BY ANY MEASURE - RESILIENCE, COMMERCIAL SUCCESS, CONSISTENCY, CONTENTMENT - THIS 76-YEAR-OLD PAINTS QUITE THE PORTRAIT.
Now 76, Done’s created not just an immense body of work spanning some four decades and 50 solo exhibitions, but a place among Australia’s most iconic artists. Along the way he’s also picked up countless awards, fellowships, and even an Order of Australia. Not that he’s one to buy into his own legacy. After all, this is a man who decided to go to art school at 14 because he heard it was one of the few places a kid his age could see a naked woman. “Yeah, it’s true... And I somehow convinced my parents to let me leave school after the equivalent of year 10 and go to art school. The idea that there was a place you could draw and paint all day – that was just delicious.” Done initially graduated into advertising, working in New York and London before moving back to Sydney with his wife, Judy, whom he married in 1965. It wasn’t until the age of 40 that he set up his own business creating and selling art. “I had a family and a mortgage so the second part of my business – the ‘making a living’ aspect – was as important as the first,” he says. “As far as the work itself was concerned, I wanted it to be a celebration of the city’s beauty, my blatant love of the place and Australia in general. Most of my work tends to be optimistic.” Which, as it turns out, doesn’t quite gel with the art establishment. Glenn Barkley, senior curator at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art from 2008 to 2014, says, “The ‘art world’ tends to emphasise politics and pain over things like joy and hedonism. It’s also good at turning on anyone who is successful. But just because something has sheer visual appeal doesn’t exclude [Done’s] work from being an intellectual exercise and deeply thought.” Barkley cites Done’s 2012 series ‘Attack’, which commemorated 70 years since Japanese midget submarines snuck into Sydney Harbour, as an example of the artist’s varied subject matter. “I think younger artists don’t have the same anxiety about moving between the creative worlds of fashion and art and the idea of an artist as brand – I think that’s why Ken is being looked at afresh and held in high regard by younger creative people.” As for Done, he’s happy to turn left when hopping onto a long-haul flight. “It’s perfectly all right for artists not to have to starve in the garage – sitting in the front of the plane is infinitely better than the other end.” Beyond the release of an autobiography, A Life Coloured In, earlier this year, Done’s spent the past six years exclusively focused on painting – saying he’s never been busier. “These days, I hardly have time to get an erection,” he offers with a smile. “And even then I need 24 hours’ notice, a hypnotist and the Luton Girls’ Choir.” All the while, his swimwear, prints and homewares business has been ticking along with enough vigour to survive a $20m sting, the result of some bad investments and a dodgy accountant. Add to this a bout of prostate cancer and it’s pretty clear the septuagenarian’s seen more than endless blue Sydney skies. “I’ve made pictures about war and loss... But art should give you pleasure, over time. You don’t want it to put out on the first date.” And here, even 40 years on, we’re still coming back for more.
THAT OTHER FAMED CONJURER OF SYDNEY HARBOUR, BRETT WHITELEY, ONCE QUIPPED THAT HE’D “RATHER TAKE METHADONE THAN KEN DONE”. INDEED, DONE HAS LONG BEEN A CONVENIENT PUNCHING BAG FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE ‘SERIOUS’ ART SHOULD BE ABOUT SUFFERING, PAIN AND DARKNESS. BUT IT’S NOT LIKELY TO COST THIS COLOURFUL AUSSIE ARTIST MUCH SLEEP.