Fred Williams

September 10, 2011
Fred Williams, You Yangs landscape, oil on composition board
Fred Williams, You Yangs landscape, oil on composition board

When the previous retrospective of an artist’s work contained no fewer than 417 pieces, it is inevitable that a new exhibition of about 120 pictures will be known as the ‘smaller’ show. That earlier Fred Williams’s mega-retrospective was held at the National Gallery of Australia in 1987, but I still have a vivid recollection of its impact. Twenty-four years may seem a long time between viewings, but it is not so long that the new exhibition manages to completely escape the shadow of its predecessor.

The 1987 retrospective was put together by James Mollison, then director of the NGA, who had the option of including as many works as he liked. The current show is the work of curator Deborah Hart, who with a much smaller space and budget, has had to make many difficult decisions about what pieces best represented her own vision of Fred Williams (1927-1982).

Making decisions is a fundamental responsibility of curatorship. One has to argue for a particular point-of-view, and embrace a form of connoisseurship that is increasingly unfashionable. The connoisseur is not a dandy from a sit-com, but an art expert with an acute knowledge of his or her subject. When one is putting together a retrospective of an artist as important as Fred Williams, there is no margin for ignorance or idle speculation.

Hart has taken up the challenge, immersing herself in her subject, completing a catalogue that is really a new monograph on Williams – and a more fluent piece of writing than the earlier books by Patrick McCaughey and James Mollison. But when it comes to the actual exhibition, she has made a number of problematic choices  – perhaps through trying too hard to take a different tack to the 1987 show.

First and foremost is the emphasis given to the horizontal strip paintings that Williams created throughout the 1970s. These are accomplished works, but they don’t have the authority and presence of his larger oils. In many ways they come across as exercises in which Williams – the indefatigable experimenter – tried out pictorial ideas. Putting a strip painting on the cover of the catalogue almost amounts to a misrepresentation.

There is also a question mark over the number of portraits in this show, which tend to over-emphasise that aspect of Williams’s work. He used to say that if you can’t paint a portrait then your art is in trouble, but these paintings were ever only a sideline. While Williams’s contribution to Australian landscape is monumental, his role as a portraitist is marginal. In this he is the antithesis of an artist such as Tom Roberts, absurdly called the “father of Australian landscape painting” by his first biographer R.H.Croll. Roberts was only an incidental landscapist, but a portraitist of seminal importance.

Fred Williams, Lyn Watson, oil on composition board

The absence of prints, which is a major omission – is partially excused by the fact that James Mollison is currently preparing a comprehensive survey.

The first remarkable works in the NGA exhibition are the ground-breaking oils painted around Mittagong in the late 1950s, such as Landscape with steep road (1957-58). The show moves swiftly into the You Yangs series of 1961, where Williams started to explore territory that no other Australian artist had ever broached. Look for instance at You Yangs landscape and You Yang pond (both 1963), where the picture is built up from shifting, uneven slabs and touches of paint, vigorously applied.

Fred Williams, You Yang Pond, oil on composition board

By the end of the decade Williams had plunged into the proto-minimalism of the Lysterfield series and an even more reductive series called Australian Landscapes. In this extraordinary sequence we see the painter responding the dual stimuli of the landscape and the most recent developments in contemporary art. Throw in the influence of oriental art, and you have an idea of the underlying complexity of these deceptively simple works.

Given the power and originality of these first rooms, the show ends in an indecisive way, with a few large paintings from the Pilbara series and a host of diverse pictures that gives the very opposite impression to that conveyed by the 1987 show, which was subtitled: A Singular Vision. The current exhibition might well be called A Pluralist Vision.

This is a soft exit when it should have been a triumphant one. The Pilbara paintings are an obvious conclusion, because they show Williams engaging for almost the first time with the genuine outback instead of the fringes of suburbia. If there is something a little raw and undigested in these paintings, they convey a tantalising, slightly tragic sense of what Williams might have done, had he lived a normal life span.

There is no ‘late’ Williams style, because he died of lung cancer at the age of only 55 – a time when most painters are entering their prime. It is a career cut short, but still magnificent in the way he single-handedly revolutionised the way we look at the Australian landscape. Williams took the scrubby, featureless bush that had been so widely derided by colonial observers, and gave it sense of solidity that seems almost miraculous.

In order to paint the Australian landscape, artists such as Conrad Martens had to superimpose conventional picturesque frameworks. Von Guérard was a more dedicated observer, but he still sought a Romantic grandeur in his works. Williams, however, could stand in front of a dry, nondescript paddock and produce a painting that crackles with visual incident. He did it through a shrewd manipulation of colour and texture, and a sense of composition that could endow a scene with an almost subliminal sense of order. What looks random or abstract at first glance, becomes increasingly rigorous as one keeps looking.

This quality is present in his early forest pictures, painted near Colo Vale, and reaches a striking crescendo in the series that follow, where staccato dabs of paint create both mass and a sense of distance. What is most striking is the way Williams captured a distinctively Australian atmosphere. Looking at many of his works, we feel they could be painted nowhere else in the world.

While his qualities as an observer were second-to-none, Williams was also a highly knowledgeable painter. This is made clear in the parts of the catalogue that record his overseas travels, and his enthusiasm for everything from Greek sculpture to medieval stained glass. In the Louvre he was equally taken with Ingres and Delacroix, seen as the leaders of the Neo-Classical and Romantic schools. As a student in Melbourne he had dabbled with the opposing camps of George Bell School and Max Meldrum. He wanted to learn about everything, absorbing those elements that suited his temperament while discarding the dogma.

No Australian painter has been more single-minded, more devoted to his work, than Fred Williams. While Russell Drysdale could hardly be coaxed into the studio, Williams could not be parted from it. Few artists have known so much about the technical aspects of painting, or thought so hard about the way their work was developing. If the paintings continued to change over the course of three decades, it was because Williams could never feel satisfied with what he had already achieved. He was fiercely self-critical, and spent what he knew would be the last year of his life revising and editing his own back-catalogue.

Although this show tends to lose focus in the last sections, there are remarkable works in every room, including pieces such as a pale You Yangs Landscape (1963), that managed to be omitted from the 1987 show; and the four oils called Chalk Creek (1977), which were painted in a single day. Paintings such as Landscape with dry creek bed (1976) are full of subtleties: a black, spidery line creeping across a pale surface in a way that captures an ineffable sense of the bush.

This show will travel next year to Melbourne and Adelaide, but not to Sydney. It is well worth the trip to Canberra, especially in Spring, when the city is at its best. More than most artists, it is impossible to understand Fred Williams’s greatness from books and reproductions. Deborah Hart has written a long, detailed study, supplemented by an elegant essay by Sebastian Smee, but there is an inevitable monotony in reading about Williams’s career. All the action was in the actual painting, all the drama on the board or canvas.

This has led some with short attention spans to complain that Williams’s work – if not landscape in general – is boring. So it is, if you think that looking at paintings for more than a few seconds is a tiresome business. But for anyone with a modicum of sensitivity, a picture will soon let one know just how much or how little attention it requires. Williams’s work has the rare ability to stop us in our tracks, time and again. In an age of cheap sensation his paintings are a perpetual revelation.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 10, 2011

Fred Williams: Infinite Horizons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until 6 November

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 7 April – 22 July 2012

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 31 August – 4 November 2012