"At first, you see the eyes," James Hueter says of a mysterious, multilayered work in his exhibition at the Claremont Museum of Art. And sure enough, two eyes roughly carved on wood in the center of the piece slowly come into view, echoed by another pair painted in the background.
"Then you see that there is more than eyes," he says, peering into glass-covered, mirrored corridors that seem to tunnel into the wall, making the 12-by-12-by-4 1/2 -inch piece appear much deeper than it is. "You look at the art. It looks back and it becomes alive. As it leads you in, you see reflections. Maybe you see humanity, anything you want to think about. I can't control that. What I hope you see is that I made it as well as I could."
He seems to have completed a thought about this particular merger of painting and sculpture, human faces and architectural spaces. But not quite. "That's not good enough for me," he says. "I want it to be more."
At 83, Hueter is not a perfectionist exactly. He calls himself "a poor engineer" and laments about taking forever to construct his illusionistic box-like works by trial and error. But he demands a great deal of himself and his art because that's what matters.
Silver-haired and slight, Hueter works in a simple, high-ceilinged studio just a few steps from the house he designed for himself and his wife, Allie, more than 40 years ago. The north side of Claremont has grown up around their acre, but the neighborhood retains a rustic flavor. The Hueter homestead is hidden at the end of a dirt road near a large botanical garden.
Over the years Hueter has built a large body of work -- drawings, paintings, sculptures and mixed-media constructions that he calls sculpture/paintings. Realistic images have led to abstractions with haunting evocations of faces and figures.
None of this is a secret. An artist of soft-spoken convictions, Hueter has long been in demand as a teacher at Southern California colleges and he has compiled a lengthy résumé of exhibitions, including the 38th Corcoran Biennial, which traveled from coast to coast in 1983 and 1984. Although he has no gallery representation at the moment, he has been affiliated with L.A. galleries and is firmly entrenched in the artistic community that has grown up around the Claremont colleges. But compared with Claremont-connected peers with big reputations, such as painters Karl Benjamin and Frederick Hammersley, furniture maker Sam Maloof and ceramist Harrison McIntosh, he has been nearly invisible.
"I'm not sure why," says Steve Comba, the assistant director and registrar of the Pomona College Museum of Art, who organized Hueter's exhibition. "Is it the hybrid nature of his work or his quiet nature or just bad timing? He's a major player -- and the best example of the least well-known artists in Claremont."
But part of the 2-year-old museum's core mission is to continue Claremont's artistic heritage, and that includes honoring local heroes. For Hueter, the exhibition is more than a rare moment in the limelight. It's his first full-fledged retrospective. Comba has selected 109 works made from 1946 to 2008. They track his career from a Surrealistic painting based on a youthful dream to sculpture/paintings that become surprising visual journeys.
The show is cause for celebration by longtime friends and contemporaries like Benjamin, whose retrospective inaugurated the museum in 2007.
"At the opening, graduate students were asking, 'Where has this guy been?' " Benjamin says. "It's one of the sad things in the art world. Jim is a very quiet guy. He's conservative, in the best sense of the word. He does very little to push his career. I know how that is. You'd like to think if you just do good work, they will come. It doesn't work that way."
Praising Hueter's early still life paintings "done with real feeling" and later works that incorporate glass into paintings -- at least one of which "should be at the Museum of Modern Art" -- Benjamin says he's "very glad this show is happening."
As always, Hueter is far from effusive. But his excitement is palpable. "It's so satisfying to get these out where you can see them," he says of the works in the show.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, Hueter knew he wanted to be an artist when he was in high school. He arrived in Claremont in 1942 as a freshman at Pomona College and never moved away, except for World War II military service, which pushed his college graduation to 1948. He earned an MFA degree at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) in 1951.
Hueter met his future wife in their early student days, when Allie was enrolled at neighboring Scripps College. They lost contact when he went to war and she went home to Omaha and continued her education there. But they reconnected in Claremont, when she returned for graduate work in music.
Pomona offered few art courses, so Hueter studied with professors at Scripps and the graduate school: sculptor Albert Stewart, painter Henry Lee McFee and architect Whitney Smith. Stewart's and McFee's mentorship is easily seen in the first part of the exhibition. The influence of Smith, a pioneering Modernist, is less obvious but ultimately more important.
"Whitney Smith helped me break out of a conservative box," Hueter says. "Form was not just what Bert Stewart said it was. It was a lot more. That opened up things for me. When he asked me why I took his class, I told him that I wanted to design my own house. He said, 'You don't want to do that.' I said, 'Yes, I do.' I'm not sorry. Architecture was a love really. If I had the strength to fight City Hall, I might have been an architect. I didn't, so I put architecture into my paintings."
Not for a while, though. In the late 1950s and early '60s, he concentrated on sculpture, producing small bronzes and towering, attenuated figures of plaster. But he has always made lots of drawings, some of which foretell the direction of his work.
In a densely hung drawings gallery at the museum, he nudges a wispy pencil abstraction into a face, somewhat like those in later paintings. A drawing of a face wrapped around a protruding wall is an early indicator of recent three-dimensional combinations of architectural volumes and faces.
The drawings eventually led to a sculptural form of painting, in which metal, glass and wood are embedded in, or emerge from, the picture plane. "Boyd," a large acrylic-on-wood piece made in 1968, is an abstract portrait with carved T-shaped nose and forehead. In "Visages" made in the mid- to late '80s, faces all but disappear in oil-on-wood panels with glass inserts. And yet in paintings such as "Blue Up," Hueter points out that brushy lines resemble cheekbones.
In his works of the last 30 years or so, Hueter has orchestrated a seamless flow of materials from paint to wood to metal to glass. Images of the face persist, but often with such subtlety that they appear to be giving way to something new.
"I don't know where I'm going," Hueter says. "It's not good to know where you are going."