Recent Past: Writing Australian art
by Daniel Thomas
Art Gallery of New South Wales, $64.99 hb, 348 pp
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.’
Now, with this splendid, absorbing, rewarding book, the importance of Daniel Thomas’s writing in Australian cultural life is revealed. It is nothing less than an insider’s history of the last six decades. The anthology is chronological, rather than thematic, gathering together a rich selection of reviews, art-historical notes written for museums including the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Thomas’s first museum from 1958 to 1978), journal articles, and occasional pieces including a brace of wonderful obituaries – for designer Marion Hall Best, curator Ruth McNicoll, and artist Bea Maddock, for instance – that illuminate the tenor of the art community; nearly all are illustrated.