudson would ready himself to paint as a student might prepare to be tested. He would read two to three books a day, process all of the information, and paint when he felt the drive. Painting on huge canvases spread on his studio floor, “it was very physical, and he did it all himself,” said Christie.
Hudson continued to paint and exhibit despite health complications and extended hospital stays. “I have been extremely impressed with his work,” said Judy Barber, executive director of the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center. “It brings life to any space. He was an important artist.”
Hudson had agreed to exhibit his new works at the MMCC next spring. That exhibit will be held as planned from April 16 through July 9 and will become a memorial retrospective. Barber hopes those unfamiliar with Hudson’s art will come to appreciate it through the show.
Just as friends described Hudson as “challenging and thought-provoking,” his art may be viewed in much the same way. While he considered art a “language,” his is not easy to decipher. “He really believed in abstraction, and it was mystical and private for him,” Christie said.
According to his wife, Hudson’s art was a reflection of the artist, and she can see how it evolved with every move and major event in his life. His hues changed with his moods and his surroundings, and Christie believes he was content here in Madison, where the brilliant colors again flooded his works.
“Gary’s spirit will live on in our hearts, but also in his art,” said Paulette Long.