Nineteen sixty-eight was a tumultuous year across the globe. It was the year American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr’s dream of blacks and whites co-existing harmoniously ended when he was assassinated in Memphis. Presidential nominee Robert Kennedy met the same fate, gunned down in Los Angeles. The conflict in Vietnam escalated and opposition to the war reverberated around the world. Student riots in Paris almost brought down the French Presidency and the Soviet Union rolled tanks into Prague, ending a brief period of political liberalisation in Czechoslovakia.
In Australia, 1968 heralded the end of a three-year drought and a buoyant economy saw an increase in the standard of living of many Australians. The local art scene was also in the ascendancy, with the acceptance of its established artists at an international level particularly in the United Kingdom. In Sydney and Melbourne new commercial galleries were opening, dedicated to ‘avant-garde’ tendencies in art. However, it was the grand opening of the National Gallery of Victoria’s new quarters on St Kilda Road in August 1968, which signalled a fresh enterprise.
The inaugural exhibition, The Field, was an entirely new venture for the museum. It presented the most recent trend in Australian contemporary art, the practice of one particular direction of abstract painting which was sweeping both Australia and the world, which the American art critic Clement Greenberg had coined ‘Post-painterly abstraction’. Greenberg proposed that this new movement lifted colour rather than paint as the pinnacle element of expression and principle carrier of meaning.
The Field, when it opened in Melbourne in 1968, featured 74 paintings, sculptures and conceptual works by 40 artists: the youngest participant Robert Hunter, was only 21, the eldest, Michael Nicholson was 52, and at least 16 of the artists were under 30.
Reaction to the exhibition was mixed: lauded by some, reproached by many. Its artists did not adhere to the accepted English/European modernist tradition, but aligned themselves with Anglo-American artists working in New York, Los Angeles and Washington at the time.
Tackling THE FIELD will explore, through six works in the Gallery’s collection, the impact of The Field exhibition upon artistic practice in Australia in a period which would threaten the “death of painting” altogether. The artists represented are James Doolin, Michael Johnson, Paul Partos, John Peart, Ron Robertson-Swann and Dick Watkins.
Exhibition Talk with the curator, Natalie Wilson: 16 September, 2009 at 5.30pm
Tackling THE FIELD is part of the Australian Collection Focus Room series of exhibitions.