Artist Gordon Newton, Cass Corridor great, dies at 71

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Nancy Mitchnick painted "Portrait of Gordie" in 1973.

Gordon Newton, a towering figure in the rough-and-tumble Cass Corridor art world of the 1970s and '80s, has died. He was 71.

The artist was found at his home in southwest Detroit earlier this week, apparently dead from natural causes.

Newton’s work hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts and has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as well as New York's Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 2009, he was named a Kresge Artist Fellow. 

Marsha Miro, one of the founders of MOCAD, called Newton "a very important artist of international caliber who never left Detroit."

As a young man, the artist attended Port Huron Community College before moving on to the school at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, now the College for Creative Studies, and then on to Wayne State University. 

Newton was, however, an odd mix for an artist on the make. Described as introspective and profoundly shy, he famously avoided the limelight. 

"Gordon was rather difficult," said MaryAnn Wilkinson, executive director of the Scarab Club and one-time curator of modern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. 

Gordon Newton's "SDX Satellite Delay" at the Detroit Institute of Arts, constructed in 1983-84.

"He didn’t really like being the center of attention," she said. "He would never come to his show openings. Sometimes he would stand outside and stare through the window, but if somebody spotted him, he’d run off."

All the same, Wilkinson was deeply fond of this elusive personality. "He was such a scholar, and charming," she said. "He had an erudition about him that was singular. And he was funny."

Nancy Mitchnick, another Cass Corridor veteran, painted Newton's portrait in 1973, now in the DIA’s collection. 

"Gordie was sort of a space alien," she said, "attractive, but lanky and odd looking. His features didn’t quite work together. I always thought he was brilliant beyond comprehension, but he was a brat too. He wasn't easy." 

That said, she added, "I can always tell when I love something because I wish I’d made it. I always longed to make work like Gordie. It pulled you in deep."  

The artist worked in a range of media, from painting to ceramics to complicated assemblage, mostly using found objects, often of industrial origin. Newton once decorated rocker Jack White’s amplifiers for a concert at Masonic Temple, and was thanked from the stage.

"Head" by Gordon Newton, painted in 1989.

“Gordon’s work was really about Detroit at the end of the industrial revolution,” said Miro, “but it also explored paths to the future.”

Newton often worked the same idea over and over, in ways Miro recalls as forceful and mysterious. 

"He did a whole series about the burning of the city that was so beautiful,” she said, “these architectural sculptures of burnt glass and wood. He did another about truck culture, and a series of abstract faces that were very powerful in their distortion.” The latter are now at the DIA.

Detroit sculptor Robert Sestok was a friend who shared studio space with Newton for 10 years in the Cass Corridor.

As a young artist, he said, “Gordy was enthralled with the abstract expressionists like Tony Smith. He’d met Tony and his daughter Kiki in New York through Sam Wagstaff,” who’d previously been a curator at the DIA.

“Gordy had an open door to the New York art world through Sam," Sestok added, "and it was natural for him to be a part of something like that, because Gordy was of that caliber."

But the Manhattan art world didn't agree with the reclusive Detroiter, and he never made the move. That may have been Motor City's gain, says Wilkinson, but it probably limited Newton's career. 

Gordon Newton in a 1972 portrait at the Detroit Institute of Arts by Ann Mikolowski.

"My personal feeling is that had Gordon left Detroit, he would have been recognized as a major talent," she said.

"But when he was really hitting his stride in the 1970s and '80s, Detroit wasn’t very popular. It was seen as kind of a backwater. So efforts to introduce his work to a national audience," Wilkinson added, "didn’t go anywhere. It's sad, because he was doing such powerful work."

For years, Newton was represented by Ferndale's Susanne Hilberry Gallery, but after Hilberry's death, he moved to the Hill Gallery in Birmingham. 

"We were putting together an exhibition that would have opened in late fall," said owner Tim Hill. "Gordon's death was a great shock and an enormous loss."

Plans for a memorial are still under discussion, Hill said.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy