In the spring of 2013 I was busy researching MCA DNA: Chicago Conceptual Abstraction, 1986–1995, for the MCA’s ongoing “DNA” series devoted to featuring iconic works from the collection, and Hudson—the performance artist and curator turned pioneering gallery owner—was very much on my mind. Hudson had been an essential part of Chicago’s art community in the 1980s, opening his gallery, Feature, in 1984, after working in the nonprofit realm, most notably with the now-legendary Randolph Street Gallery.
The art world in the mid-1980s was a very different place: pre-internet and very recently post–“Neo-Expressionist” painting (read Julian Schnabel, Anselm Keifer, David Salle, etc.), which had trumpeted a “return to painting” after decades of conceptually based and minimalist work. There were few art fairs or biennials at which to see emerging work and even so, people just did not travel as much. For Chicago’s art community, Feature gallery was a revelation. It was the place in town to see emerging national figures of the generation that came to be called, variously, “Neo-Geo” and “The Pictures Generation”—Jim Isermann, Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Jim Shaw, and Charles Ray, among others. Hudson also showcased many of the emerging conceptually informed Chicago artists who have gone on to national and international fame, including Tony Tasset and Kay Rosen.
Those lucky enough to make their way to Hudson’s gallery space on Huron Street received quite an education. He was always present, ready to talk if you wished, but also willing to leave you alone to look. So it was quite a shock to learn, only a few months after Chicago Conceptual Abstraction had closed, that Hudson had died. He was only 63.
Hudson was also a donor to the MCA Collection. He never had deep resources, even after his gallery relocated to New York and he was insightful enough to represent such highly successful artists as Tom Friedman, whom he had met in Chicago. He once spoke of his modest lifestyle and how he ran Feature as his “move against stardom and a push for pluralism and multiplicity.” His commitment to his ideals and the art he championed resulted in gifts to museums of significant early works by many of the artists he represented, works he could have sold for a tidy profit.
In 1997, the MCA was the recipient of 14 such works, including the now ironic Talent (1986) by David Robbins that features the “art stars” of the 1980s in their youth. That fall, an exhibition featuring Hudson’s gifts was mounted with the provocative title, Fake Ecstasy with Me (suggested by Hudson). While the donation included such notable names as Robert Mapplethorpe and Raymond Pettibon, as Hudson explained in his correspondence about the gift, the art “was collected for display in a small apartment” and the works had been selected by him based on his “regard for the individual work, not for its integration into a collection or the artist’s career.”
This “regard” shines through in a number of the gifts. The Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, Sebastian and Nda (1981), is a charming portrait of two boys stage playing a smack across the face. Now a well-known image, the photo isn’t what commonly comes to mind when thinking of Mapplethorpe, best known for his homoerotic and explicitly sexual work. But that would have been typical of Hudson’s sensibilities: collect the best, but maybe not the most obvious “best” work.
Jim Isermann’s “Neo-Geo” Flower Painting (1986) is another strong example of Hudson’s collecting eye. While the work might initially come across as merely decorative, Isermann, a Los Angeles–based artist who trained at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) along with others who put their stamp on art of the waning years of the twentieth century, including Mike Kelley, David Salle, and Jim Shaw, slyly reinterpreted the aesthetics of the psychedelic 1960s “flower power” imagery onto enamel-on-wood paintings. One critic aptly described them as “remembrances of our overextended imaginations.”
Mondo Cane (1985), another colorful and deceptive work, was the creation of General Idea, a pioneering Canadian art collective consisting of AA Bronson, Felix Partz, andJorge Zontal. First active in the 1960s, the group created installations, posters, and artists’ books and magazines. A silkscreen version from a series of paintings featuring the neon bright outlines of poodles, the playfulness of the imagery belies the fact that the poodles are presented in various sexual positions and stand in for the three members of the collective, two of whom succumbed to AIDS–related illnesses in the 1990s. The title Mondo Cane (A dog’s world) refers to a 1962 Italian documentary that consists of travelogue vignettes of cultural practices that would have been unknown or shocking to the European and American film audiences of its day. With dry humor and considerable grace, the members of General Idea brought attention to the fact that many in the 1980s and 1990s were shocked and disturbed by the idea of homosexuality, and found the AIDS crisis a problem of “the other” and not of the entire society.
These are just a few of the 14 works Hudson donated to the MCA Collection. He was a rarity in today’s international art world, and is deeply missed. His legacy, however, will live on in the MCA’s exhibition history and collection.