It's been a decade since the country's foremost abstract expressionist, Allen Maddox, was laid to rest at Western Hills Cemetery, Park Island. Mark Story caught up with those who knew the Napier artist with the infamous X-factor.

Ten years ago to the day, a crowd of mostly counter-culture types descended on Napier to bury artist Allen Maddox.

Quixotic, cranky, stigmatised, tragic, quirky and insanely gifted. Those he left behind claim the list applies to both his painting and tempestuous life.

A decade later and all the beatniks have left town. Maddox's romanticism, in all its permutations, is a lost and barbaric ideology, buried under contemporary intellectual art practices and artists now working outside the wretched garret.


Yet the paradox of his life endures. Notably it's now dealer galleries selling the bohemian's work for up to $60,000 a pop.

Despite his infamy, despite spending most of his life in Napier after immigrating as a teenager from Liverpool in 1963, and despite his billing by Gow Langsford Gallery's Gary Langsford as the top dog of his genre - his isn't a household name.

Maddox's relative obscurity in his chosen city is hardly surprising, says Langsford, who believes his client's work never resonated in the provinces. "It was extremely abstract for a start," he said. "It related to international art trends and certainly didn't relate to anything regionalist."

The friends' professional association began in the mid 80s, where Maddox sideswiped the Auckland gallery owners at a solo show in Napier. "We were as stunned as he was, and bought every piece. It blew our entire working capital."

A colourful relationship survived only due to Maddox's isolation from the gallery. "Having the gallery in Auckland with him living away from Auckland was a perfect relationship.

"We were often called to pay the mortgage. One day I had to fly down and meet him in the Provincial Hotel with cash when he hadn't paid his dope dealers."

Longtime friend Nigel Madden, who lived next to Maddox's "shack" on Napier Hill's Burlington Rd, said even though he'd "cracked it" in Wellington, living in Hawke's Bay was about financial survival. "He had great family support here.

"I stuck around him to gather as much information as I could. While he was painting and drinking, I was doing the same thing, yet was just a budding alcoholic. He was huge man, over six foot and 16 stone, which made it really hard to shift him when he was drunk."

A stint teaching art at Hastings Boys' High was just that. Principal at the time, Frank Crist, refused to comment about his fleeting employee. "It's best that I don't say a thing, because anything I say would be derogatory."

Former colleague Roy Dunningham said Maddox and philosophically aligned artist friends Tony Fomison and Philip Clairmont, formed part of a group of visionaries from the 60s who "dragged New Zealand art kicking and screaming into the 20th Century".

"It's very hard to exaggerate Maddox's standing," Dunningham says. "He was the last of the heroic individualists. He considered himself a classicist and didn't really get into emotive subject matter - it was more about how he did it. You can sense his lifestyle in his work, that's what makes it so thrilling."

His output, daring and excited, was of someone "walking the artistic tightrope between success and failure".

Many consider Rita Angus the only other Hawke's Bay artist to occupy the same tier as Maddox. Yet the later has nothing of the former's fame, due in part, says Dunningham, to Angus presenting us with "visible symbols of ourselves. Maddox didn't allow us that comfort zone".

A signature X motif and grid structure lent a familiar note to his oeuvre. It spawned all manner of theories from commentators, including X as a symbol of anonymity, failure, Christianity, the unknown, the illiterate.

Madden suggests his friend painted an X over an early work he didn't like, with the motif enduring since then.

Haumoana artist Dick Frizzell "got on okay" with Maddox, yet was a casualty of his contemporary's preference for bohemia over suburbia. "I think he thought I was the bourgeois demon from hell," Frizzell said. "At his funeral, Marilou [wife] came up to me and said: 'It's now safe for you to come back to Hawke's Bay, Dick'. I didn't live dangerously enough for Maddox."

Close friend Richard McWhannell said the myth threatens the reality of a man who in fact "wasn't hell-bent on a path of self destruction".

"Yes there were times when he went off, and in his words did 'some terrible things'. Those regrettable things were to seriously stigmatise him," McWhannell said.

"I knew a man who I was very fond of, he had great warmth and was very loving. That's not something you get from most historical accounts."

Such a reputation precluded earlier success, he said. "The art world was fearful of him, which perhaps explains why he wasn't picked up early as a great New Zealand artist."

Maddox met his third wife, Marilou, in the Philippines. The two were married in 1991.

Without knowing anything about New Zealand, and even less knowledge of art, she says immigrating was an unprecedented culture shock. "Strange country - strange husband," she laughs. "Allen told me he was a painter. I thought he meant he painted houses."

His proposal was initially turned down when she discovered his liking for marijuana. "I told him I wouldn't marry him because of that, but I changed my mind. He seemed to smoke it only when painting. It helped him, he thought. That part of his life, including his art, was kept from me. I'd ask him about it but he said I wouldn't understand."

Now remarried and living in Greenmeadows, she says her former husband's alcoholism and drug experimentation put a constant strain on the relationship. "But I stuck to it. You have to try and make your marriage work."

The luxury of now selling some of her late husband's works to fund trips to see family in the Philippines stands in stark contrast to eatlier financial difficulties of their marriage. "We had nothing, the money only came later."

A large blue Maddox canvas hangs in her dining room, painted, she says, to fund a move to Australia. "Allen finished this a few months before he died, and told me to use the money to make a new life for myself in Melbourne. I never sold it."

Childless, Maddox, 52, died from complications resulting from liver disease on August 23, 2000.

McWhannell claims his old friend's presence on the art world is yet to be fully realised. "It'll happen, possibly a while from now. New Zealand will be proud to own Allen Maddox ... before too long."

And meanwhile, though abstract expressionism isn't the flavour of the month, Gow Langsford has a Maddox piece on their new spring catalogue, priced at $55,000.