The events surrounding an artist's death are often steeped in ritual. In preparation for a posthumous retrospective, colleagues, family, friends, and at times the ailing artist himself collectively participate in the gradual cataloging of a life's work. With each sketch unearthed from piles of studies and prints, the same petulant question rears its head: How best to define and encapsulate the multifarious endeavors completed within one artist's life? At "Robert Huff: 47 Years," a retrospective at Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design (MOAD), that question couldn't be more salient.
Huff, who died in 2014 at the age of 69, was a bit of a pioneer on the Miami arts scene. His incredibly prolific career as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker was slightly eclipsed by a more profound legacy: As one of the early members of South Florida's art scene, Huff laid the foundation for the now-burgeoning artistic community. His post at MDC, where he chaired the art department, was perhaps his greatest contribution to Miami's creative culture. MOAD's exhibition pays tribute to his career and to the generation of Miami artists he affected.
In many ways, Huff's career followed art-world conventions. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he moved to Florida's west coast at the age of 11. His family had deep roots in the construction trade, and the legacy imbued Huff with a lifelong love of tools and materials. After graduating from the University of South Florida, where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree, he began teaching sculpture at Miami Dade College. His work, largely influenced by Robert Rauschenberg's early postmodern mélange of painting and sculpture, quickly became part of South Florida's public art landscape.
"He was a big man with a big heart," says Carol Jazzar, Huff's longtime art dealer and curator of the retrospective at MOAD. "His large physical persona reflected an equally larger inner spirit filled with generosity and kindness."
As a mentor to several local artists who went on to national and international acclaim, Huff was unparalleled. Sculptor and photographer Luis Gispert was one of the many students who was molded in Huff's vision before leaving Miami's humble shores for proverbially greener pastures.
"He was my first sculpting teacher," Gispert says. "He told me to 'expand your horizons, get out of Miami, see the world.' That was the reason why I transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago and continued my artistic pursuits."
Gispert has remained busy, earning an MFA from Yale in 2001 and showing his work at the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Gagosian Gallery. Despite the many accolades he's received, he quickly acknowledges that without Huff's inspiring guidance, much of his success would have been for naught.
"He was the first working artist I met with a clear vision of his work," Gispert says. "As a young student, it helped me focus and see a future life as an artist." It's that same vision that pervades Huff's highly varied projects. Sculptures, paintings, and several combines were selected from a deluge of works, under the watchful eye of Jazzar.
As you work your way through the retrospective, it's easy to feel intimidated by the size and scope of the exhibition. First impressions suggest that Huff was an incredibly prolific artist. Each piece is indicative of a specific creative high point in his career. Though the works are multifaceted, it's clear Huff always had an eye for scale; each work seems more imposing than the last, dwarfing onlookers in the process.
MOAD's massive space is the perfect home for Huff's monumental sculptures and canvases. Some of his pieces stretch to the corners of the museum's walls and envelop the entire space. Yet despite the paintings' dimensionality, former Miami Herald art critic and Huff confidant Helen Kohen maintains they were more sculptural, noting "they have a presence that wants touching."
Huff was particularly interested in how tools could transform materials into art objects. Over the years, he experimented with a wide variety of materials, including wood, metal, Plexiglas, tile, paper, plastic, and found objects. After mastering one material and fully exhausting its use in his eye, he would abandon it in favor of a different, untested substance.
His taste for adventure was what drew Jazzar to Huff's work. "One of my favorite pieces in the show is actually a newer piece, H R 6-12," Jazzar says. "It incorporated all the elements he was working on at the time — painting, drawing, and sculpture."
H R 6-12 (2012) is not only a pivotal piece in Huff's career but also the expression of an artist in full control of his resources. The work is not as contained and structured as his previous pieces. There is a freer hand at work, giving shape to movement. Initially discouraged by painting as a student, Huff revisited the medium later in life, discovering a whole new side to the discipline.
"Robert belonged to a generation of artists who were happiest making art for the sake of art. He had never expected fame or money with his art," Jazzar recalls. "This was not the primary goal when he started; the goal was the art-making."
Regardless of the complexity of his work, one central motif resonates among the many pieces: the relationship between man and nature.
After moving to South Florida, Huff became interested in the Everglades and Biscayne Bay as symbols of human ingenuity bending nature to its will. His style was incredibly organic; inverting the norm, he let nature dictate form instead of imposing manmade rigor on his materials. Later in life, he drew inspiration from the once-pristine Appalachian landscape, now ravaged by strip mining.
Fed from diverse strains of artistic thought, Huff was able to advance many of the ideas fomenting in the latter half of the 20th Century. Rauschenberg's combines, Richard Serra's earthworks, and hints of abstract expressionism are all present in Huff's work. The forms play effortlessly with one another, a kind of hallmark of his style.
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"Robert Huff offers us a window to the world," architecture and design critic Beth Dunlop wrote in the exhibition's accompanying 80-page catalogue. "Spend some time with his paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and afterwards, the world outside will never look quite the same."
Meandering through the retrospective's opening-night crowd, one could feel a bit confused. The incredible works of art hung along the room, as well as the coterie of former students, alumni, and colleagues present to honor this paragon of Miami art, beg the question: What was Huff's greatest masterpiece?
Though the impact his work will have on the art world at large is now in the hands of a few collectors and curators, the gift he's given the community is indelible. Huff's impact on the Miami art scene will reverberate for more than just a couple of generations, leaving those lucky enough to have known him in awe of his influence.
"Robert Huff: 47 Years"
Through November 8 at Miami Dade College Museum of Art + Design, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; mdcmoad.org. Wednesday through Sunday noon to 5 p.m.