Allen Maddoxs (1948-2000) paintings have for many years (since 1976 to be precise), featured an "X" motif that is employed often on its own or as a multiplied system within an intuitively constructed grid; a flexible, improvised, non-symmetrical, oscillating, rhythmic grid. Never precisely measured, it fluctuates and mutates balancing geometry with gesture. Pattern is avoided. In retrospect, the earlier predominantly monochromatic 70s paintings retain much more structured control, the latter somewhat self-indulgent works from the 80s and 90s, contain amplified highly gestural, vividly coloured painted surfaces. "Allen Maddox used the basic format of the criss-cross (X) within the modules of a vertical and horizontal grid as a structure on which he could play infinite gestural and expressive variations His grid format is like a simple sentence structure or grammar capable of transmutation into a potentially infinite number" of sequences.
Francis Pound noted, "In 1973 he moved from Napier to Wellington... He had his first one person show that year, at the Bett Duncan Gallery, Wellington. Maddox began his characteristic Xes in boxes paintings in 1976 - apparently by crossing out failed paintings and finding he had unwittingly made marks he could bear to keep."
Maddox was an instigator of the painting-drawing; no sketch, no preliminary studies were made. The unprimed, un-stretched canvas was the site for his contracting and expanding grids and he achieved the not unimpressive artistic feat of becoming synonymous with the X, claiming the motif as his own signature. Yet very little has actually been written on his work in the form of analysis or criticism in the last twenty years. Perhaps the last concerted effort was made by Tony Green over two decades ago.
Tony Green published four articles in quick succession between 1977 and 1978 on the Liverpool-born Maddox (who emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager), which established a convincing critical framework for the reception of the work early on, championing his X-based abstractions as an anarchistic brave new territory in the history of New Zealand art in the face of the consternated gallery-goer at the time. However, the subsequent glaring exclusion from the annals of NZ art history does beg further investigation. With Maddoxs increasingly inebriated approach to painting, structure and order degenerated, the paintings were increasingly marketed as abstract expressionism, coinciding with his hit list, those unfortunate enough to get on his wrong side. It might well be the task of an art historian to dredge up the unwritten tales of art history, yet perhaps some stories are better left disinterred. This body of work is quite an autopsy after a fairly unholy exhumation. Maddox, supposedly convicted of manslaughter in Britain for attacking his wife with an axe, was brought back to NZ by his parents under the auspices of protection for mental instability.
This story innocently began with a captivating painting. Maddox had completed this painting around 1977 which he wryly titled 'Knees Bend' in my bedroom when I was about seven years old, with water-based inks on calico. We lived on Gunson Street in Freemans Bay opposite Tony Fomison; across the back lived Dennis Cohen, (Maddox's long-time dealer). Maddox often visited Fomison who introduced him to us. It hung in our house from this time, moving with us to at least two or three different locations, ending up at Waima Street where Maddox in his later years would visit our next-door neighbour Philip, Emily Karaka's ex-husband. The painting is now in Los Angeles looking over me, and has intensely affected my consciousness from an early age.
The X was an endgame (to borrow from Beckett), an impasse from which Maddox would find it difficult to escape; and so the self-referentiality of his abstraction. The motif became the artists representation of himself, adopted almost as a self-portrait, and perhaps a self-consciously degenerating one. Maddoxs gestural, colourful later works sacrifice a certain amount of their conceptual and structural rigour for the stylistic pastiche of expressionist tropes based on the mechanisms of the sketch, synonymous with spontaneity. The X sign, which was quite systematic, got submerged, chaos entered when the artist got lost in the vortex of his own LSD and speed-infused schizophrenic paranoia and was consciously divided between his social self and Maddox the artist and avid reader. Aping the role of the mythological expressionist became an expection. The excessively debauched avant-gardist was a role prescribed to which he increasingly subscribed. He himself eventually embraced the label. The brush-mark - inscription and signature - became the utilization of a convention of painting, and a loss of control. Rather than expressive, such mark-making negated self-expression, annihilated personal style, rejected a display of artistic selfhood. (In contrast to his friends Philip Clairmont and Tony Fomisons ongoing searching self-portraits. Maddox later changed his mind with the late 90s paintings as they were impersonations of the artist; direct expressions- i.e. facial expressions, self portraits).
Alongside the potential banality of the repetition of the X motif were the brazenly ironic titles like I dont even enjoy doing it Phil, Flag for a Punk Rock Group, or Wanker (1979). I couldnt help but be reminded of Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen, yet their almost calculated loony debauchery never escalated to such abusive extremes, and one can still drink at the Paris Bar in Berlin and feel quite gratified to be in Kippenbergers departed company.
