The dream theme

The Weekend Australian - Review - - COVER STORY -

WHEN the Art Gallery of NSW to­day throws open the doors to its big sum­mer show Pop to Popism, works by Aus­tralian artists will for the first time hang along­side the rolled-gold su­per­stars of the genre — Warhol, Licht­en­stein and Hock­ney. No first names re­quired.

It could be ar­gued telling the story of Aus­tralian pop art in this in­ter­na­tional con­text is long over­due, and it’s no se­cret AGNSW is hop­ing to cap­i­talise on the pop­u­lar­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the all-fa­mil­iar art­works by end­ing what has been a dif­fi­cult year for the gallery with a hit ex­hi­bi­tion and big crowds.

From to­day the gallery will de­vote its en­tire lower-level mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary space to some of the most recog­nised art­works of the 20th cen­tury — an un­prece­dented al­lo­ca­tion of 1600sq m for a tem­po­rary show and dou­ble the tem­po­rary space on level two. Such is the im­por­tance the gallery is plac­ing on its sum­mer block­buster. But then, when one work is a se­ries of Andy Warhol Mar­i­lyn silk-screens mea­sur­ing almost 10sq m and another is Brett White­ley’s Amer­i­can Dream — a work that stretches around three walls of a sin­gle gallery space — scale is what is re­quired.

AGNSW Aus­tralian art cu­ra­tor Wayne Tun­ni­cliffe has spent more than two years as­sem­bling the col­lec­tion of 200 art­works. The Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra has lent nu­mer­ous works, as has the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria.

Pieces have been shipped in from a fur­ther 50 col­lec­tions in Bri­tain, Ger­many, Por­tu­gal, France, Spain, the US and Aus­tralia. Some lenders are pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als, oth­ers are pres­ti­gious pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, among them the Tate and New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, all of which makes the lo­cal con­tin­gent’s in­clu­sion more in­ter­est­ing.

“Aus­tralian work from that pe­riod is re­ally strong, it ab­so­lutely stands up,” the New Zea-

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014 BRETT White­ley ar­rived in New York in Septem­ber 1967 with grand am­bi­tions. He had al­ready en­joyed suc­cess in London, but some­thing was stir­ring across the At­lantic that couldn’t be ig­nored. He set out his thoughts in his Harkness Fel­low­ship ap­pli­ca­tion. “There is in Amer­ica at the mo­ment an enor­mous di­verse cur­rent of cre­ative think­ing,” he wrote. “Briefly, my main ob­jec­tive is to in­ves­ti­gate the phe­nom­ena of Amer­i­can cul­ture.”

Viet­nam War protests, as­sas­si­na­tions, civil rights strug­gles: it was a tur­bu­lent time to be in the US. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot within months of each other, prompt­ing Arthur Miller to write an an­guished piece for say­ing it was time to take a ”long look at our­selves” and ac­cept that “the vi­o­lence in our streets is the vi­o­lence in our hearts”. Miller fin­ished with a flour­ish: “Only jus­tice will over­come the night­mare. The Amer­i­can Dream is ours to evoke.”

White­ley, trav­el­ling on a Harkness Fel­low­ship, felt the panic. He had vis­ited New York a few years ear­lier, watch­ing with alarm as the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis rolled on. Now, as the decade ap­proached its end, he had a plan. It was flush with the kind of ide­al­ism that was land-born Tun­ni­cliffe says dur­ing through of the ex­ten­sive hang.

Tun­ni­cliffe says Pop to Popism dif­fers greatly from the land­mark 1985 Pop Art ex­hi­bi­tion staged at AGNSW and NGV. Hugely popular, that show gave Aus­tralian au­di­ences their first se­ri­ous survey of pop art at a time when con­sumer cul­ture was awash with the Licht­en­ste­in­style aes­thetic.

“I’m mind­ful of the fact that in that show


walk- common inside the Ho­tel Chelsea, where he was liv­ing with his wife Wendy and daugh­ter Arkie. Revo­lu­tion was in the air: he wanted to cre­ate a work that would “sum­marise the sen­sa­tion of the im­pend­ing ne­ces­sity for Amer­ica to own up, an­a­lyse and straighten out the im­mense and im­me­di­ately see­able mad­ness that seemed to run through most facets of Amer­i­can life”.

The pic­ture was called Over 18 pan­els, it’s a riot of colour and move­ment and en­ergy. Among the mul­ti­tude of images and sym­bols, scenes of vi­o­lence, ver­tigo and war jos­tle for space with birds, mo­ments of calm, New York from above, body parts and the fa­mil­iar faces of Bob Dy­lan, Fran­cis Ba­con and Nor­man Mailer.

A stuffed bird sits on a pile of branches that stick out from the pic­ture, while a siren and flash­ing red light evoke the rush of Man­hat­tan life. To lean in close is to take in the de­tail: a photo of Arkie, pas­sages of text from writ­ers he ad­mired, an Amer­i­can flag on Uluru, the house on the hill he dreamed of find­ing in the trop­ics.

It was as much an evo­ca­tion of the chaos out­side as the tur­moil within. White­ley painted it in a stu­dio across the road from the Chelsea there was only one fe­male artist and no Aus­tralians,” Tun­ni­cliffe says. “One rea­son I wanted to do this (show) was to put Aus­tralian artists with their in­ter­na­tional peers to show the work to­gether. Also (I wanted to) put Aus­tralian works into cat­a­logues, which will now go to all the mu­se­ums that have lent their work.”

The fe­male artists fea­tured in Pop to Popism are mostly rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion’s sub­gen­res: “Oz pop art” (Jenny Wat­son and Viv-

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