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