Sydney Ball 1933-2017

March 10, 2017
Sydney Ball, 2014. Image courtesy of Sullivan+Strumpf.
Sydney Ball, 2014. Image courtesy of Sullivan+Strumpf.

Sydney Ball spent much of his career as a painter riding the waves of the avant-garde. Over the decades he had over 70 solo exhibitions, embracing Hard-Edge, Colourfield, Lyrical Abstraction, and even New Figuration, before returning to high-keyed modular abstract paintings in his final years.

As the eye of advanced taste – or if you prefer, “fashion” – started to wander, it required well-honed instincts to know when it was time to move on. No-one in Australian art had better instincts than Syd Ball, at least until the 1990s, when he spent time travelling and working in Asia, allowing his local profile to fade.

Ball made a triumphant return to the spotlight in the mid-2000s, through an association with youthful Sydney art dealers, Sullivan + Strumpf. Works that seemed old hat only a few years ago, miraculously regained their cutting-edge. During this period survey exhibitions of The Stain Paintings 1971-80 (2006), and The Colour Paintings, 1963-2007 (2008), did much to reawaken interest in his work among a new generation of artists, curators and collectors. He leaves us restored to his eminence, as one the coolest painters around.

Ball was born in Adelaide in 1933, and would remain in South Australia until 1962, studying part-time with artists such as James Cant, Dora Chapman and John Dowie. When he had saved enough to make his escape, Ball rejected the worn-out path to London and Paris, and set sail for New York. He was one of a wave of emerging Australian artists who recognised the city as the new capital of world art, where Modernism was entering its final heroic phase.

Ball studied at the Art Students League, under Abstract Expressionist, Theodoros Stamos, and soon came in contact with figures such as Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Robert Motherwell. It was a very long way from the Royal South Australian Art Society, where he had exhibited in the late 1950s. In this stimulating environment Ball painted the first of his Cantos, a series of geometric abstractions that set bars of colour within a circle, itself set within the square of the canvas. He held a solo exhibition at a New York gallery, and made his first institutional sale to the Aldrich Museum of Art, Connecticut.

Ball returned to Australia in 1965, stopping over in Japan. His New York success had earned him an exhibition at John Reed’s Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, who hailed him as the first Australian artist to work in the “Hard-Edge” manner. Over the next few years Ball would build a reputation as one of the most dynamic and progressive of Australian painters, even though his ‘international style’ generated many hostile reviews.

He had the support of art critic, Patrick McCaughey, who wielded an influence in Melbourne that few reviewers have ever matched. Ball and McCaughey were both dedicated readers of New York critic, Clement Greenberg, and subscribed to the idea that contemporary art had to throw off the age-old burdens of resemblance and illusion and become rigorously abstract.

In 1966 Ball followed up the Cantos with his Persians series, which featured large, simple coloured forms that echoed details in Islamic art and architecture. Three Persians would be included in The Field (1968) the landmark survey of Australian abstract art that launched the National Gallery of Victoria’s new headquarters on St. Kilda Road.

By 1969 Ball was back in New York, where he got to know Greenberg and a new group of would-be geniuses – Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Jack Bush. By now Ball was so far inside the New York art scene that he was asked to help clean up Mark Rothko’s studio after the painter’s suicide. Under Greenberg’s influence, Ball’s own work was becoming more free and open. The masking tape was gone, and paint was being splashed onto the canvas.

Ball returned to Australia in 1971 after breaking up with his artist wife, Margaret Worth. He brought the Stain paintings with him and swiftly reassumed his position as one of Australia’s leading painters. A highlight was his inclusion in the show, Ten Australians, selected by Patrick McCaughey, which toured to six venues in Europe during 1974.

In 1976 Ball bought a block of land in Glemorie, where he lived with his partner, artist Lynne Eastaway. By 1983 this block would hold a house designed by Glenn Murcutt, which would remain Ball’s permanent base in Australia.

Throughout the 1980s Ball would spend an increasing amount of time in India, China, Tibet and South Korea. His work developed a new figurative emphasis, incorporating tribal figures and expressionist brushwork. It was probably not coincidental that abstract art had been temporarily eclipsed by a global emphasis on representational painting. Ball appeared to meet the fashions half-way, never quite relinquishing his love of abstraction.

Although he continued to exhibit in a range of abstract or semi-abstract styles, in his later years Ball became more devoted to his private interests such as Asian art and Modernist architecture. Many would have declared him a spent force, but not Sullivan + Strumpf, who needed a big-name artist for their new Sydney gallery. It proved to be a fruitful alliance, with Ball responding positively to the enthusiasm of his dealers.

Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf passed on that enthusiasm to their clients, and Ball experienced the satisfaction of watching works criticised in the 1960s and 70s, being reassessed as indisputable classics. In 2013 he donated 30 major works to the Samstag Museum of Art at the University of South Australia.

The key to the renewed appeal of Ball’s work was his faith in the power of colour. Whether applied in straight lines, wavy chevrons, or furious splashes, Ball’s colours were always incredibly bold. It is only during his brief flirtation with figuration that his tonal schemes grew more conservative. From the Cantos of the 1960s to the jazzy Chromix Lumina paintings of 2015-16, one can feel the sheer pleasure Ball takes in the use of colour. This may have been a problem when the world of taste went through a beige or a black period, but such exhuberance cannot be denied forever.

Now that nobody honestly believes that art is progressing in a single direction, we are less inclined to view works in terms of movements and underlying ideology. This means we can remember Syd Ball, not as a dogged disciple of the New York School, but as a painter-poet who believed that everything he needed to say could be said with pure colour.

Syd Ball died on Sunday evening, after suffering a stroke on the previous Friday. On the Saturday he was reputedly in good spirits and making plans for the future, but his condition deteriorated overnight. He is survived by his long-term partner, Lynne Eastaway.