Australian Art

Laurie Duggan’s study of ‘imagined space’ in Australian visual culture arrived on my desk, with a certain synchronicity, the day after I saw the film Memento. In their distinctive ways, both these works seem indicative of our age, offering unstable and fractured accounts of space and time at a moment when virtual reality seems to be untying our formerly fixed Western notions of these concepts.

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Single-name status is granted to very few. In Australian art, ‘Daniel’ has always been Daniel Thomas: curator, museum director, walking memory, standard-setter (and inveterate corrector of errors), passionate lover of art, friend of Australian artists. His life’s work has been establishing the understanding of Australian art in our art museums, and his influence is incalculable. The late Andrew Sayers rightly described Thomas as ‘the single most influential curator in creating a shape for the history of Australian art’, but as editors Hannah Fink and Steven Miller observe, ‘Daniel is everywhere and nowhere: the greatest authority, hiding in the detail of someone’s else’s footnote, and in the judgements that have made the canon of Australian art.’

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When invited by Morry Schwartz, Anna’s husband and proprietor of Schwartz Publishing, which owns Black Inc., to write an account of the Anna Schwartz Gallery (ASG), Doug Hall initially declined but changed his mind after realising that it would enable him to write with a fresh perspective, having returned to Melbourne after twenty years as director of Queensland Art Gallery. The result, Present Tense: Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary Australian art – which takes its title from the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, curated by Robert Storr – is a periphrastic straddling of art history, social history, and biography, inclined to reminiscence over analysis.

Featuring eighty-nine chapters of varying length, the text mostly provides overviews of the artists represented by ASG, set within a chronicle of Anna Schwartz’s evolution as a gallerist. This broad narration is interspersed with chapters on a few key late-twentieth-century art dealers – sometimes to narrate artist defections to ASG – as well as state museum redesigns, biennales, and even a chapter on Anna’s wardrobe.

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This well-illustrated volume documents through its analysis of art exhibitions the massive rise of Australia’s art gallery attendances over a period of more than forty years. Before the late 1960s, only a few hundred thousand people visited Australian galleries each year ...

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In April 1934 sisters Mary and Elizabeth Durack joined their eldest brother, Reg, at Argyle Downs Station in the Kimberley. Mary was twenty-one, her sister eighteen. Educated at Loreto Convent in Perth, they had been reared on a diet of stories about life in the north told by their father, Michael Patrick Durack (known as ‘MPD’), when he returned from the family’s pastoral holdings every wet season to spend time with his wife and six children. Both girls had spent time up north with their parents, and loved the place. This time, however, they were on their own. At Argyle, ‘they were paid union wages for helping in the kitchen, where they learned to make bread for the homestead and for the twenty or more Aborigines on the station’, and later they took up duties at another Durack company station, Ivanhoe. They stayed up north for eighteen months, saving up for a trip to Europe, for even the Durack family fortunes had been hit by the Great Depression.

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In August 1999 the Melbourne art collective DAMP staged an argument that turned into a glass-smashing fight at an exhibition opening of its work at 200 Gertrude Street. Peter Timms, writing in The Age, described this event, which in former times might have been called a ‘Happening’ and today would be recognised as a ‘Pop-up project’:

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Twenty years ago, when I was at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, I heard of an Arthur Boyd exhibition in SoHo. Recklessly, without seeing the show, I urged my American friends to see one of Australia’s foremost contemporary painters. The gallery, unknown to me, turned out to be small and unimpressive. There were five or six late paintings, including one of those large, multi-figured bathers, with that disconcerting quality of Boyd at the end of his career, both slapdash and commercial at the same moment. ‘So this is what contemporary Australian painting looks like?’ my companion asked ironically, just within the bounds of good manners.

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The painter and outdoor draughtsman John Wolseley is utterly unusual among artists in this country. Marvellously accomplished yet old-fashioned, he could be seen as an artist who cheekily leapt from  traditional to postmodern without passing through any of the intermediate stages. His deeply natural pictures can’t be categorised easily, for all that they are entrancing. In Lines for Birds, they are reproduced side by side with the comparably responsive poems of Barry Hill.

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This impressive volume surpasses most assumptions about the scope, depth and eloquence of an exhibition catalogue. Curator and editor Terence Lane has gathered together thirteen of Australia’s leading art historians, historians and curators, all recognised experts in their fields.

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Handsomely illustrated, beautifully produced and authoritatively written, Gavin Fry’s monograph on Albert Tucker aims to establish him as an important artist within the Australian twentieth-century canon. Fry begins his introduction with the statement that Tucker ‘was a man who inspired strong feelings and his work likewise required the viewer to make a stand. Many found his work difficult, some even repellent, but the artist and his art demanded attention. Equally gifted as a painter, and possibly more so as a draughtsman than his contemporaries Nolan, Boyd and Perceval, Tucker belongs with this élite who revolutionised Australian painting in Melbourne in the 1940s.’ But is this really so? Was Tucker really so much better than his contemporaries, or even as good as them?

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