Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Robert Hunter, No 1 un­ti­tled paint­ing (1968). Col­lec­tion Queens­land Art Gallery. Gift of James Mol­li­son AO, through the Queens­land Art Gallery Foun­da­tion 2012. Do­nated through the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment’s Cul­tural Gifts Pro­gram. On dis­play.

When Robert Hunter de­cided to ex­hibit 13 white-on-white paint­ings at his first solo show it was an au­da­cious de­ci­sion, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of a life­long ded­i­ca­tion to min­i­mal­ism. Af­ter that first ex­hi­bi­tion at To­larno Gal­leries in Mel­bourne in 1968, his paint­ings were crit­i­cally ac­claimed. Later that year he was in­cluded in The Field, the ground­break­ing ex­hi­bi­tion that her­alded the open­ing of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s new build­ing on St Kilda Road.

From The Field, Hunter went on to be­come one of Aus­tralia’s fore­most ab­stract artists, ex­hibit­ing those sig­na­ture white-on-white min­i­mal paint­ings widely within Aus­tralia and in­ter­na­tion­ally, in­clud­ing at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York. But what set Hunter apart from many of the other out­stand­ing artists in The Field was the re­mark­able sin­gu­lar­ity and con­sis­tency of his vi­sion.

For more than 40 years he never wa­vered. He re­mained true to his prac­tice of non-ob­jec­tive paint­ing in­volv­ing sub­tle vari­a­tions of tone and geo­met­ric grids. A for­mer art critic for The Aus­tralian, Robert Rooney, once de­scribed Hunter as “un­shake­able” and wrote that “in the midst of all the noise and fran­tic ac­tiv­ity, he has con­tin­ued to work as if un­touched by the changes around him”.

Hunter, who was born in 1947 in Mel­bourne, lived and worked there un­til his death last year. His paint­ings were born out of the rad­i­cal­ism of the 1960s. He was par­tic­u­larly in­flu­enced by Ad Rein­hardt’s en­tirely black paint­ings, which Hunter first saw in 1967 in the ex­hi­bi­tion Two Decades of Amer­i­can Paint­ing at the NGV. He was also in­flu­enced by Rein­hardt’s prin­ci­ple that ‘‘more is less, less is more’’.

One of Hunter’s early works has lately been do­nated to the Queens­land Art Gallery and when I visit the gallery I seek out No 1 un­ti­tled paint­ing, which con­sists of nine square planes of white, with tints of red and green.

Be­fore its do­na­tion, this work had been in the same hands since it was pur­chased from the To­larno Gal­leries stock­room on the oc­ca­sion of Hunter’s first solo ex­hi­bi­tion by James Mol­li­son, for­mer di­rec­tor of both the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia and the NGV.

I am shown the paint­ing by QAG’s cu­ra­tor of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian art Peter McKay, who says Hunter’s idio­syn­cratic vis­ual lan­guage has al­ways been based on a grid of squares, cir­cles or di­ag­o­nals. His works also bal­ance warm and cool tones that test the thresh­old of vis­ual per­cep­tion.

He says No 1 un­ti­tled paint­ing was a start­ing point for Hunter. “Robert prob­a­bly would never have imag­ined the rich­ness and the sub­tlety of the ca­reer that flowed on from this work but look­ing back, sadly af­ter his death, it is won­der­ful to see the point of ori­gin …

“A lot of peo­ple from this era ex­per­i­mented with a lot of dif­fer­ent styles and ap­proaches, but Robert took rigour to his work and was re­ally com­mit­ted to re­duc­tive ab­strac­tion. Right from an early age he was just so de­voted to it.”

Syn­thetic poly­mer paint on can­vas; 158cm x 158cm

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