These two significant exhibitions mark critical stages in the development of Australian art over the past fifty years. The Field Revisited is a painstaking reconstruction of the inaugural – and, at the time, ground-breaking and controversial – exhibition held in 1968 in the newly-opened Roy Grounds building: the National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Road. Some who saw The Field exhibition back then may feel (as I do) that the present installation is even more striking than the original. For those coming for the first time, this revival of the earlier show, with its gleaming silver walls and clamorous use of colour, has the same power to dazzle that the original exhibition, curated by John Stringer and Brian Finemore, possessed. The Field presented the work of forty Australian artists who, in the words of NGV co-curator of this exhibition, Beckett Rozentals, ‘were primarily producing art that was flat, abstract, patterned, geometric, or in the colour field style’. After an extended search, NGV Director Tony Ellwood and his team have managed to recover for the present show as many of the original sculptures and paintings as are still extant. Those no longer available have been recreated specially for the exhibition, where possible with the help of the artists themselves, thirteen of whom are still living.
The word field – a long-established art-historical term – might have seemed in the context of the original show to be pitted against The Bush, the more unbounded, plein air, scrubby subject of earlier generations of Australian artists, in a bold annexation of the modernist style then dominant in New York, which simultaneously challenged the Antipodean figurative style then dominant in Australia. Australians had been given a taste of recent work from New York in a touring exhibition from the International Program of MoMA entitled Two Decades of American Art in 1967. The Field was conceived by John Stringer, exhibitions officer of the NGV, as a kind of local response to Two Decades of American Art, as a way of showing that Australian artists, too, were engaging in their own distinctive way in forms of abstraction and non-figurative art.