Tony Tuckson: The Abstract Sublime

January 11, 2019
Tony Tuckson, 'White lines (vertical) on ultramarine ' (TP73)

In a review of Tony Tuckson’s second and final solo exhibition, held at Watters Gallery in April, 1973, James Gleeson spoke of a “rare, wild energy that is without parallel in Australian painting.” Four decades later that claim still holds true. Over the years there have been plenty of artists who qualify as ‘Abstract Expressionists’ but none have matched Tuckson in the frenzied quality of his brushwork or his willingness to take risks.

Even today this work poses severe challenges to the average gallery-goer. Visiting Tony Tuckson: The Abstract Sublime at the Art Gallery of NSW, I was struck by the number of people who merely put their head into a room, took a quick look, and departed for another exhibition. It may be the apparent rawness of these works that viewers find disturbing, or perhaps it’s the minimal nature of those pieces that consist of nothing more than a few lines on a blank surface.

Tony Tuckson, ‘Untitled- yellow’

For Tuckson it must have been scary but also thrilling to make a painting such as Untitled (1970-73) (TP209d) which consists of a single broken line of white on a piece of bare hardboard. One traces the movement of the brush from the bottom right-hand corner to the top, where it slides over to the left, and drops, snapping in two, helpless to resist the force of gravity.

One imagines Tuckson standing back from this work, wondering: “Is that enough? Do I dare leave it like that?” It’s a process that must have been repeated on countless occasions, as he experimented with different ways of laying on paint, different marks and gestures.

The idea that Tuckson represents an “abstract sublime” is slightly unsatisfactory, because that unnerving sense of ‘boundlesslessness’ we associate with the sublime, as found in Mark Rothko’s paintings, is certainly not present in Tuckson’s more gestural works. The late pieces featuring tremulous sheets of colour have a better claim to the title than anything he painted before 1970.

Tuckson’s work is the very antithesis of the “comfortable armchair” Matisse took as his model for painting. His pictures are never seductive or comforting – from one room to the next we feel his agitation and excitement. Every painting, even the simplest, has been the result of a tremendous struggle in which pain and pleasure were inextricably linked.

Many artists feel the studio is a place of torture from which they are unable to stay away. Any amount of suffering is justified by the feelings of exhilaration that arise in the heat of creativity. A neurologist might provide a convincing chemical explanation for what takes place in the brain. Tuckson was an extreme case.

Tony Tuckson, ‘Four Uprights Red and Black’ (1965)

The artist’s first solo exhibition took place in 1970 when he was 48 years old; the second in 1973. Six months later Tuckson was diagnosed with cancer and would die within four weeks.

Tuckson was no late starter, only late in revealing his talents. In 1950 he started work as an attendant at the Art Gallery of NSW, taking a mere two months to progress to the role of assistant director. When he was confirmed as deputy to Hal Missingham, Tuckson felt it would have been a conflict of interests to compete with other artists for sales. For more than 20 years he was Sydney’s most enthusiastic Sunday painter, working in the evening and on weekends.

When he had finally decided to step down from the deputy’s job, Tuckson worked up the courage to ask dealers, Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, to look at his work. They were unprepared for what they found: many hundreds of paintings and thousands of works of paper, exploring a range of modernist idioms, culminating in the most uncompromising abstractions. Tuckson went from being a secret painter to an overnight sensation.

It’s partly our own fixation on young achievers that makes Tuckson’s emergence seem so tardy. Willem de Kooning’s first solo exhibition came at the age of 46, and plenty of similar examples could be found. The novelty was that someone who had been known chiefly as an art bureaucrat might throw off his disguise and emerge as a fully-formed artist.

If there is a downside to this survey of Tuckson’s abstract works it’s that we’re only seeing half of his career. A vast body of figurative paintings preceded his breakthough into abstraction, and by omitting those pictures we get no sense of his gradual evolution. It might also be argued that this show will forestall the possibility of a full-scale retrospective for many years to come.

As it stands, the survey is almost bursting with work, from the small, colourful exercises of the early 1950s, through to the scribbly paintings of the 1950s-60s; the red, black and white pictures that would absorb his energies for over a decade; and the large-scale paintings on hardboard, such as White lines (vertical) on ultramarine (TP73) (1970-73) that form the culmination of his career.

Tuckson’s premature death leaves us wondering where he might have gone next. Always willing to push the boundaries, he had already taken this form of abstract expressionism close to the limits. Would he have gone back to figuration? It’s an unanswerable question.

Tony Tuckson, ‘White over red on blue’ (c.1971)

The AGNSW has honoured its fomer deputy by devoting half of the catalogue to Tuckson’s career at the gallery, and his ground-breaking achievements in establishing a collection of Aboriginal art. This is more than just a supplement to his artistic work because Tuckson drew tremendous inspiration from the poles and bark paintings he saw in Arnhem Land. Indeed, it’s the unique blend of influences, from the European and American avant-gardes to indigenous art that distinguishes Tuckson’s painting from that of his peers, both at home and abroad.

Incidentally, for the first time in at least six years the AGNSW currently has a number of significant exhibitions running simultaneously, each with its own catalogue. Things are looking up!

I only wish curator, Denise Mimmocchi, had resisted spoiling her own good work by disfiguring her essay with that dreadful word: “practice”. Not only does it makes the artist sound like a dentist, it’s often completely redundant. On page 29 Mimmocchi says it five times. On page 65, Leanne Santoro gives us another five. Even in his brief foreword, director Michael Brand has three ‘practices’. Far from making things perfect this ‘practice’ is a pestilence that debiltates sentences.

Putting these grumbles aside it’s to be hoped that audiences give Tuckson some serious attention because it’s rare to see painting of such intensity. If, like Keats, you believe that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, you’ll be ravished by the sheer honesty of this work.

Tuckson: The Abstract Sublime
Art Gallery of NSW, 17 November, 2018 – 17 February, 2019

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 January, 2019