The first exhibition at the NGV presented provocative modern art from a group of mostly unknown artists. Welcome to ‘The Field Show.
Abstract art dates to the first decade of the 20th century.
Before this, art had largely concerned itself with the depiction of tangible things: people and places. The modern art era, beginning in the mid 1800s, began to shift the focus away from this, from technical precision to ideas and emotions.
Abstractionism took this a step further.
The first abstract artist was Wasily Kandinksy, a Russian born painter and amateur mystic, based in Vienna. From 1909, Kandinsky began producing unusual paintings that had no subject; instead of people and places, there were patterns, shapes, and splotches of colour (read more about the origins of abstract art, here).
The meaning of the paintings was open to interpretation, something to puzzle over. They were initially met with puzzlement, hostility, and confusion; but they were also boldly original, and inspiring to other artists.
Kandinsky had set a new style of art in motion.
Abstract art evolved into different schools over time. In the 1940s, one manifestation was known as ‘Colour Field’ painting, a type of art known as Abstract Expressionism.
The most famous exponent was Mark Rothko.
Rothko was a Latvian born American painter who produced large scale artworks, consisting of nothing more than blocks of colour. At first glance Rothko’s paintings appear almost childishly simplistic, but his goal was ambitious:
‘I am interested in expressing basic human emotions; tragedy, ecstasy, doom. If you are only seeing the colour relationships, you are missing the point.’
- Mark Rothko
It was all about provoking an emotional response, in the viewer.
The size and simplicity of his works were a deliberate choice. Rothko hoped people would get ‘lost’ in his paintings, be overwhelmed by the colours. He described creating them as a ‘religious’ experience, which he wanted to share.
Rothko’s paintings were, and are, controversial. Depending on your perspective, they are either the work of a genius, or a handful of rectangles, that could have been created by anyone.
They were also wildly successful, and other artists followed Rothko's approach.
The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) stands on St Kilda Road, immediately south of the Melbourne CBD.
Previously, the collection had been housed in the State Library, but as it grew a purpose built gallery became necessary. In 1959 the State Government purchased the former location of ‘Wirth’s Circus’, a local amusement park that had burnt down, as the location (read more about the remarkable history of Wirth's Circus, here).
Architect Roy Grounds drew up plans for the gallery. His design was modern in its simplicity, and was to be built from traditional bluestone, to provide a link to the city's past.
Construction work began in 1963, and was completed four years later. The gallery's first exhibition was set for August 1968.
The first NGV Exhibition was the responsibility of gallery curators Brian Finemore and John Stringer. Looking for something that would generate public interest, and publicity, they decided to focus on abstract works, created largely by younger artists.
Colour Field painting would feature most prominently, and would provide the name of the show: ‘The Field’. But other types of abstract painting, and non-figurative sculpture, would also be included.
Colour Field painting had resonated in Australia through the 1960s, as local artists looked to experiment. Young abstract artists such as Sydney Ball, Robert Jacks, Janet Dawson and Michael Johnson had adopted the style, and had staged successful solo shows.
The Field Show would showcase their works, and those of their contemporaries. It would prove to be a provocative challenge to the established order.
The Field Show opened in April, 1968, and featured 74 works from 40 artists. Nearly all were under 30, and not widely known outside of an eclectic circle.
A lavish gala was held for opening night. Among the 1 000 guests were the participating artists, local and international art critics, members of the previous, older generation of Australian artists, and Sir Norman Reid, the director of London’s famous Tate Gallery.
Then art critic, and later NGV Director, Patrick McCaughey was in attendance, and noted the muted response:
‘Most observers and commentators received Roy Grounds' bluestone Kremlin of St Kilda Road coolly. The Temporary Exhibitions Gallery where The Field Show was hung was a long, hangar-like space that threatened to overwhelm the works.
The show had the look of a talented end-of-year art school show.’
- Patrick McCaughey
Although McCaughey was positive about the artworks themselves, and had contributed an article to the show's catalogue.
Other attendees were less impressed. It was reported later two of the established artists in attendance, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh, legends of Australian painting, had both stormed out, horrified by what was on display.
Australian art had traditionally focussed on capturing the dramatic local landscapes, here was something quite different.
Critic Alan McCullouch, writing in 'The Herald', went so far as to claim the show could damage the entire local scene:
'What if it represents an overture to a continuous program of similar shows?
It then represents not just an ephemeral gesture, but a serious threat to the emerging creative spirit and identity of Australian painting.'
- Alan McCulloch, review in 'The Herald'
Despite the largely negative reviews, the show was successful. The hyperbole may even have helped attendance, as large crowds turned out to see the new gallery, and its provocative exhibition.
The Field Show was later seen as an important milestone:
'The legacy of the exhibition is seen through the recognition of the art gallery as a place where expectations can be challenged, rather than where the familiar is confirmed.'
- Beckett Rozenthal, former NGV Curator
Many of the artists on display would go on to successful careers, and the NGV had established itself as an exciting new participant in Australian art.
In 2018, to mark The Field Show’s 50th anniversary, the NGV re-staged the entire exhibition.
Most of the artworks were re-sourced, and effort was made to mimic the original staging that McCaughey had been non-plussed by. Although not every piece could be displayed again; 14 of the artworks had been lost in the ensuing five decades.
A card at the exhibit told the particular fate of the giant-sized ‘Untitled (violet yellow)’, by Normana Wight.
Once the original Field Show had ended, the painting had been returned to Wight. With nowhere to store such a large work, she had simply hacked it into pieces, and carted it off to the Prahran dump.