"Sitting here waiting ready to work having had some acid and some speed. About ½ hour. Ive been sitting at a table all week with a ruler & HB pencil doing tiny watercolours on good quality paper, hard edged. But the idea of turning them into paintings is tough. Encaustic? Glazes? oil? Acrylic? Board? Canvas? The strength of Geometry Have been considering doing a series of completely regular works Dilemmas though. How I thrill to a composition resolved by painterly means. Splashes, strokes, aesthetic errors Ive got a really nice vortex measuring 12cm x 12cm completely logical construction very natural, strong"
A friend of Maddoxs (who would prefer to remain anonymous) disclosed a few thoughts which I will quote at length. "..Before I ever began writing or studying art. So I can only offer "real-life" observations. Once we both stopped all "substances" including cigarettes, and he began doing tiny watercolour checkerboards/...really exquisite. He used to tie beautiful trout flys, tiny fine feather things and make me jewellry. The crosses were a very genuine attempt to go to the very basis of abstraction... and a psychological metaphor. He and Clairmont were obsessed with Art Brut and some books put out by the Santos drug company on insane art. They had a very romantic idea about going insane, being incarcerated and making brilliant art. I mean they really naively wanted to risk everything to push the edges... He would do the crosses on everything... cigarette boxes and match boxes lying around... my shoes, handbag and once when we were too poor to buy more canvas he painted the sheets. He would be as serious about the painted cross on the cigarette box as his canvasses. It was compulsion. Painting was "dancing" for him... very rhythmic, always music often recordings of Dylan Thomass "Under Milkwood". He read alot on psychology, anthropology and was immersed in music from a deep love of Bach (he knew every piece) to Hendrix, Frank Zappa and The Rolling Stones Wed spend as many hours together looking at books on hummingbirds and butterflies as Pollock and Motherwell. He drew lots of visual connections between e.g. a section in an El Greco painting and a Pollock. A game we played was seeing visual connections between things... Id spend hours finding them for him, e.g. a butterfly marking and a section of a Motherwell. Id call him in to see them and hed say "you fucking beauty" and take the books into the studio... Painting for him was a series of making decisions. I cant over-emphasize the decision-making aspect and the dance aspect. One was contemplative, hed come back to the paintings over and over again to "make the decision". Then the dancing was the spontaneous aspect of letting the physical/gestural mark follow its own course. So it was a kind of calculated spontaneity... like the Apollonian/Dionysian in Nietszche: control and abandonment/intellectual and physical. He was very intellectual and serious about painting and in his music and reading pursuits. The drug and alcohol thing was an attempt to break loose. He was a complete modernist, prepared to sacrifice everything to make better and better paintings, art, ruthless but also deeply romantic and sensitive (I think the alcohol was also to numb the sensitivity) It was full on living on the edge. The complete antithesis to the kind of commodification of today and career artists. He was the last of a generation, really. Also, he was of Irish-descent, from a mafia family who immigrated from Liverpool (very violent and depressingly ugly city). Beauty was his escape from that depressing urbanization. But beauty in a very powerful sense He lived out passions... too much for most of us. But in my opinion he was a really amazing artist, who should have been world-renowned and certainly one of the most important artists in New Zealand (the painting I have of his always gets comments, even Barbara Kruger was in awe of it... everyone says its museum quality, and he did that in his twenties). It would be a pity if the mistakes in his life obscured his importance as an artist, but that is not to say he is excused. One can use different measures... he had an inexcusable violent temper and he was also a deeply serious, intellectual painter.
I think its important to emphasize the modernist basis - that pursuit of an "unmediated" parallel to body rhythms... its so different from the postmodern emphasis upon mediated reality, critiques of mediated subjectivity. Particularly now as were moving beyond postmodernism to a more relativistic view: interconnectedness, intersubjectivity etc. It means its possible to revisit modernist art from a fresh perspective. I mean as romantic and essentialist as that perspective was, it created artistic confidence and a sense that painting had no boundaries; the antithesis of patheticism or the abject which resigns itself to a bogus idea that nothing new can be created. That modernist pursuit of the new gave guts to painting. Within the painting itself there is a high degree of intelligence and intellectualism- which I think has not been fairly acknowledged in Maddox paintings. He didnt play by anyone elses rules... or live for approval. One last thing... when I saw him years later and saw how fat he [had] become on those sedative drugs he was prescribed, and I guess years of alcohol... I knew he wouldnt be able to paint. I feel thats important. Because the painting was so much about dancing... then the reflective decision-making came later. A fat man couldnt make those paintings, and the later work has that sluggish quality. The early, wonderful ones are about muscle... agility."
Last year, probably not very long after Allen Maddoxs death, a group of fellow ex-pats were standing outside in the moonlight at the consul-generals residence in Brentwood celebrating the Flight Patterns exhibition at MOCA in LA. The sky was unusually clear except for a giant X which traversed an infinite expanse - a dramatic jet-stream cross made by two intersecting jets, luminously highlighted against the night sky by the full moon. As we gazed up into the heavens that night one of our comrades exclaimed, "The spirit of Allen Maddox is watching over us!"
Alice Hutchison is the Associate Director and Curator for Ace Gallery and a contributor to Contemporary Visual Arts magazine.
1. Simpson, Peter (Edited by James Ross). New Zealand Modernism - Expressionism and Figuration: Painting from the Gibbs Collection, 1996, p. 110
2. Pound, Francis. Forty Modern New Zealand Painters, Penguin Books, 1985
3. Hamish Keith, Gow Langsford Gallery exhibition text, 1996
4. Allen Maddox letter to Tony Green, undated, Haitaitai, Wellington, c. 1978
5. Allen Maddox letter to Tony Green, undated, c. 1978
6. Systems of Disorder recycles the following quotation from Tony Green, "At present he is the master of systems of disorder. And that comes from taking a particular stance: the belief that order in painting can only be attained by faithfully following impulse with impulse, that the field is constituted of an accretion of acts/marks, not predictable in advance, not plannable for." Allen Maddox in Auckland, Tony Green, Art New Zealand 12, 1978, p.22