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Denzil Hurley: New Abstract Paintings
January 9–April 4, 2004

Denzil Hurley, Scrib 4, 2003

18 x 12 inches, oil paint on canvas

Courtesy of the artist

photo: Robert Lyons



Time thus appears to be composed of moments—things, or things-moments. And the artist in his work has to capture and preserve one moment, which becomes, indeed, eternal.   In that way time is valorized; its every small part deserves an alert noting down of its shape and color.

—Czeslaw Milosz

Upon seeing the new paintings of Denzil Hurley, I immediately thought of the words of poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz was referring to the work of Paul Cézanne, whose pronounced desire as a painter was to “become that moment.” 1 But his words resonate loudly in relation to Hurley's small, carefully structured and well-crafted paintings, as well, most obviously because the “things-moments” were actually there as a very recognizable aspect in his works—a motif in the form of a dot-shape. The planetary motif is evident in Hurley's newest works but is perhaps less noticeable in some of them. Fuller now, sometimes distorted or even swollen ( Clusstack B [2001–2002]), suggesting a tenebrific gathering of stormlike force ( B'Clus 1 [2001–2002]), or subtle and sumptuously glowing ( Scrib 1 [2003] and Scrib 3 [2003]), these paintings seem suffused with a reawakened sense of color while still giving ample evidence of their making and remaking. They provide Hurley with the means to “capture and preserve” something that cannot be easily calibrated in our normal course of living. But they do much more; in a broad sense they chronicle his journey through the act of painting to understand, communicate, and valorize awareness itself.

Still there is the notion that the paintings are somehow inexorably bound up in Hurley's relationship to the complexities and nuances of found and created visual phenomena and how that phenomena might contribute to the creation of meaning through the act of painting. All good painting, whether representational or nonrepresentational, possesses this quality to some extent. Undoubtedly the dot-shape is a form of notation that conveys visual information, and the information is arrayed across the surface of the small canvas in a manner that has become the hallmark of a Hurley painting. The primary focus of his paintings, however, is still the mystery of how Hurley—and we as observers—perceive that information and translate it in our minds into something infinitely larger, something beyond language.   Beyond information might not be quite accurate either—perhaps beyond the kind of stored and counted information we are deluged with day and night as we make our way through the quagmire of living in an overly wrought and wired world.

Hurley's visual language suggests the patient voice of an individual quietly looking at and listening to the facts of the world. His language is at once intellectual and emotional, and it powerfully reveals how those two responses can be indissolubly one in the right hands and more importantly convey the ephemeral aspects of pure sensation—the look and feel of color, light, movement, and texture, as well as something of what the young American painter Thomas Eakins tried to address in a letter he composed in 1868: “I love sunlight & children & beautiful women & men their heads & hands & most everything I see & someday I expect to paint them as I see them and even paint some that I remember or imagine make up from old memories of love & light & warmth.” 2

Eakins seems to be observing something akin to what American poet Sara Teasdale (1884–1933) described as “all the piercing beauty of the world.” 3 For painters and poets, observing, thinking, and feeling are only the beginning of the curve that ultimately results in the thing being made. Hurley's own manner of observation creates for him a storehouse of information he holds dear. That information informs and guides the making of a painted surface intuitively, slowly, and with great consideration and care. Not surprisingly, this does not come easily to Hurley; it doesn't come easily to any good artist. Working without a preconceived end in mind, he searches for the elusive moment he recognizes as the final realization of his efforts. When that moment will arrive in any given painting, or if it will arrive at all, stays very much in doubt. It is for painters like him an anxious and uncertain undertaking, full of pitfalls and not always successful.

The new works still bear an obvious connection to American Minimalists like Brice Marden and Robert Ryman; however, Hurley's paintings, as abstract as they appear, suggest a deeply felt interest in movement and time, and seem much more interested in temporal issues than the work of many of his contemporaries. One could almost say they seem heavy with time. Perhaps no one has dealt with temporal issues better than Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, the 18th-century French still-life painter . The astonishing use of color by this “painter's painter,” coupled with his love of paint, allows us to be, in Peter Schjeldahl's words, “engulfed in mysteries of painting and of something else supremely indefinite—something about existence.” 4 The heart of Schjeldahl's essay centers on his understanding of both the nature and role of the still-life in Chardin's painting. For him, death and still life are synonymous in Chardin's work. Schjeldahl argues that the freshly killed animals that populate Chardin's still lifes “are creatures formed for motion that no longer move. They have embarked on the second career that awaits all beings, as inanimate objects of a special sort, they lie or dangle in eloquent postures that in life nothing can assume.” 5

