Although a driver himself, Allen Maddox often took a cab. We shared a few trips in the course of our friendship. However, he took his last ride alone. I was there, helped him into it, that big black shiny Station Wagon, feet first. The Carriage held but just himself and immortality (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson). He was driven at immoderate speed to the cemetery at Tamatea, near Napier, where he was interred along with the backpack he'd taken on earlier adventures.
Harry and Allen fishing, Lake Waikareiti, December 1999
(Photograph: Richard McWhannell)
A year or three previous, on a ride from Havelock to Napier his cabby asked; 'So, what's so special about you mate?' His reply: ' I'm the best thing that's happened to Napier since the coming of the Maori!' Some people can wear a certain arrogance with charm. Allen was one such. 'Excuse my immodesty, I'm having an omnipotent fantasy,' he'd say, and let out a belly laugh that could disturb.
Our first inauspicious meeting was at a party at Allen's Tole Street, Ponsonby house. Fresh to Auckland, I was there at the insistence of puppet master Tony Fomison, who wanted to involve me in the Auckland Art Scene. 'They won't like you, they can't stand us South Islanders', was my only preparation. I'd seen Allen's pictures at Peter Webb's Lorne Street Gallery, and I thought them exceptional. On meeting him I said how much I liked them, at which he looked down his snout and said. 'I don't care about that!' and he wasn't even an Aucklander! So I removed myself off to 'Zwines' and my Punk friends. Some months later, after a show at Denis Cohn's new Gallery, Denis said that Allen Maddox wanted to meet me. We were introduced and, with no inkling of our former encounter, Allen said: ' I believe you painted that small head Denis owns.' 'Yes . . . s.' 'I covet that, it's beautiful that. It's got violent eyes and I like it!' So one of my tiny pictures was catalyst to a friendship with a most admired painter. After that I saw Allen on a few occasions before he headed to Europe. For some time after all I knew was hearsay and then word of a dramatic event that curtailed his adventure, altered the course of his life and seriously damaged another.
The name Allen Maddox is associated with much myth and speculation. Most is hearsay and by nature erroneous. It's fair to say he was no regular chap. He suffered from a psychological illness described as schizophrenia and his psychosis was mostly controlled by medication. However the drugs were very strong and there were times when he wanted to be free of their debilitating side effects. And so there were the occasional spectacular incidents when the controls weren't there or weren't enough. Yes there were times when he went 'off ' and in his words, did 'some terrible things'. Those regrettable things were to seriously stigmatise him. Part cause, I believe, that he was never given a solo public exhibition, nor has been properly represented by certain public collections.
Allen was a non-conformist. If he could disturb social convention he would. I saw people shrink at the sound of his voice. He could deliver extraordinary threats and administer epic put-downs, but to laugh it off was enough to disarm him and engender a genuine apology. Or you just had to cry 'not fair', because at heart Allen was fair. However most weren't armed for it, and of course you can't blame them.
I found Allen emotionally exhausting at times and we limited our times together to a three-day maximum. We spoke most often by telephone. Many times I left those calls with renewed hope, with an 'argh it's a good thing we do, a necessary thing', though perhaps crowded with elation and despair. At a casual glance a friendship such as ours might seem antithetical, yet we were close. That closeness lay in a number of shared beliefs. One was the absolute importance of an artistic ancestry, on the one hand a humility in the face of artistic achievement historically, but on the other a sense that there's room for more, that painting has an eternal life, it has not been relegated, there are just a more choices. Another belief was the importance of the serendipitous, an accidental birth through applied instinct-that a painting is or can be the accretion of painted moments. A fresh, alla prima delivery is pure delight, but needn't obviate the one that gets there through successive goes. When visiting he would likely have a wish list of books to look at . . . Stanley Spencer, Giotto or El Greco. And when I showed him Pinkham Ryder I saw in him the delight of discovery I'd had first hand at the Met in New York. And while I'd say 'I seem to have landed in the wrong age. What about me an abstract expressionist for God's sake!'
