One of the extraordinary things to happen in Australia in the 1970s was a commitment to art on the world stage. The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) was central to this, acquiring major works in anticipation of its opening (then expected for 1978), and the expansive vision of its first director, James Mollison.
The American Masters 1940–1980 exhibition, which opens at the NGA in August, tells the story of the incredible American collections through the work of a generation of young Americans who challenged local traditions and reinvented modern art. The exhibition brings together the major movements between 1940 and 1980: Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field, Pop and Photo-Realism, Conceptual, Land and Performance Art.
Painted in 1952, Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles (1952) is one of the most famous paintings of this period, largely because of the scandal prompted by its acquisition and the price that was paid by the NGA in 1973, which was then a record for the artist. Headlines such as the Daily Mirror’s ‘Drunks did it’ and The Age’s ‘$1.3M art “Trampled on after booze-up”’, fuelled the controversy and prompted misinformation about Pollock’s methods. The painting is clearly the result of an extended campaign: while Pollock often started with his canvas on the floor, the complex layering is evidence of the effects of constant movement, from his dripping and pouring of paint, to the white lines applied when the work was attached to a wall and the eight ‘poles’ of the final stages.
For the American Masters exhibition, Blue poles is juxtaposed with the NGA’s outstanding holdings of paintings and works on paper by artists in the New York School – Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Motherwell and Phillip Guston, among others – to demonstrate how they were both an inspiration and a catalyst for change.
As well as highlighting Pollock’s impact, the American Masters exhibition shows how artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, Eva Hesse and Chuck Close propose new ideas about art, its subject matter, substance and form. Visitors will experience paintings without edges, objects made of strange materials, environments and performed works of art. For example, by rediscovering the NGA’s collections of classic Pop Art we see how Andy Warhol’s ironic use of celebrity culture influences the world today. Elsewhere the exhibition explores the ways in which Louise Bourgeois’ fabulous obsessions play out through sexual politics and apparently limitless landscapes. In other galleries, we experience how the cool, manufactured surface of Donald Judd’s boxes adapt to their surrounds and Eva Hesse’s delicately formed substances seemingly threaten to fade away.
The final section of the American Masters exhibition is devoted to light. Bruce Nauman designed the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths (window or wall sign) 1967 for a large shop window at the front of his studio in a disused grocery store in San Francisco. This richly coloured and elaborately constructed neon sculpture suggests a sense of anticipation for the future and marks the ways in which artists embrace new materials and technology. Nauman liked that his statement is true and not true at the same time, a ‘totally silly idea’ and yet entirely believable. Here is an icon of the NGA’s collection, another fabulous example of the gallery’s ambitious program to bring international art to Australia.
Entry to the expansive and stunning American Masters 1940–1980 is free because of the support of the Terra Foundation for American Art. For the exhibition’s exciting program of events, visit the National Gallery of Australia’s website.
National Gallery of Australia
24 August-11 November 2018