Hurley's message may be a bit more complicated than it would first appear, as evidenced by his repeated use of an unconventional “dot-shape” motif with its lingering figurative presence. He imaginatively makes a whole world using this simple visual vocabulary. Hurley's painting Formation (2001–02), with its 19 panels arrayed in row above row, has strong visual and philosophical ties to the work of English-born photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904). Even Hurley's small works array information laterally, a format that is perhaps the hallmark of all Muybridge's endeavors, as witnessed in his 781 published plates recording the locomotion of animals and humans. 6 Muybridge's plates are about the same size as a Hurley painting, with an uncanny similarity of lateral movement across their surfaces. At the time the plates were made, Muybridge was hailed as a sort of new celebrity of the moving image. While it is true that the images suggest a kind of movement, they are just as remarkable for their stillness. In plate after plate the person or animal remains centered in the frame. One gets a sense from looking at a number of the studies that a duration of time has passed and been recorded in a very strange way. The humans and animals seem heavy, weighed down by gravity's burdens. The subjects are doing different tasks but the overriding sensibility of Muybridge's gravures is that of a still life and all that that genre implies. The simple truth is that while the people and animals once moved in life, they no longer do on the plates. Milosz suggests, “A moment is like a frame of film. … After all, a frame is a unit of space-time; i.e., a moment is not an abstraction, but is filled with what is seen by the eye.” 7 The individual frame in a Muybridge plate becomes a motif and functions spatially and pictorially in much the same manner as the dot-shape does for Hurley. For Muybridge and Hurley , the moment their art addresses belongs to the past and by necessity must always be something at a remove, hence the creation of remembrance and distance, as well as a powerfully suggestive mood of mourning that now broadcasts something much different than might have been either artist's intention.

Lou Andreas-Salomé covered this ground about as well as it can be covered in the opening paragraph to her book You Alone Are Real to Me: Remembering Rainer Maria Rilke. She wrote:

Mourning is not as singular a state of emotional preoccupation as is commonly thought: it is, more precisely, an incessant discourse with the departed one, in order to draw him nearer. For death entails not merely a disappearance but rather a transformation into a new realm of visibility. Something is not just taken away but is gained, in a way never before experienced.   In the moment when the flowing lines of a figure's constant change and effect become paralyzed for us, we are imbued with its essence: something which is never fully realized in the normal course of lived existence. 8

Clearly, Andreas-Salomé is referring to a deceased individual (Rilke in her case), but she could just as easily be describing the essence of anything stilled that once moved or anything once here and now irretrievably lost. The key element seems to be the ability to notice the thing, to really notice the thing, in the first place. Thomas Eakins really noticed the thing, and that relationship stands at the center of his accomplishment as a painter. Clement Greenberg observed of Eakins, “The visionary overtones of his art move us all the more because they echo facts.” 9 This may be Greenberg's most insightful observation, and it goes a long way toward, if not explaining exactly, at least helping us understand Denzil Hurley by placing him among like-minded individuals as seemingly diverse as Chardin, Muybridge, and Eakins, who looked at “facts” and from that looking elicited an art indelibly imprinted with a sense of the mysterious processes and forces that give shape to time—the “things-moments.”

Philip Van Keuren

Assistant Professor of Art and Curatorial Studies, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX






1. Czeslaw Milosz, introduction to A Book of Luminous Things (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996), p. xviii. See also my previous essay on Denzil Hurley:Philip Van Keuren, Time and Abstraction , exhibition catalogue (Dallas: Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, 1998), unpaginated.

2. Letter by Thomas Eakins, 1868, quoted in Peter Schjeldahl, “The Surgeon,” New Yorker , October 22, 2001, p. 78.

3. Sara Teasdale, “From the Sea,” in The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1945), p. 82.

4. Peter Schjeldahl, “Stillness,” New Yorker , July 17, 2000, p. 82.

5. Schjeldahl, “Stillness,” p. 83.

6. Underwritten by the University of Pennsylvania in 1883, Muybridge's work actually commenced in 1884 and concluded in the fall of the following year. Interestingly, interdiction with the university provost by the greatest American painter of the 19th century, Thomas Eakins, secured Muybridge the funds and equipment needed to continue his work.

7. Milosz, xviii.

8. Lou Andreas-Salomé, You Alone Are Real to Me: Remembering Rainer Maria Rilke , trans. Angela von der Lippe (Rochester, NY: Boa Editions, Ltd., 2003), p. 27.

9. Clement Greenberg, quoted in Schjeldahl, “The Surgeon,” p. 79.