While still a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Ohio-born Michael Hurson caught the attention of tastemaker Henry Geldzhaler (newly appointed curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and, more important, of Robert Pincus-Witten, a young instructor at the Art Institute. Geldzhaler bought a drawing, but Pincus-Witten went on to become one of Hurson’s most impassioned champions. Writing in Artforum and Arts Magazine, he took great care to position Hurson as an artist of note without attempting to locate his art: “Hurson is, above all else, a painter and like so much painting today, his is realized in activities still assimilable to sculpture, or photography, or theater, or even commercial art.”1 From the start of his career, Hurson has resolutely avoided the epic, the grand, the operatic. Instead, his work is a series of modest acts of grace that are at once simple and eerie—paintings of deliriously dancing eyeglasses, miniature balsa models of commonplace architectural incidents, prints and drawings of Beckettian characters and landscapes. Indeed, Hurson’s play Red and Blue,2 an extended dialogue between two colored lightbulbs, owes a debt to Beckett.
The two pieces by Hurson in the Walker Art Center collection represent two very different bodies of work. Corner of a Studio/View of an Exhibition (1973) is one of a series of balsa architectural vignettes that toured from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1973. It is a starkly spare meditation capturing the loneliness of an artist’s calling. The other, Palm Springs Cartoon (1971), is one of many “cartoons” the artist has drawn over the years that deals specifically with the Palm Springs residence of his mentor and employer, Burr Tillstrom. From 1969 to 1971, Hurson worked as Tillstrom’s assistant at the height of his fame as the originator of the pioneering television show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. The two had met years before and would remain friends until Tillstrom’s death in 1985. Composed of seven drawings, the work records afternoon into evening at a pool shared by Hurson, Tillstrom, and his dog Emily. When asked to write about the work, the artist created a powerful reminiscence that goes far beyond its specifics. The conclusion perfectly captures all that makes Hurson’s work so exquisitely human and essential: “This and all of a cartoon is but a story about family and acquaintances and dogs (or pets) and hand puppets and two friends what knew we’d been in great periods as then it was as I called that precious day; he was afar, and now very far away at present—Where? Save for in the heart still, he’d been most fortunate to been he, there was none better than he and what he did… As it was then for me, to have known him, and then as it is now for me, just as lucky, still, to have known this and write of this, too.”3