An ex­hi­bi­tion of Tony Tuck­son’s works on pa­per re­veals an artist whose paint­ings did not so much re­spond to the world as ex­press it, writes Pa­trick Har­ti­gan.

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ART: Tony Tuck­son. Pa­trick Har­ti­gan

Frank Wat­ters re­mem­bers vividly the first time he vis­ited Tony Tuck­son’s stu­dio, a sec­tion of the Tuck­son fam­ily home in the north shore Sydney sub­urb of Wahroonga. Frank and his fel­low di­rec­tors at Wat­ters Gallery, Ge­of­frey and Alex Legge, had been sur­prised to re­ceive an in­vi­ta­tion from the then deputy di­rec­tor of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and in many ways they dreaded the en­su­ing en­counter, par­tic­u­larly the prospect of hav­ing to tell the pow­er­ful bu­reau­crat that Tuck­son’s work was no good.

This was 1970 – the year Tuck­son would have his first one-man ex­hi­bi­tion, 32 years after his train­ing at Hornsey School of Art in Lon­don, and just on three years be­fore he would die of stom­ach can­cer.

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of their arrival, Tuck­son was in the process of get­ting ex­tremely drunk. By the time the gallery di­rec­tors turned up, he was strug­gling to stand and was thrash­ing and drag­ging paint­ings around the stu­dio. If his guests were over­whelmed by the vast col­lec­tion of work, about which they were learn­ing for the first time, they were also hor­ri­fied by the drunken spec­ta­cle that had given birth to it.

It’s easy to ap­pre­ci­ate Tuck­son’s anx­i­ety that night, why he had to be so thor­oughly ine­bri­ated. Bring­ing out­siders into the pri­vate do­main of a stu­dio is al­ways nerve-rack­ing, so one can only imag­ine what turn­ing the lights onto 20 years of im­mer­sion might have felt like. Tuck­son’s work­ing con­di­tions as an artist, along­side a ca­reer in which he was deeply in­volved with art on a daily ba­sis, ex­plain a lot about the unique tra­jec­tory of this pain­ter, namely the char­ac­ter of unity rather than style in his work.

“Art,” Tuck­son used to say, “isn’t made in a vac­uum.” But while a world of artis­tic riches was con­stantly or­bit­ing his stu­dio – he vis­ited more than 300 mu­se­ums across the world in 1967-68 alone – there was never the re­quire­ment to posit or po­si­tion him­self in that or­bit. Per­pet­ual mo­tion was the key to an artist who took what he liked – what made sense to him at the time – and ran with it. Re­call­ing Pi­casso’s klep­to­ma­nia, Tuck­son was a “thief ” in the very best sense. He was also pro­lific – the fi­nal three years of his life were ones of wild in­ven­tion, which drew on a life­time of look­ing and mak­ing.

A cou­ple of weeks ago I was at Wat­ters Gallery, the in­sti­tu­tion of 53 years’ stand­ing that will be clos­ing its doors at the end of 2018. Win­ter sun­light was fil­ter­ing into the back room, where a group of Tuck­son works on pa­per, to be shown in the up­stairs gallery be­tween Au­gust 15 and Septem­ber 2, were be­ing viewed by a client. I was a lucky fly on that wall by virtue of my sur­geon, who would soon be re­mov­ing a tu­mour from my nose at the skin hos­pi­tal around the cor­ner but was run­ning be­hind sched­ule.

A heav­ily foxed sheet of pa­per, about the size of a torso, was be­ing held up for a client. Through its cen­tre ran a ver­ti­cal river of red. The work is known by the ref­er­ence num­ber TD806 (c. 1964), part of a vast cat­a­logue main­tained by Tuck­son’s wife, Mar­garet, in­clud­ing some 10,000 works on pa­per. The sin­gle-breath bold­ness of TD806 had me think­ing of the Zen tra­di­tions of cal­lig­ra­phy and mar­tial arts. In both cases, art re­lates to a state of mind rather than a set of ob­jects.

Some­thing of what led to that bold ac­tion can be found in Tuck­son’s Self-por­trait at easel (1952), an ear­lier oil-on-pa­per work not shown here. From its page the artist looks some­where over the viewer’s right shoul­der while stand­ing a lit­tle stiffly. His up­per body and easel form a V at the pic­ture’s cen­tre in the man­ner of Vin­cent van Gogh’s Self-Por­trait in Front of the Easel (1888), painted shortly be­fore that artist aban­doned bour­geois life in Paris for the pri­vacy of the coun­try­side. While in the eyes of van Gogh I find de­ter­mi­na­tion weighed down by in­ner tur­moil, in Tuck­son’s I see just one thing: im­pa­tience.

Draw­ing was core to Tuck­son’s drive and dis­ci­pline.

