Culture

Art

‘The Field Revisited’ and ‘Robert Hunter’ at NGV Australia

By Quentin Sprague
Two exhibitions re-examine landmark Australian art

The Field Revisited at the National Gallery of Victoria takes the 1968 exhibition titled The Field and remakes it. Originally presented 50 years ago at the gallery’s brand-new St Kilda Road residence, The Field was, for its day, groundbreaking: a survey of hard-edge abstraction, minimalism and colour field painting; movements, one and all, that provided the measure of a new kind of international style. Curated by John Stringer and Brian Finemore, the exhibition intended to mark a turn in Australian art: the artists were young, their work up-to-date with the latest developments, their focus a world apart from the landscape painters who had previously defined much of what was seen and understood as Australian art.

Besides the fact that the original exhibition had a smaller footprint, and was thus more densely hung, the remake (which has been staged at NGV Australia rather than St Kilda Road) is a strikingly faithful rendition. The original is well known, but until now has existed for most as a series of black-and-white installation views: now the original works by artists like Ian Burn, Janet Dawson, Sydney Ball and Nigel Lendon are presented in full technicolour. Even the “groovier” flourishes of the original exhibition design – silver wallpaper, freestanding walls – are dusted off for the remake. Following a public call to locate those original artworks not in public collections, the gallery has gathered the vast majority: where this failed, black-and-white reproductions have been printed and affixed to the wall in lieu of the real thing. If The Field Revisited is an elaborately produced haunted house, these grey-toned echoes of real artworks are the spectres that haunt it.

Remaking a significant past exhibition is not a new idea. Perhaps the most famous example is the Prada Foundation’s 2013 restaging of Live in Your Head: When Attitude Becomes Form, the pioneering 1969 Swiss exhibition curated by Harald Szeemann. Szeemann has in recent decades been claimed as the founding father of contemporary curatorial practice: revisiting Live in Your Head was therefore intended to elucidate something fundamental to the curatorial discipline, rather than to simply pay tribute to a historical event. By contrast, The Field Revisited seems justified simply because five decades have passed since the original first opened and the art world, like most other social fields, loves an anniversary. The unavoidable risk of pulling any artwork, let alone a whole exhibition, out of decades-long storage is that, with the hindsight of years, what it shows us is not always good. One takeaway from the new iteration is that a great number of the works created in Australia in response to developments in the United States were strikingly rough in execution. In place of the high-level refinement of Americans like Donald Judd, the works in The Field appear as far more provisional approximations. Single works lack intensity, and for the few that endure (Robert Rooney’s Kind-Hearted Kitchen-Garden IV, 1968, for example), there are others that appear untethered from another age (such as Mike Kitching’s aluminium and transparent synthetic polymer resin sculpture Phoenix II, 1966). Much of it now appears kitsch and ham-fisted, a far cry from the seriousness with which such practices were presented in their day.

All of this raises other, more interesting questions than the obvious consideration of how and why international movements in abstraction found such a footing in Australia when they did, and whether or not this footing endured in any meaningful way. For one, it’s hard to move through The Field Revisited’s silver-clad galleries without sensing the more elegiac qualities that attend the visionary drama of any avant-garde. For all the cries of radical newness that attended The Field’s initial unveiling, the simple revelation in The Field Revisited is that much of it now looks old: no matter how artists might try to arrest it, time keeps on moving.

The youngest artist included in The Field, just 21 years-old at the time, was the late Robert Hunter, a Melbourne-born painter who went on to dedicate his life’s work to the tenets of minimalism. A retrospective of his work, simply titled Robert Hunter and deftly curated by the NGV’s Jane Devery, is running concurrently to The Field Revisited. Hunter, who was born in the Melbourne suburb of Eltham in 1947, holds the distinction of being the only Australian artist who might have claimed official membership of the international minimalist movement: he was close friends with one of its most famous proponents, the American Carl Andre, spent formative time in New York, and exhibited in key international exhibitions including Eight Contemporary Artists at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974/75.

Hunter began travelling to the US at the very moment when the Abstract Expressionism of painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning was unwinding into the far more coolly cerebral fields of conceptual art and minimalism. He returned a convert, and set about finding his own mature style: paintings made by masking geometric patterns onto large sheets of plywood and rolling over them thin layers of white house paint. By the time Hunter really hit his stride in the 1980s and 1990s, Australian art had long been caught up in more specific debates about national identity, about the inheritance of colonialism and how Australian artists might picture the place in which they lived. Hunter, by contrast, went about distilling his work closer and closer to a kind of essential character of form and light. It was hardly a populist move, but it was nonetheless for him a fertile one.

If Hunter were a musician, his output would have focused on minute tonal differences picked out against the pure drone of white noise. Everything in his paintings seems elongated, stretched thin: counterpoints ring clear; sharply masked lines act like visual jump cuts, literally stepping the painted surface up or down tiny notches. The retrospective’s cumulative effect underscores Hunter’s absolute focus: only a handful of works don’t take white as their basis (two early paintings that include wide bands of black carry though the exhibition like bass tones), but after those it’s predominantly white that endures.

The exhibition’s final rooms, focusing on the last decades of his practice, display without a doubt how good Hunter was. His angular compositions cluster and form across their white grounds. Even the introduction of a carefully calibrated tone of grey or blue can make a whole painting shiver and turn. Identically sized and hung relatively closely together, the paintings seem to distil the very nature of the light that surrounds them. To stand and look is to experience the meticulous geometry of the paintings begin to break apart in real time; they speak of the purest kind of light and vision, an examination not of the mechanics of seeing, but of its poetry. This is, of course, the act that underlies all art. To see is to perceive, and Hunter’s work, at its best, manages to somehow crystallise that act of perception and hand it back to us in concrete form.

 

The Field Revisited and Robert Hunter are both showing at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square Melbourne until 26 August 2018.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a writer and curator based in Geelong.

Janet Dawson, Rollascape 2 ,1968, synthetic polymer paint on composition board 150.0 x 275.0 cm irreg., Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat. © Janet Dawson/Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

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