The dream theme
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-