In 1984 the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York presented Australian Visions, an exhibition surveying Australian contemporary art, featuring RO9 artists at the time Dale Frank, Jan Murray, John Nixon, Mandy Martin and Vivienne Shark LeWitt. Curated by Diane Waldman.

Exhibition Dates: 25 September – 25 November 1984

Impressions of Australia 

For the first-time visitor to Australia the initial impression is the overwhelming presence of the land. The vast open terrain, although tamed in the cities, is unruly in the bush and the outback, and the feeling of it is all-pervasive. So too is the immense sky which sits low on the horizon and provides a spectacular and ever changing panorama. The lush, fertile Pacific coast and the awesome rich red desert, the heat and the intensity of the light which enhances even the whitest white, the most brilliant purple or yellow, the graceful plumed birds, the ungainly, winsome animals, the eucalyptus and the ghost gum trees impress themselves indelibly on the senses in a continent full of dramatic and unexpected contrasts.

Australia has often been described as the "last frontier" and, indeed, the challenge and promise it offers lends credence to that appellation. For Europeans and Americans, Australia today still represents the romantic ideal, the dream of the paradise regained that Erasmus Darwin responded to when he first sailed into Botany Bay in 1789:

Where Sydney Cove her lucid bosom swells,
Courts her young navies, and the storm repels;
High on a rock amid the troubled air
HOPE stood sublime, and wav'd her golden hair...

Whereas aboriginal Australia is thought to have been settled some 40,000 years ago, European Australia was based upon a series of convict settlements founded in the eighteenth century. When, on January 18, 1788, _a fleet of eleven ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, who became the first Governor of the colony of New South Wales, reached Botany Bay over 700 of those on board were convicts. By 1840 nearly 100,000 convicts had been sent from Britain to the mainland of Australia. Although free settlers brought the population to 400,000 in 1850 convicts were transported to Tasmania until 1853 and to Western Australia from 1850 to 1856 to compensate for a serious shortage of labor. [2] The continent consisted of territories that were granted independence individually at various times; only in 1901 were the colonies federated as states to become the Commonwealth of Australia.

Despite these grim, hard beginnings, Australia became a prosperous land, developing a wool industry and a farm economy. It became as well a pioneer in social reform national suffrage for women was achieved with federation in 1901 - and a society whose pioneer stock, largely English and Irish, has been strengthened and enriched by an influx of Europeans of other origins and Asians.  Although Australia will shortly celebrate its two hundredth anniversary, it remains a nation that came into being in the postindustrial era. A land mass just slightly smaller than our own, Australia is populated by only about fifteen million people. It is thus still very much a nation that is becoming- in its political, economic, social and cultural identity. It is this sense of becoming, of newness, of raw energy and vitality that infuses the land, the people and the art.

From its beginnings, Australia had much in common with the United States. Both were peopled largely by outcasts from Europe; as pioneers in a new land their lives were harrowing struggles for survival. They had in common traditions determined, at least in part, by their origins as British colonies. And both regarded and recorded their new landscapes with a mixture of awe and curiosity. Although Australia produced no equivalent of the Hudson River School, which emerged here in the 1820s, the German- born Eugene von Guerard, who settled in Australia in the early 1850s, reveals affinities with American nineteenth- century romantic landscape painters. Like many of the artists of the Hudson River School, von Guerard studied at the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany. Like them, he presents in his work both the majesty of nature and the fury of its forces. Although von Guerard long enjoyed acclaim in Australia, his art fell out of favor there during his lifetime. A form of naturalistic plein-air painting, similar to that of the Barbizon School popular in France, soon became the leading fashion in Australia during the late nineteenth century. However, von Guerard and other nineteenth-century figures left a meaningful legacy in initiating a landscape tradition that has prevailed throughout~ much of Australia's brief art-history. To be sure, that tradition was interrupted during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when painters, with few exceptions, looked to Europe an particularly to America for artistic models.