The lines were flow­ing on what­ever pa­per was avail­able: in notepads, on the back of ex­hi­bi­tion in­vi­ta­tions, and, com­monly for his gouaches, news­pa­pers. Many of the works in this ex­hi­bi­tion are on dou­ble-page news­pa­per clas­si­fieds; they show fleet­ing marks and cal­li­graphic turns of the wrist, float­ing above, or land­ing on, reg­i­ments of ink. The end re­sult is as if in di­rect con­fronta­tion with those closed sys­tems of lan­guage.

TD2515 (1964), ex­e­cuted in black, has a re­mark­ably light foot­print. With the weight­less­ness of dan­de­lion fluff, its ar­ray of shapes and marks flits across the page, while some­how clinch­ing a deal with the news­wor­thy ground. Ex­e­cuted sev­eral years later, TD2561 (1970) and TD4043 (1969) can be found at the base camp of the moun­tain where Tuck­son’s road was to cli­max – in those breath­tak­ingly spare and ver­ti­cally fo­cused paint­ings. These works de­fined the 1973 Wat­ters ex­hi­bi­tion and made him ar­guably this coun­try’s only true ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist. With their re­peated par­al­lel lines, the gouaches in this show demon­strate a body gath­er­ing rhythm and mo­men­tum: that “same old thing, up and down and across and back” was how Tuck­son sum­marised his work late in life.

The red stroke of TD806, with its ear­lier date of 1964, hints at those late paint­ings. It shows the kind of time travel that al­ways oc­curs in a stu­dio – open­ings and pos­si­bil­i­ties re­turned to and seized on when the artist is ready for them. While un­der­go­ing var­i­ous sur­gi­cal per­fo­ra­tions, I thought about the two grey drops on ei­ther side of that red surge. Were they in­ten­tional?

Their place­ment sug­gested they might be, but as drops they seemed more likely in­ci­den­tal. Ir­rel­e­vant, I con­cluded: terms such as in­ci­dence and in­ten­tion, while cru­cial to my sur­geon’s knife, have no claim what­so­ever in these ter­ri­to­ries.

The im­age of move­ment and cir­cu­la­tion, of a wet brush cross­ing be­tween sheets of pa­per and boards, re­mained. As I lay star­ing at the hos­pi­tal win­dow’s mist, the idea of a body sur­rounded by rec­tan­gles and win­dows – light form­ing in­side, as dark­ness and still­ness took hold out­side – seemed fit­tingly pri­mor­dial.

Like 19th-cen­tury Ro­man­tic painters be­fore him, Tuck­son was in­creas­ingly ded­i­cated to the el­e­ments: the light and dark of Turner, the en­ergy of line found in Delacroix. Among his own gen­er­a­tion, the em­pha­sis shifted wholly in­wards, to­wards bod­ily ac­tion; paint­ings were not “about” the world and the body so much as

“of ” it. If Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of the Vitru­vian Man (1490) showed a male fig­ure with arms and legs out­stretched in­side a square and cir­cle, ra­tio­nally de­pict­ing the work­ings of the body cor­re­lat­ing with those of the uni­verse, Tuck­son’s late works came at the same equa­tion but from within. To re­fer to them as sim­ply “ab­stract” is to ig­nore their phys­i­cal close­ness and overstate the concreteness of the pic­ture plane. Lines and shapes here don’t dis­tance or sim­plify re­al­ity so much as prove it.


A cou­ple of years ago, at Wat­ters, I saw for the first time a se­ries of late char­coal draw­ings mea­sur­ing roughly the artist’s height or ver­ti­cal span lay bare a body ur­gently tak­ing stock of it­self. In the res­ig­na­tion and grace of these and other late ges­tures, I find au­ral equiv­a­lency in Beethoven, that artist hav­ing gone com­pletely deaf by the time he wrote his last string quar­tets. I men­tioned this thought to Frank dur­ing a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion.

He’d been lis­ten­ing to those mon­u­men­tal mur­murs that very morn­ing and seemed to agree.

After decades of rac­ing against the clock, of try­ing to ad­e­quately set­tle a score in their re­spec­tive art forms, com­poser and pain­ter found, in those very last mo­ments, a way to trans­late what it means, in the end, to be – just be – alive. By the time Tuck­son made these works, these ges­tures that so ac­cu­rately mea­sure the reach of his body and his art, he might al­ready have been suf­fer­ing the phys­i­cal symp­toms of the can­cer that would kill him.

Frank re­mem­bers clearly that night at Tuck­son’s stu­dio, as well as the many sub­se­quent vis­its he made ahead of the 1970 show. “I’d just go up there and wash them,” he says, pass­ing a tired arm through the air. See­ing my con­fu­sion, he adds: “I mean clean­ing the paint­ings … I just needed to be with them.”

It is a need I un­der­stand well, af­firmed by this ex­hi­bi­tion, one of the last Tuck­son will have at the

• gallery in which he first showed.

PA­TRICK HAR­TI­GAN is a Syd­ney­based artist.

Tony Tuck­son’s works at Wat­ters Gallery, above, with TD806 at far left, and TD2515 fac­ing.

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