If Sidney Nolan hadn’t been a successful artist he might have made a damn fine used-car salesman. The story behind the acquisition of works in a groundbreaking exhibition of his paintings done on slate roofing tiles highlights this.
We who love: The Nolan slates, on show at University of Queensland Art Museum, features rare works on slate tiles Nolan pilfered from a building site near his Melbourne studio when he was a struggling young artist.
UQ owns 18 tiles of this largely unknown series. How Dr Nancy Underhill, a respected curator and writer who was founding director of the UQ Art Museum, came by them is a funny story and one she recounts in this exhibition’s catalogue. The artist exhibited some of his slates at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane in 1977 and Underhill was there. Nolan, who died in 1992, pretended not to know who she was. Underhill, author of Sidney Nolan: A
Life, published last year, says he was just messing with her head.
“I asked him what he was going to do with the paintings and he said there was a woman at the art gallery at the university who he thought might buy them,” she recalls. “He was obviously setting me up.” When Underhill told him who she was he said: “I’ll sell them to you if you buy them right now.” The price tag was $20,000. Underhill’s annual budget was $5000, but she knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime so she said yes and talked vicechancellor Zelman Cowan into acquiring the works. The university set about raising funds and Nolan softened his hard-sell, giving them time to pay. But they had trouble coming up with the money and eventually Nolan let them have the lot for $2000, which is all they managed to raise.
There are 33 works in this show (24 slates), curated by art historian Dr Chris McAuliffe, who says the works are “a remarkable, even desperate declaration of artistic independence”.
Nolan is revered for his Ned Kelly paintings, but who knew he painted roof tiles? We are lucky to have most of them and, at only $2000, they were a steal. You have until July 24 to have a look at them.