When it opened in 1968, Melbourne’s National Gallery Victoria made a bold choice for its first exhibition; weird, curious, cutting edge art from a group of young, unknown artists. Welcome to ‘The Field’ show.
Abstract art dates to the first decade of the 20th century.
Abstractionism stood at the end of a century of artistic evolution, where artists had made their works less focussed on representing things (people, places etc), and more about ideas and emotions. Art had become less about technical precision, and more about the thinking behind the artwork.
The first abstract artist was Wasily Kandinksy, a Russian born painter and amateur mystic, who based himself in Vienna.
From around 1909, Kandinsky began producing bold, colourful paintings that had no subject, but were instead a mass of colourful blobs and circles, or, later, intricately detailed patterns of shapes and chevrons (a fuller breakdown of the origins of abstract art can be found here).
These experimental works were met with puzzlement, hostility, confusion…. But also excitement. Here was something new!
Abstract art continues to engender these responses to this day.
By the 1940’s, Abstract art began to manifest itself in a new style, that was called ‘Colour Field’ painting.
The chief exponent was Mark Rothko, a Latvian born American painter who produced giant artworks, metres wide, that consisted of large slabs of colour. While, at first glance, Rothko’s paintings appear almost childishly simplistic, 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
The size and simplicity of his works were a deliberate choice. Rothko hoped people would get ‘lost’ in his paintings, lose their bearings, break down. He described creating them as a ‘religious’ experience, one he wanted to share.
Rothko’s paintings were, and are, controversial. They are often Exhibit A when it comes to a discussion of modern art’s shortcomings; people say ‘Anyone could make this!’, and, ‘It’s just a big red square!’
Whatever your take, Rothko’s Colour Field paintings were wildly successful.
And success breeds imitation.
The National Gallery of Victoria has a long history.
It was founded in 1861, in the wake of the gold rush, as Melbourne was flush with cash. The collection had a modest start, as the State Government purchased some plaster sculptures of local identities. Paintings were gradually acquired, conservative landscapes and portraits to start, and the works housed in a wing of the State library.
From the 1870’s on, there were long-standing plans to build a dedicated home for the gallery to occupy. These were stalled by a variety of factors, and it was not until 1959, nearly a hundred years after the gallery’s founding, that the State Government would purchase a site.
They chose the former location of ‘Wirth’s Circus’, a local amusement park that had recently burnt to the ground, leaving a chunk of prime real estate just south of the Yarra.
Architect Roy Grounds was commissioned to draw up the plans, and construction work began in 1963. The new gallery was completed in December 1967.
Colour Field painting had resonated in Australia, alongside a more general 1960s theme of experimentation in art.
Young abstract artists such as Sydney Ball, Robert Jacks, Janet Dawson and Michael Johnson had adopted the style, and had staged successful solo shows.
Looking for something bold, and different, for the NGV’s first public exhibition, gallery curators Brian Finemore and John Stringer decided on a collection of abstract works from this younger generation. Colour Field painting would feature most prominently – and would provide the name of the show, ‘The Field’ – but other types of abstractionist art, and non-figurative sculpture, would also be included.
The 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 1000 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 an NGV Director himself, Patrick McCaughey was also in attendance:
‘The opening of The Field was something of an anticlimax.
Most observers and commentators received Roy Grounds' bluestone Kremlin of St Kilda Road coolly. The Temporary Exhibitions Gallery where The Field 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
Despite his misgivings, McCaughey still contributed a positive article to the show’s catalogue.
But naturally, the show’s subject matter courted controversy.
It was reported later that two of the more conventional artists in attendance, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh, both stormed out, horrified by what was on display.
And prominent local critic Alan McCullouch, writing in The Herald, went so far as to claim the show could damage the entire local art 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 negative initial reaction, the show was successful.
Motivated by curiosity, as much as anything else, crowds turned out in large numbers to check out the new NGV building, and its provocative new show.
Whatever the exhibition’s shortcoming, it did also break new ground in Australian art, and would create further opportunities for young artists, and new styles of artistic expression.
'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
To mark ‘The Field’ show’s 50th anniversary, the NGV Australia is currently re-staging the entire exhibition, at the Ian Potter Gallery.
Well… almost the entire exhibition. 14 of the artworks have been lost in the ensuing five decades.
And the giant-sized ‘Untitled (violet yellow)’, by Normana Wight, was destroyed by the artist after the original exhibition ended.
With nowhere to store such a large work, she simply hacked it into pieces, and carted it off to the Prahran dump.