DeLand FL, June 27, 2018:
Artist Robert Huff grew up loving tools and building materials. His family, which moved from Michigan to west Florida in the 1950s when he was 11, ran a construction business.
Then, in community college, Huff encountered Monet.
“Bob didn’t really have an art background – his family didn’t spend a lot of time in museums or things like that,” said his widow Barbara Young. “But he had gone to a museum as part of an assignment in a humanities class and saw a little Monet painting. He looked at it and thought about it, and a few days later changed his major to fine arts.”
Huff earned his MFA from the University of South Florida and began teaching at a community college and creating his multi-disciplinary art in Miami – where he also fulfilled his passion for boating and fishing in the sub-tropical landscape and the Everglades. But he never abandoned his love of architecture.
That’s evident in the exhibition “Robert Huff: Retrospective,” which runs June 15 through Aug. 12 at the downtown campus of the Museum of Art – DeLand. Huff’s attraction to architecture, geometric shapes and grids infuse many of the exhibit’s paintings as well as the many three-dimensional works -- assemblages, wooden constructions and “pure” sculptures fashioned from bronze.
Yet Huff, who died in 2014 at age 69, once said: “I have always considered myself a landscape artist . . . Architectural form is often perceived as an imposition on the natural landscape. My work has concentrated on the relationship between the man-made architectural form and the natural free-flowing forms found in the environment . . . The integration and disintegration of these relationships becomes the starting point for many of my pieces.
“I explore the qualities in our environment that imply human presence. A presence beautifying and destructive, violent and serene, yet filled with visual stimulation . . . These works are not intended to be portraits of specific architectural settings or buildings. They instead imply a general situation, a condition.”
Such acrylic-pencil works as “Manhattan Windows/Miami Skies #8” and “Florida Bay/Windows” depict abstract seaside views rendered in vivid orange, yellow and blues, but are ensconced within Huff’s beloved grids, bars and other geometric shapes.
“Day Trip-Tic,” a 1985 work, is filled with idealized architecture: a bridge, a lifeguard tower on the beach, a nondescript building and lots of just plain, randomly – even surreally -- scattered gridwork. Yet all of those man-made artifices sit within distinctly Monet-like pillows of white-infused blue and green, suggesting a seascape perhaps.
“I was fascinated with his imagery and his love of pattern and these textures, these repetitions, this rhythm you would see in his work,” said Young, who was the art librarian for Miami-Dade Public Libraries, running its art mobile (a mobile gallery) and curating its art exhibits and programming. She met her future husband in the late 1960s when she invited him to be part of a drawing exhibit.
“Once you see that rhythm, you begin to see it all around you,” Young said. “It really made me conscious of a lot of the things that were around me in construction, or if you’re in a boat and you’re looking out at the water -- the patterns that the light makes on the water in the reflections. I became more aware of things like that after seeing Bob’s work.”
The retrospective exhibit also includes a handful of Huff’s early 1970s three-dimensional assemblages housed in Lucite boxes, and colorful, even psychedelic, Peter Max-like drawings, which would have been at home in the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” movie.
Robert Sindelir, a gallery owner in Coral Gables at the time, was the first art dealer to take on Huff’s work.
“Bob’s work was diametrically opposed to what I had been showing,” said Sindelir, who moved with his wife, artist Jill Cannady, from Miami to DeLand 16 years ago. Both remained lifelong friends with Huff.
“I was showing very, very expressive artists, people who were expressing very direct and fundamental sensations,” Sindelir said. “Bob’s work from the very beginning was very removed from that.
“It was very gentle in a lot of ways, very architectural in a lot of ways, and quite minimal in his use of line and color. He used a lot of symbols like clouds and airplanes and rainbows and other things, but he put them together in a fascinating way. His sculpture in particularly was incredibly intriguing. It was the age of utilizing Lucite boxes and putting things inside. Even though it didn’t follow the direction that I was most interested in, I recognized something that I thought was very important.”
Opposing the color in the aforementioned works are a number of Huff’s later pieces.
