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James Hueter: Meeting a Master

James Hueter, Four Squares, Two Halls (2008)

Tucked away amid the chaparral landscape of Claremont, down a gravel road among the cactus, pines and pepper trees, are the home and studio of James Hueter, one of Southern California's respected — though not famous — artists. Having worked through various art movements, Hueter has arrived at an artistic practice distinctly his own, one that is contemporary yet steeped in the tradition of modernism. He received his academic training back when schools tested the mettle of students through rigorous formal technique.

After studying under noted Claremont Graduate School instructors, including American cubist painter Henry Lee McFee and architect Whitney Smith, Hueter embarked on a 40-year career as an art professor, retiring in 1980.

In Los Angeles, where practically everyone is an "artist," it is rare to come face to face with the real deal. Now a youthful 85 years old, Hueter greets a visitor cheerily outside his studio, which serves the dual purpose of work space and museum.

Hueter designed and built his home and studio in 1965. "Architecture has been very important to my work," says Hueter, who has lived here with wife Alabelle, a music instructor, for almost half a century.

Both home and studio are testaments to Hueter's artistic scope and legacy. His latest work, which he refers to as "sculptural paintings," is a series of large wall pieces in relief, intricately constructed with carved wood, etched glass, mirrors and paint.

Hueter's synthesis reflects his constant fascination with architecture and the human figure. His latest pieces instantly draw the viewer into perceptual mysteries. The effect is akin to looking into a hall of mirrors, with refracted imagery and harmonious color enticing you to further explore their eerie, illusory space.

His focus on artistic exploration rather than commercial success might explain why Hueter hasn't experienced the notoriety some of his contemporaries have enjoyed. But Claremont Museum mounted a retrospective of his work last year, garnering him new appreciation, and the Huntington Gallery in Pasadena has scheduled a show of his recent work for fall 2011.

Perhaps just in time, as Hueter muses: "If I don't find a home for my art, I'm going to have a friend haul it off to the dump."

The comment is worthy of a laugh, but the prospect is a sad one. Hueter's oeuvre is a visual library that offers an understanding of how modernism was born, developed and continues to evolve. Losing his contribution would be an art crime, like burning Cézanne's landscapes of Provence.

Looking through his archives (which include everything from his first sketch, at age 13, to his Black Drawing Series, inspired by the tumultuous '60s), Hueter comes across the last "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip, which shows the two characters in the snow. Calvin tells Hobbes, "It's a magical world, ol' buddy ... let's go exploring!"

With typical grace, Hueter remarks, "That's what an artist does."

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