Despite forays into abstraction during the postwar era, little in modern Australian art rivals the sophisticated inventions of such avant-garde Americans of the early twentieth century as Auther Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Stanton MacDonald-Wright or Patrick Henry Bruce. More important, Australian artists have never approached the profundity of the American commitment to abstraction, as expressed by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still and other masters of the New York School. Yet Australians have made a unique contribution by developing an art inspired by the landscape and the figure which could have remained a merely regional idiom - as it did in the United States between the two world wars-into an authentic and powerful pictorial style.

Australia's artistic coming of age has resulted from an acknowledgement of the continent's isolation from the Western hemisphere. The isolation that in the past has engendered a deep sense of insecurity today gives rise to a growing recognition on the part of many Australians that they have a special role to play in the world. Thus, the current resurgence of figurative and landscape painting in Australia can be attributed to a new awareness of and pride in a native tradition rather than to the influence from abroad of Nee-Expressionism. Many younger artists working today have turned for inspiration to exemplary figures who came to prominence in the 1940s, such as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval and to more recent painters such as Jan Senbergs. By revivifying their traditions, the younger Australians are able to make an original contribution to the ongoing international dialogue on art, an Unheralded, singleminded contribution that is marked by immediacy and a sense of promise.

Australian art in the 1970s, prior to this resurgence, was very much like the art in major centers throughout Europe and the United States: conceptual art, video and performance predominated where painting and sculpture had previously held sway. Although little of lasting value emerged during the decade, Australian art of those years already was informed by special qualities that set it apart and lent it credibility. The subtleties and nuances, the emotional distancing of an art form that is about art-the predominant international expression of the 1970s - were absent  from Australian work of that period. Instead, there was a brooding, introspective mood, a sense of urgency and drama and an intense, hothouse palette-hallmarks oi much of !he very different art of the 1980s in Australia. 

We see in the young Australian art of today a directness, a powerful emotive sensibility that finds expression an intense pathos or humor, a sense of melodrama a raw energy, a rude sense of color and form and finally an awkwardness that is both uncomfortable and reassuring in its vitality and affirmation of feeling. Recent Australian art is disquieting because, like Australia itself, it directly confronts our consciousness. It refuses to be polite and quiet. It refuses to draw upon pop imagery we can consume and forget like supermarket products. Art in Australia, because it is ungainly and demanding does not conform to our expectations of a seemly art. It asks of us rather than simply gives to us. To this extent it is unyielding and unsympathetic and distinct from the humanist landscape and portrait painting that has evolved since the Renaissance. It also strands out of the tradition of social realism in that it speaks more intensely of individual inner feelings than of the issues of the day. The paintings of Peter Booth, Dale Frank, Mandy Martin, Jan Murray, Susan Norrie, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, the photographs of Bill Henson, the installations of John Nixon are deeply even obsessively autobiographical in nature yet they are also meaningful in what they say about Australia and about the state of art today.

Australia today is a curious amalgam, a postindustrial society superimposed upon a wilderness. It is poised close to Asia but still rooted in European tradition. It benefits from its distance from the West in its independence but suffers from the absence of first hand information. Change is swift yet many are wary of moving too quickly into the future. Australian suffer from a certain collective neurosis based upon their isolation and their love, fear and dread of the land. Now more frequently than before, critics of the arts are Australia's cultural identity. 

Curiously, this visitor found that the artists themselves are relatively undisturbed by this sense of dilemma. They welcome the may visitors increasing curiosity about their work and seem willing and eager to see it tested on an international scale. The boldness and individuality of current Australian art mirrors the boundless vitality and variety of an Australian Society in rapid flux, poised on the threshold of a new era.

— Diane Waldman

[1] Erasmus Darwin, "Visit of Hope" from The Voyage of Governor Philip to Botany Bay, 1789, reprinted in Ian Turner, ed. The Australian Dream, New Zealand and Melbourne, 1968, p. 2.

[2] Bill Hill, ed., Australia Handbook 1983-1984, Canberra 1983, pp. 14-15.

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