November 2018

by Miriam Cosic

‘American Masters’ at the National Gallery of Australia
The best of the US, drawn from Canberra’s own collection

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, NYC 1983. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1994. © Nan Goldin. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

‘American Masters’ at the National Gallery of Australia (until November 11) looks like any other blockbuster exhibition imported from overseas to widen our Antipodean horizons. It isn’t. It comes from the gallery’s own holdings, the largest collection of its kind outside the US. And it’s free.

Jackson Pollock’s famous Blue Poles; Willem de Kooning’s Woman V, also a controversial purchase; Mark Rothko’s moody black and burgundy #20; Andy Warhol’s serried rows of Marilyns, Maos and Campbell’s Soup tins; Nan Goldin’s devastating sociological photographs: these and so much more are among the 150 pictures and sculptures on display.

Meticulous parameters for the gallery’s collection were laid down by the gallery’s founding director, James Mollison, whose plan was established in more politically broad-minded days. Mollison was appointed in 1968, 10 years before the projected opening, when the urbane John Gorton was prime minister. Gough Whitlam was leader when the tabloid media went nuts over the cost of Blue Poles and Woman V, acquired in 1973 and 1974.

The acquisitions committee was made up of artists, not the corporate types we’d see today, and had a brief to assemble works of the highest quality, reflecting the latest trends in art. Mollison wanted a collection that would eventually rival those of the great European and North American galleries in artistic and intellectual, if not historical, depth.

This exhibition does justice to his vision. Even more interesting than the celebrity paintings are those that provide context for them. An early Rothko (circa 1944–46) is a cacophony of ruptured shapes in shades of yellow, aqua, dark peach, blue and pale grey, reaching for geometric order: a long way from the famously calming spiritual symmetries of his later work.

Pollock’s Totem Lesson 2 (1945) predates the development of his drip technique. Its central figure and surrounding motifs look almost representational at first glance, but were arrived at via a process of “editing” the original figure with overlays of grey house paint then overlaying that with further work in oils.

Warhol’s Pop Art portraits are almost hackneyed now, but here we have more sobering work. The colour-washed screen-print Electric Chair (1967), part of his Death and Disaster series, has always disturbed me more than documentary photographs of death-penalty paraphernalia. The affect of (good) art.

Women’s art is always underestimated, and especially so in the macho Cold War warrior mythology of Abstract Expressionism. Nonetheless, important artists like Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell were pushing their own brilliant boundaries. Who, you say? Krasner, generally seen as handmaiden to the hard-drinking, unfaithful Pollock, has not one but two paintings on display here.

And so on. Arshile Gorky, Robert Rauschenberg, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, Roy Lichtenstein, Ad Reinhardt, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois. Many were foreigners who came to work in America.

Robert Motherwell’s painting Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1958) is mesmerising. It is hard not to reach out and touch Eva Hesse’s installation Contingent (1969): hanging rectangles made of cheesecloth, latex and fibre that look like textured toffee. Robert Arneson’s Fragment of Western Civilisation (1972), made of terracotta, mortar, wood and mesh, would send shivers down the spine of any ardent Ramsay Centre supporter.

These are works of an unusually uniform high quality, and they belong to us.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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