Picture of the Week: For Jim by Gordon Newton

May 9, 2023

For Jim, Gordon Newton, 1980, wood construction with resin, straw, and metal, 13 1/2 x 8 3/4 x 3 1/2 in.

“I've seen many of his works. I’d see them in the morning when I got up and before I went to sleep. Sometimes I’d take my flashlight to see what was going on in the dark. A lot of them can be unattractive on the surface…but you’ve got to get away from the obvious to figure it out” James F. Duffy Jr.

Gordon Newton was an integral Cass Corridor artist. He was born in Detroit in 1948 and moved from “Plymouth, Michigan, to Canton, Ohio, Kansas then back to Michigan, finally settling in Port Huron” (Miro 8). Newton started his career taking art classes at Port Huron Community College. Studying under painter Vincent McPharlin, Newton composed many still lives and landscapes at Port Huron Community College, which he particularly enjoyed; He also felt inspired by “McPharlin’s commitment to transcribing the outside world” (Miro 8). Newton also studied with painter and ceramic artist Earl Robinette during his time at Port Huron Community College; According to Robinette, Newton was fearless in his artmaking, combining things that would not typically go together (Miro 8-9).

In 1969, Newton returned to Detroit where he studied at the Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies), and eventually transferred to Wayne State University. During his time in Detroit, he joined “the growing artists’ community in Detroit’s Cass Corridor” (Miro 9). This community was situated “on either side of Cass Avenue, bordered on the east by Woodward Avenue and on the west by the Lodge expressway” (Miro 9). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cass Corridor area was affected by the aftermath of the 1967 riots, along with the rest of the city of Detroit: “The riots of 1967 resulted in a new edginess, accompanied by a political agenda based on overcoming social inequalities” (Miro 9). There was also a broader counterculture emerging in the United States in the 1960s, which proliferated “the belief that individuals could shape things as they pleased” (Miro 9). The broader counterculture in America, paired with the implications of the 1967 riots in Detroit, “brought together artists, poets, and musicians, creating a potent avant-garde arts scene in the city, probably for the first time” (Miro 9). The Cass Corridor aesthetic was considered “an early strain of Neo-Expressionism” (Miro 9). Similar to Neo-Expressionism, Cass Corridor artists combined “emotional abstractions” with geometric forms within their works. Additionally, in tune with the turmoil Detroit had undergone, these works would often possess an industrial, gritty appearance: “Their work was grounded in the rough, material culture of a declining industrial center” (Miro 9). Moreover, Cass Corridor art would often meditate on themes such as “reconstruction, collaging, assembling, and melding together the disparate aspects of this world” (Miro 9). Characterized as “‘hard-living and intense,’” Newton is often considered “the prototypical Cass Corridor artist” (Miro 9). According to Newton himself, the lives of Cass Corridor artists were intense: “‘What separated this certain group of people was intensity and maintaining it. It builds in you, like your muscles if you were working out. We were bouncing off each other’” (Apel 3).

Newton’s artwork has been shown in many institutions. In April 1971, Newton, along with two other Cass Corridor artists, were part of the very first exhibition at the Willis Gallery, “a cooperative space begun by the Cass Corridor artists” (Miro 11). Samuel Wagstaff Jr., “the curator of modern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts from 1968 to 1971,” was one of Newton’s first supporters and bought many of Newton’s works for the DIA and for himself (Miro 11). It was also at the DIA where the notable exhibition Kick out the Jams:Detroit’s Cass Corridor, 1963-1977 took place in 1980, which included Newton; Dora Apel asserts that this exhibition was “the most comprehensive history of the Cass Corridor artists” (Apel 3). In addition to the DIA, his artwork has been featured in exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, among many others. Newton was also the recipient of numerous awards, including awards in the Visual Arts 5, The Equitable Life Assurance Society and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1986, the Michigan Foundation for the Arts Award in 1982, and the Mr. and Mrs. Lester B. Arwin Purchase Prize and the Detroit Artists Market Prize in 1970. 

Newton had a very diverse body of work. He took a variety of approaches and engaged with a variety of media, “everything from oil and resin on paper to physical installations to massive mixed media constructions that turned trash into artistic treasure.” In his 1980 sculpture For Jim, Newton combines wood, resin, straw, and metal. He employs these materials to create a structure reminiscent of a showcase one might observe in a store window. A nail protrudes out of the front panel, where a curved piece of metal hangs from it. Perhaps this fragment of metal could be interpreted as a tie, hung up after a long day’s work. The title, For Jim, refers to James Pearson Duffy, who was one of the prominent patrons of Cass Corridor art, as well as the namesake of the Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University. Duffy had commissioned many of Newton’s works over the years. The two had developed a correspondence in which Newton would send Duffy drawings, photographs, and collages, from the 1970s until Duffy’s death in 2009. These letters provided a glimpse into the relationship between patron and artist,and many of them are part of the WSU art collection today. While For Jim is not a letter, it serves as a three-dimensional example of Newton’s bond with Duffy. Newton directs the title to Duffy as though it is a label written on an envelope. Additionally, perhaps the curved piece of metal could reference Duffy’s own tie that he would hang after arriving home from work. Such a relaxed, personal scene would suggest that Newton and Duffy’s bond encompassed both business and friendship.

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: Apel, Dora. "Art and the Industrial City," 2001.

Gordon Newton:Selections from the James F. Duffy Jr. Gift, The Detroit Institute of Arts, 2001.






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