Did you know? Allen was born in Liverpool, 1948. An England being rebuilt postwar. Sometime in the '50s the family moved from their terrace house to a housing estate, a far cry from the close and familial culture of living in a street. Allen was clever at school and early displayed exceptional artistic talent (I've seen a few examples). He got around with his mates, went course fishing with his Dad, Harry. From his Scouse and Maddox upbringing Allen inherited a great sense of humour and was a marvellous raconteur. You had to be there. Although he could enjoy haute cuisine, he never let go the diet of his scouse childhood, nor did his accent or diction succumb to Newzild. I can invoke him physically and vocally, and there were times it was useful to hold that mirror up to him.
The family migrated to Napier. in 1963. Beyond culture shock it proved a natural wonderland, Course fishing became river fishing, Allen became an intimate of Taupo, Turangi, the Mohaka, the Tuki Tuki, Waikaremoana, Waikareiti and many more. He was a consummate creator of fishing flies, and later went into business hawking his wares through the central North Island. He was a postage stamp collector, New Zealand birds his specialty. He kept and bred tropical fish . He owned and showed German Shepherd dogs and his knowledge of all these pursuits was encyclopedic. Now of course there is a pattern here, the presence of obsessiveness and an interest in minutiae which manifests itself in his art. A fascination with the random and or the serendipitous changes of and distribution of colour. The fly fools the fish, the inflections of juxtaposed lumps and slurs of pigment fool the eye, or lead it through a maze, a vortex, a sensation, a sensation that something is going on , something pulsating, it's a trip, it's a head . . . . it's a painting, an Allen Maddox and it's good.
Beyond intelligent Allen was profoundly innate, He regularly achieved what Rouault called a jet of Spirit on the alert.
There was nothing 'wanna be' about this man, Allen had to be an artist, it was his raison d'être. He indulged his madness and habituations largely for their own sake . . . . not as a sop against the pain of living but as the corkscrew that opened the bottle of his genius, let it flow. His modus operandi was not a death wish nor a desire to be with his old friends Tony and Phil, whom he missed deeply. He was trapped by addiction and creativity, a not uncommon story. However Allen's ascension to the heights of contemporary painting over his illness is noteworthy. An exemplar in his discipline and work ethic, Allen would bisque fire his pot and go to town on the glaze! Of his work, he ran the gamut of emotions from feeling objectionably Messianic to a just satisfied: 'It's merely an idiosyncratic extrapolation meanwhile' or an indifferent 'Too sane in the frame'. He didn't let himself off lightly and he applied that rule of thumb to you. Disapprobation from Allen gave pause for thought. Beyond art my favourite example of this was the last Church service he attended a few years ago (yes he was a believer) . I understand the cleric was describing Jesus the Everyman by having him shit and piss. Allen cast his hymn book across the Nave, bellowed 'How dare you mention The Lord's defaecation!' and fled.
While a singular artist, he was also a lover of music. To name a few: Bach (Partitas), Beethoven, Segovia's guitar and Iannis Xenakis whose mathematical atonality hooked into his personal approach to art. Allen practised his own atonal compositions on keyboard. For a time it was a daily discipline and if satisfied or excited by a composition he'd call and play me a recording through the handset. Not quite mp3. quality you understand, but there was always a certain je ne sais quoi about the product. He loved Hendrix, the German group Can, and was for a time obsessed with Michael Jackson.
He was a compulsive and repeat watcher of Star Trek, Dune, Terminator 1 and 2 and Independence Day on video. I'd be delivered plot analyses of them with an instruction that I must watch them, yet he remained impervious to my insistence that he take in Bad Boy Bubby or Dead Man to mention but a couple.
Despite formidable knowledge he appeared to take scant interest in politics or literature and sport not at all.
Though childless he was very interested in the lives and welfare of family and friends' children. He is survived by his wife of nine years Marilou, father Harry and sisters Carol and Joan. His mother Lil died three years ago.
Though few people really knew Allen Maddox and his story essentially died with him, as they do, he left the world a raft of very fine art that will travel the ages. New Zealand will be proud to own Allen Maddox, dead famous artist, before too long.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 97 Summer 2000-01