“Sidh Structures” (“sidh” is the Irish-Gaelic word for “fairy”) consists of five chest-high, geometric, earth-colored bronze columns that recall Stonehenge or the Callanish standing stones in Scotland.
“Site/Tabula,” a 1992 bronze of a foreboding, grid-infested, fortress-like tower, looks as if it would be a perfect cover for “The Castle,” Franz Kafka’s 1926 allegorical novel about alienation and futility.
Only slightly less Kafka-esque are Huff’s chest-high (or taller), temple-like wooden constructions, many inspired by the coal industry-ravaged Appalachia Mountains of southwest Virginia, where Huff and his wife spent time after acquiring property there.
The towering “Titan,” a wood, bronze, stainless steel and coal – yes, coal -- work from 2010, resembles a Gothic cathedral fashioned from cubes and grids, with a basket of coal housed within the arched roof.
Untitled works from 2014, the last year of Huff’s life, use black and gray acrylic on oriented strand board to depict coal industry-battered mountains, replete with Huff’s ever-present geometric figures – this time in the shape of conical, industrial towers.
“He never stopped being creative. the last works are just as creative as the first works, and maybe even more ambitious,” Cannady said.
Art critic Beth Dunlop notes that “One could look at the body of work, which is at once diverse and connected, and see it as sculpture, painting, collage, drawing and more. Huff said at one point that he regards it all as drawing – drawing with paint, or wood, or even the heavy metals of his three-dimensional projects.”
“His studio was extremely well-organized, even though he had an awful lot of things going on there,” said Young, who still lives in the Miami home she shared with her husband. “He had a table for drawing and a table for using paint and then another table for assembling wood pieces. The garage was set up with welders and equipment to work with metal. He organized very beautifully so he could move very quickly from one discipline to another, one material to another.”
Both Young and Sindelir marveled at Huff’s ability to create while also becoming a beloved and respected professor at Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus (now known as Miami Dade College, Kendall Campus), where he chaired the visual arts department from 1979 until retiring in 2005.
“It’s very difficult to do both, to teach and produce art,” Sindelir said. “If you are dedicated to both, which Bob was, then how do you divide your time and how do you divide your psychic energy, because if you’re trying to make artists of people (chuckles), or you have a belief that you can, it really takes a lot out of you. But Bob was able to balance the two of them.”
Huff’s work was featured in 20 solo exhibits from 1971 to 2012 in various Florida cities and in Washington, D.C. His works were selected for dozens of group exhibits from 1969 to 2013 at venues in Florida, Chicago, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. In 1989-90 he was an artist in residence in the U.S.S.R. as a guest of Michigan’s Lakeside Studios and the Soviet Artists Union.
“I represented Bob and other Florida artists at a time when most people in the Miami area who bought art crowed about going to New York and buying it there,” Sindelir said. “They sort of were sneering, ‘Oh, are these are local artists?’ And I said, ‘Yes, and Robert Rauschenberg is a local artist where he lives, and Frank Stella is a local artist where he lives.’ It was a time when local artists were under-represented, and I wanted them all to succeed.
“The exhibition is excellent. The Museum of Art - DeLand is really exceeding beyond any kind of expectations for a museum with a very small base.”
“Robert Huff: Retrospective” will be on exhibit June 15 through Aug. 12, 2018, at the Downtown Gallery of the Museum of Art – DeLand, 100 N. Woodland Blvd., DeLand. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1-4 p.m. Sunday.
Regular gallery admission is $5, free for museum members and children 12 and younger. Information: 386-734-4371 or moartdeland.org.
Art critic Beth Dunlop, editor of Modern Magazine, will discuss the work of Robert Huff at 5 p.m. July 13, 2018, at the Downtown Gallery. A reception will be held from 5-5:30 p.m. and the lecture will be 5:30-6:30 p.m. The event is part of the museum’s Walter May Art Speaks Lecture Series. Cost is $90 for the five-lecture series or $25 per lecture; museum members $80 for the series or $20 per lecture.
-- Rick de Yampert
Rick de Yampert is an area freelance arts writer and musician. He previously worked more than 30 years at newspapers throughout the Southeast, including 23 years as the arts and entertainment writer at The Daytona Beach News-Journal.