Coffee Table, 1964, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Gift of James Mollison AO through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. On display until June 17.
IN 1964 Australian company Laminex, famous for its kitchen benchtops, took the rather audacious step of commissioning an artist to create a series of coffee tables featuring its plastic sheeting. For the project, the company chose Melbourne-based artist Janet Dawson, who was known for her innovative approach to abstraction; she is often credited with helping introduce colour field painting to Australia. Dawson created a small series of the tables, which she called Living Art.
For the tabletops she used Laminex’s strong flat colours to echo contemporary American abstraction, such as Jasper Johns’s late 1950s Target paintings and Frank Stella’s Protractor series of the 60s.
Once the tables were completed, they were exhibited at the influential Gallery A in Melbourne. These days, however, her tables are rare and difficult to find on public display. But there is one on show at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery, a gift to the gallery from James Mollison, former director of the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria.
Angela Goddard, curator of Australian art to 1975, says Mollison regularly used Dawson’s coffee table in his home.
‘‘ It has had a long and very well-loved life,’’ Goddard says. ‘‘ You can see the evidence of the way it has been used with coffee cups. But in this the table embodies the Bauhaus’s twinned principles of art and function, in the sense that design and everyday objects that we use can be beautiful as well as being functional.’’
Goddard explains that the table demonstrates Dawson’s innovative thinking and the crossing of disciplinary boundaries.
‘‘ While other artists were also interested in the development of mass-produced furniture, Dawson’s tables are singular in Australian art: they oscillate between design and art, uniting function and aesthetics.
‘‘ In the form of coffee tables, the tabletops become both arresting abstract works as well as musings on the reductive methodology of abstraction, indeed even suggesting playful criticism of the use-value of abstract painting. It is fascinating as a domestic object and I just love it.’’
When Dawson was commissioned to produce the coffee tables in 1964 she had just returned to Australia from studying and working in Europe. At this time she had a strong commitment to abstract art, often working in acrylic paint and on shaped composition boards.
She also worked at Gallery A with dealer Max Hutchinson and artist Clement Meadmore. She co-ordinated a major exhibition on the Bauhaus and ran the gallery’s print workshop, where artists such as Fred Williams, Albert Tucker, John Brack and John Olsen produced lithographs.
In 1968 Dawson was one of only three women included in the pioneering exhibition The Field at the National Gallery of Victoria. But Dawson’s interest in the colour field movement waned and she eventually found abstraction too limiting.
In 1973 she and her husband, writer and actor Michael Boddy, moved to rural NSW and this influenced her work. She became interested in her immediate landscape and, as Andrew Sayers, director of the National Museum of Australia, has said, she ‘‘ engaged with the qualities of the natural world: not only the landscape but the sheen of birds’ feathers, the shapes of growing things, the endless pictorial possibilities of vegetables tended in the garden’’.
Also in 1973, Dawson became one of the few women to win the Archibald Prize, with her portrait Michael Boddy Reading.
Dawson, who was born in 1935, lives and works near Binalong, in the NSW southern tablelands. She will be exhibiting current work in a group show at Stella Downer Fine Art in Waterloo, Sydney, from August 21 to September 15.
Laminex plastic sheet on composition board, metal legs. Base: 61cm x 61cm x 35.5cm. Top: 122cm x 3cm