The Field Revisited

May 25, 2018
Sydney Ball, 'Ispahan' (1967)

No exhibition of Australian art has been more mythologised than The Field. Indeed, its only historical competition might be the 9 by 5 Impression exhibition of 1889, in which artists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton scandalised Melbourne by calling themselves “Impressionists”.

The Field proved equally controversial when it launched the new St.Kilda Road premises of the National Gallery of Victoria in April 1968. To complement Roy Grounds’s modernist architecture the NGV decided to host a survey of abstract art by new, up-and-coming artists. More than half of the 34 participants were 30 years old or younger. Robert Hunter was only 21, and John Peart, 23.

It was this emphasis on youth, as much as the ‘cutting-edge’ nature of the show that raised hackles. The big names of Australian art at the time were figures such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Russell Drysdale. The Archibald Prize that year went to Bill Pidgeon for a very conventional portrait of Lloyd Rees.

It was the year that Paris almost had a revolution; when protests raged against the Vietnam War; when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. It was a time of change and turbulence, and the NGV seemed to be going with the flow. Many believed that for its opening exhibition the gallery should have respected the hierarchies and stuck with well-established artists.

To make matters worse the Hard-Edge, Colour Field and Minimalist works on display were widely considered to be mere knock-offs of the latest trends in American art. Instead of honouring with those artists who said something meaningful about Australian identity the NGV had embraced a freewheeling internationalism.

Ron Robertson-Swann, 'Start' (1965)

Ron Robertson-Swann, ‘Start’ (1965)

Critics such as Allan McCulloch hoped it would prove to be an ephemeral gesture because the alternative was apocalyptic: “a serious threat” to the spirit of Australian painting. The show’s defenders such as Patrick McCaughey, who wrote one of the catalogue essays, saw new beginnings and fresh energy.

Fifty years on the NGV has made a magnificent attempt to reconstruct The Field, missing only 15 (out of 74) works that have been lost or destroyed. These absences are identified by black-and-white ‘ghost’ images, made to the same scale and hung in the same locations. Even the exhibition design is a facsmile of the original show, with the walls covered in silver foil. Curator, John Stringer, got the idea from a visit to Andy Warhol’s Factory studio in New York.

As for the catalogue, which set a new standard for slick design, it is reproduced in its entirety, bundled into a plastic sleeve with a contemporary catalogue of identical proportions. A brilliant idea!

The Field Revisited is a powerful exercise in nostalgia, even for someone like me who was too young to see the original show but became closely acquainted with many of the featured artists. Yet perhaps there’s more to this project than cosy memories. The curator, Beckett Rozentals, still on the nether side of 40, told me that when she looked at the exhibition she was struck by how “contemporary” it seemed.

It’s true. The Field Revisited demonstrates that everything old is new again. The half-century that has passed since the first showing has taken the controversy out of the exhibition. We can see that abstract art did not pose a threat to civilisation, or even other forms of art. We know that many of the young tyros in The Field would go on to be major figures.

After 50 years the hits and the misses are clearly visible. We can look back on entire careers with the knowledge of all the twists and turns that would take place. Syd Ball, for instance, represented by a Colourfield works such as Ispahan (1967) would go on to paint lyrical abstractions, and even a series of primitivist figurative paintings, before returning to a modified form of Colour Field.

Michael Johnson, represented by modular works with colour-saturated planes, such as Frontal 2 (1968), would paint in a more expressive manner, using thick skeins of oil. Yet he too, has recently returned to a flat, schematic style. What remains constant thoughout Johnson’s career is his unique understanding of colour.

John Peart, 'Corner Square Diagonal' (1968)

John Peart, ‘Corner Square Diagonal’ (1968)

When we come to an artist such as John Peart, the ethereal, pale blue minimalism of The Field was only a prelude to one of the most rigorously experimental bodies of work in all Australian art. To the very end Peart was reinventing himself as an artist and doing it with exceptional boldness. To this day he remains criminally underrated, partly because he was never interested in pushing himself forward.

The same might be said of Paul Partos, another artist whose complete oeuvre is due for reassessment, charting his evolution from flat, conceptually oriented picture-making to works that revealed a tremendous love of texture and colour.

Paul Partos, 'Vesta II' (1968)

Paul Partos, ‘Vesta II’ (1968)

Ron Robertson-Swann is arguably the senior sculptor at work in Australia today but he was represented in The Field by two flat, geometrical colour paintings. Robertson-Swann has often been typecast as a sculptor who dabbles in painting, but these works have a confidence and directness that sets them apart from many works that seem to be trying too hard for effect.

The most consistent artist over the longest time span is undoubtedly Robert Hunter, who is the subject of a retrospective that coincides with The Field Revisited. Hunter’s focus was on almost purely white paintings in which the smallest nuances of colour or the ridges of paint that defined a near-monochrome composition, took on a disproportionate significance.

The artist who made the most radical about-face was probably Tony Coleing, whose purely abstract sculptures would give way to scabrous political protest and satire. It was as if the formalism of one era led to an extreme reaction in the next.

Today it seems outrageous that only three women were included in The Field. Even at the time it was a poor effort, although male abstractionists certainly outnumbered females. The most prominent was Janet Dawson, whose Rollascape 2 (1968) still looks incredibly fresh. Dawson’s flat, abstract colour works were only a small component of a long career spent painting and drawing in a more traditional manner, with supreme indifference to the changing trends of contemporary art.

Janet Dawson, 'Rollascape 2' (1968)

Janet Dawson, ‘Rollascape 2’ (1968)

The saddest aspect of The Field Revisited is that so few of the artists are still around to see the show, with the list of casualties extending to the curators, John Stringer and Brian Finemore. I thought the most recent loss had been Alun Leach-Jones, who died on Christmas Eve last year, but apparently Michael Nicholson has just died, in Wellington, at the age of 102.

It makes one conscious of the need for more retrospectives of this generation, as too many have disappeared without the pleasure of seeing their life’s work surveyed and celebrated by a major institution. The young unknowns who stole the show in 1968 are no longer a potential threat to Australian cultural identity. As elder statesmen it’s time we showed them a little respect.

The Field Revisited
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
27 April – 26 August, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May, 2018