Those who know Jim Hueter well are struck by the intimate relationship between his life and his art. Quietly determined, meticulous, and thoughtful, Hueter's character finds eloquent reflection not only in his painting and sculpture, but equally in the house and studio he designed and built in 1965 in Claremont and in the quality of the life he and his family have enjoyed there for more than four decades. Set amongst the indigenous chaparral of the valley, Hueter's rural enclave is approached through a quite ordinary suburban tract. Turning off the pavement, one proceeds along a gravel road and around a bend, discovering buildings that are hidden from view until the last moment. The two-story, stucco and wood studio reflects the fundamental lessons of mid-century Southern California architecture- clean lines, unadorned surfaces, strong geometry; from here, a narrow driveway leads to the house. There is a monastic feeling about the compound, a sense of separation from the noise of the neighborhood that lies only a few hundred yards away. The artist's hand is evident in everything from the bones of the buildings to the collected scraps that await integration into a painting or sculpture. The sense of contemplative quiet, of timelessness, is palpable.
James Hueter was born in San Francisco in 1925 into a nurturing family environment. His early propensity for the arts was probably influenced in part by the fact that his grandfather's business, Hueter Brothers, had been an important art and paint supply store in San Francisco since the late 19th century. An introduction by his mother to noted landscape painter Percy Gray reinforced these early tendencies, and by the seventh grade Hueter's interest and promise were sufficient for him to consider a future in commercial art. He studied briefly with noted watercolorist Dong Kingman at the San Francisco Academy of Advertising Art, but, for the most part, progressed independently, without benefit of formal schooling. In 1942 Hueter entered Pomona College in Claremont, drawn there by other members of his family who had attended. Although a declared art major, he found the studio environment to be "deadly academic" and continued to paint primarily on his own.
In 1943, Hueter enlisted in the Army as a camouflage artist, returning to Claremont after three years to complete his studies. Inspired by a brief conversation with the magnetic Millard Sheets, he returned to the study of art, taking classes in sculpture, architecture, design, and painting- disciplines that became the core of his approach to object-making. Hueter cites the influence of sculptor Albert Stewart and the architecture courses taught by Whitney Smith as key to his early development, but it was painter Henry Lee McFee who had the most profound impact on the young artist. McFee's formalist focus on structure, balance, and composition, along with the measured care with which he constructed paintings, became the building blocks of the artist's personal style. Although Hueter abandoned still life and landscape in the early 1960s, the lessons of Stewart, Smith, and McFee would resonate in his work for years to come. Furthermore, the camaraderie of artists like Karl Benjamin, Paul Darrow, Frederick Hammersley, Susan Lautmann Hertel, Roger Kuntz, and Doug McClellan, solidified his commitment. In 1948, Hueter married, and the same year, received a B.A. from Pomona College. This was followed in 1951 by an M.F.A. from the Claremont Graduate School. By 1965, the couple had two daughters, and the family moved to the home Hueter designed and built in a rural area of Claremont. It was here that Hueter would undertake his quiet work as artist, teacher, mentor, and, ultimately, respected peer.
In the late 1950s and into the early '60s, Hueter began to break away from the traditions of his past. Always attracted to working with the human figure, he decided to shift his focus away from landscape. The Soft Drawings (Mystic Head) of this period are notable not only for the end results, but also for the very way they were achieved. The process involved repetitive, vertical strokes applied with gentle pressure. The resulting images appear to emerge from a fog- faces and torsos, whole and partial, taking shape from intentional inscribing and carving, very much a fusion of the act of drawing and sculpting. His focus on the figure eventually narrowed to the face. This distillation, itself a literal form of "abstracting," led Hueter to drop earlier allusions to landscape of even the body. He has described the work of this period as resulting from a decision to study the essential elements of the relationship between the gaze of the viewer and the way the painting/sculpture returns this gaze. It is believed that the earliest form of pattern recognition in humans is that of the face. Our first visual cue, the face creates for the infant the fundamental connections between self and others. After years of distillation and experimentation, Hueter has turned exclusively to this foundational motif. His desire both to render a recognizable face and simultaneously to create an abstraction from that face has been the most consistent characteristic of his later work.
In the early 1970s, Hueter began experimenting with the use of glass. The attraction of glass reflected Hueter's interest and early studies in architecture as well as to its intrinsic characteristics, particularly the prismatic way it diffuses light. Increasingly Hueter used both transparent and mirrored glass as a key compositional and conceptual element of his work. The reflective qualities of glass enhance the illusion of depth, both drawing us in and reflecting us back to ourselves. A surface that both serves as a barrier and also reveals, it carries multiple meanings for the artist. In his works of this period the glass functions as both a window and a reflective pool, sometimes as a surrogate figure, at other times a surrogate door. The introduction of new materials at this stage in Hueter's work might appear to contradict the deliberate formal look of his finished works. But Hueter's studios, in Claremont and in the Northern California town of Aptos, are testament to an open-ended and experimental relationship to found objects. Scattered throughout his work spaces are pieces of wood, metal, plant, skulls, and glass, some arranged and readied for inclusion, others pinned to the studio wall where they join reproductions of Egyptian tomb figures; paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Matisse; Giacometti sculptures. The intrinsic qualities of these various materials are extracted by Hueter through a process of careful and deliberate contemplation. Sheet metal, copper, redwood burl, screen, modeling paste join traditional art materials during this experimental phase, further blurring the traditional distinction between painting, drawing, and sculpture.
In the mid 1980's Hueter began to revisit compositional traditions, creating paintings that relied on dynamic forms and became increasingly expressive and chromatically intense. The schematic "face," which had been less prominent in the minimal works of the previous decade, now returned with new emphasis. As painterly qualities began to overtake the cool formality of the earlier works, Hueter introduced the material that would influence the direction of his work for the next 20 years- mirror. Experimentation and accident played a role in his discovery of mirrored glass, but, once integrated, its dimensionality changed Hueter's work in profound ways. Situated at the proper angle within a composition, the mirror creates a false sense of space, a tantalizing illusion that challenges the viewer's instinct to determine exactly where images are located. The mirror also returns the viewers gaze- our eyes share the stage with those Hueter has carved or painted. A sense of mystery now joined controlled structure, resulting in works of even greater formal and conceptual complexity.
Over the course of many years, Hueter has refined the iconic early images, exploring the balance between figuration and abstraction in increasingly complex and nuanced ways. In ultimately allowing the viewer's gaze to become a part of the composition, Hueter completes the circle- acknowledging the role of the observer in the reality that is the work of art, and making us partners in the creative process.
Written by Guest Curator Steve Comba for the Claremont Museum of Art Retrospective Catalogue, 2009