Five Decades at Watters Gallery

September 27, 2014
Richard Larter, 'Pause for thought' (detail) (1973)
Richard Larter, 'Pause for thought' (detail) (1973)

On 18 November Watters Gallery will be celebrating its 50th birthday. This is an amazing achievement in a field in which most players never make it through a decade. Commercial art galleries are the economic equivalents of the canary in the coal mine – being the first to suffer in times of recession as people refrain from buying ‘luxury items’ such as paintings. Neither is there any guarantee of a magic resurrection when business conditions return to normal.

Gallery director, Frank Watters, who turns 80 this year, began his own working life in a mine in Muswellbrook. Like D.H. Lawrence, with whom he shares only a beard, Frank was rescued from the coal fields by the lure of art. In his late 20s he moved to Sydney and secured a job as a gallery assistant with Barry Stern, the first dealer to open in Paddington. In the house next door lived Geoffrey Legge, accountant and budding art enthusiast, who suggested that he and Frank open a gallery.

Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, c.1974. Photograph Gerrit Fokkema, courtesy Watters Gallery

Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, c.1974. Photograph Gerrit Fokkema, courtesy Watters Gallery

Three days after that gallery opened, Geoffrey married Alex. Five decades later, Frank, Geoffrey and Alex are still the directors of Watters Gallery, having survived bouts of ill health, personal tragedy, and every other form of crisis.

They have outlived most of their important artists, and seen off a ‘who’s who’ of ambitious figures that got their first break with Watters before moving on to more fashionable locales.

The status of Watters Gallery as one of Sydney’s cultural landmarks is being celebrated by an exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery. The only flaw in this arrangement is that the show should have been at the Art Gallery of NSW, where it could have been much bigger and given the benefit of a well-researched catalogue.

For too long the S.H. Ervin, perpetually starved of funds, has been obliged to hold the important surveys and retrospectives the AGNSW has neglected. This was the case under Edmund Capon’s directorship, and the situation has deteriorated further under Michael Brand. With management preoccupied with its “Sydney Modern” fantasy, and morale at rock bottom, there is no reason to believe the AGNSW has any immediate intention of addressing its grass-roots responsibilities to the Sydney art community.

You’ll be reading plenty more about the problems at the AGNSW that only seem to be growing, so I won’t waste any more column space. The Watters show is a reminder that private enterprises are not always more venal, more self-interested or opportunistic than public institutions. For 50 years Watters has been a model of ethical behaviour. The directors have never failed to pay their stable promptly, and have supported poor selling, unproductive artists in whom they still believed. That loyalty has been reciprocated by those who have exhibited with Watters throughout their entire careers, despite the usual temptations to stray.

It’s been said that Watters Gallery is a family rather than a business, or that its relationship with its artists is more therapeutic than commercial. Although such things are usually pronounced with a sneer, there is nothing in the Watters attitude that deserves mockery. In an art scene riddled with opportunists Frank Watters is our local Diogenes.

One of the famous stories of Diogenes concerns his meeting with Alexander the Great, who asked if he could do anything for the philosopher. “Yes,” came the reply, “move to the side. You’re standing in my sunlight.”

This is reputedly close to Frank’s attitude to all attempts to turn the gallery’s 50th anniversary into a major event.

John McPhee has written a useful 3,000-word essay to accompany this show, but the Watters story deserves a proper book, putting the gallery’s achievements into perspective. The expanded story would reveal a gallery that has been in the forefront of avant-garde art in Sydney for most of its lifetime. Not only did Watters pioneer exhibitions of Conceptual and Minimal art, it provided a forum for political poster-makers, and for shows that addressed issues of social justice.

Few of these events had much commercial potential, but that hardly seemed to matter. It’s well known that for the first ten years the gallery never made a profit, being supported by a sturdy pair of Legges who didn’t give up their day jobs.

In 1990, the next generation of Legges, Jasper and Zoe, were launched into business as a more contemporary off-shoot of Watters. The Legge Gallery developed its own stable of artists and existed until 2009, when it was incorporated into the parent gallery. It seemed that Jasper was the Watters heir apparent, until his sudden death in 2010 rocked the entire Sydney art community. Jasper Legge was also a painter who was just beginning to find a voice, as proven by a single, tantalising work in the S.H. Ervin show.

Jasper Legge's 'Untitled'

Jasper Legge’s ‘Untitled’

Despite the merging of galleries, today most of the cool, cutting-edge stuff is found at other venues. None, however, have the toughness or variety of Watters in its heyday.

Some of that excitement is captured in the S.H. Ervin survey, which brings together a selection of works by the Watters mainstays, and a few surprises. There is, for instance, an early abstract painting by Ann Thomson; one of Syd Ball’s hard-edge Canto series, and a striking geometric piece by Helen Eager. The very first show in 1964 opened with Margo Lewers, who is represented by a large, sombre abstraction that feels like a time capsule from another era.

Helen Eager's 'NY Series'

Helen Eager’s ‘NY Series’

The artists one thinks of most readily in association with Watters are Tony Tuckson, Robert Klippel, Richard Larter, James Gleeson, John Peart, Ken Whisson, Vicky Varvaressos and Euan Macleod. With the recent death of Dick Larter and last year’s sudden, tragic loss of John Peart, the book is closed on the first five names on this list. Other long-term artists include Paul Selwood, Ron Lambert, Frank Littler, Ruth Waller, Ken Searle, Ian Howard, Chris O’Doherty (AKA. Reg Mombassa), and Frank’s brother, Max Watters. The full list of artists who have exhibited at the gallery would take up this entire column.

This show is really an impossible exercise because it seems futile to try and represent an artist such as Tony Tuckson with only two paintings, even one as magisterial as TP 72 (1970-73), a diptych featuring bold, white vertical lines against a field of blue. John Peart presents another source of frustration, because of his constant willingness to experiment. His major work in this show is Golden (1973-74) a lyrical abstraction gifted to the Art Gallery of NSW by Patrick White but very seldom shown. The retrospective that must come along, sooner or later, will reveal Peart as one of the most inventive – and underrated – figures in modern Australian art.

There is a pathos in seeing Richard Larter’s work in this display when he narrowly missed being around for the opening. Perhaps only Martin Sharp could rival Larter’s status as Australia’s leading Pop artist. Unlike Sharp, Larter was incredibly prolific, turning out a painting a day for much of his career in both figurative and abstract styles. His pictures were uninhibited, crammed with sexual and political references, mixing imagery in the most promiscuous fashion.

Pause for thought (1973) is a good choice for this selection, featuring six rows of seven portraits of wife and muse, Pat Larter, who provided Dick with a continuous source of subject matter until her death in 1996. As usual there is a quasi-pornographic aspect to these portraits, which show Pat with her mouth wide open or making suggestive movements with her tongue.

I can’t pretend to be objective with this anniversary survey because Watters Gallery has been such a positive force in Australian art that it deserves a rousing celebration. It has been the one permanent fixture in a Sydney art scene that has waxed and waned with the local economy. It has moved with the times, but held fast to its principles and ideals. For 50 years it has been a place where all visitors were welcomed without a trace of hard sell. Over that time some of the gallery’s most dedicated clients have formed enormous, valuable collections by focusing on the same few artists.

As Frank, Geoffrey and Alex have demonstrated, art is a long game requiring skill, patience and integrity. May they continue to prosper.

Five Decades at Watters Gallery
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 2 November 2014

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 27th September, 2014