There are many answers to the question: “What is a classic?” It may be a work belonging to a certain period with a taste for ideal forms; an emphasis on balance, stillness and harmonious composition. Another definition sees a classic as something of undying excellence – a work of art that always seems as vital as it did on the day it was completed. It is the latter meaning that springs to mind when confronted by the paintings of Fred Williams (1927-1982) in the exhibition, Regeneration – after the bushfires 1968-1969, at Rex Irwin’s.
Unlike so many hard-edged and colourfield abstractions of the sixties, these canvases are in immaculate condition. This is a reminder of Williams’s craftsmanship, which is unmatched by any local artist of the post-war era. He learned all about the preparation of surfaces, the properties of paints and varnishes, at Savages, a well-known London framer, where he worked in the 1950s. His care in these matters makes Williams the antithesis of artists such as Fairweather or Tuckson, who were happy to use whatever materials were available, on supports such as cardboard or newspaper. Williams even made allowances for the fact that varnishes would darken over time, ultimately changing the look of the picture.
This thoroughness is also a testimony to Williams’s concern for his own legacy to Australian art. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 1981 and given only a year to live, he used the time to sort out his back catalogue: culling failed pictures, reworking others, leaving everything in order for his family. One can only be impressed by such stoicism and presence of mind – qualities that are evident throughout Williams’s entire body of work. With the possible exception of his close friend, John Brack, this country has never known a more composed and thoughtful painter.
Yet it is not simply the condition of these canvases that impresses, it is their freshness and originality. Put these paintings into any exhibition of contemporary landscape art and they would stand out from the crowd. Twenty-seven years after his death, Williams has never been bettered as a painter of the Australian environment. During those years he has influenced many artists, but no-one can get too close to his style without appearing merely derivative.
The lesson any artist may learn from Williams is that one may create works for all time by sticking to close observation and pursuing a personal vision regardless of fads and fashions. For while Williams was interested in abstract art, minimalism and other avant-garde gambits, he stuck doggedly to the landscape as the central subject of his work. From time to time one finds him glancing at minimalism or even Chinese aesthetics, but he is never deflected from his chosen path. He is reminiscent of those ancient Chinese brush-and-ink painters who sought the Tao, and used art as a means to an end.
By contrast, in every era, there are hordes of artists compelled to follow the styles and ideas that have attracted greatest prominence. Some go on to forge successful careers, some are famous for fifteen minutes, many disappear without a trace. In the long run there is nothing more ephemeral than those works that seem most daring and ‘cutting edge’ when they are first exhibited. When we see examples of hard-edged abstraction from the sixties, our first feeling might be one of nostalgia. This is not the case, however, with the theoretically constipated work of the 1980s, which now seems turgid, pretentious and shallow.
One of the reasons that the paintings in the current exhibition feel unusually vivid is that they were all completed in the wake of the devastating bushfires that swept through Victoria in 1968. As we look back on last year’s disastrous fires and anticipate another terrible season, these pictures of blackened landscapes and regenerating bush strike a powerful chord.
At that time Williams and his family lived in Upwey in the Dandenongs. In the catalogue, Lyn Williams recalls how on 19th February 1968, fires swept across the landscape and thirteen houses in the neighbourhood were lost. In his essential book on Fred Williams, now issued in a new edition, Patrick McCaughey says that the fires were stopped only a hundred metres from the Williams house. It was a terrifying ordeal the artist compared to “living in a war.”
The following year Williams and his family moved to Hawthorn, but the memory of the fires stayed with him and inspired a series of gouaches and oil paintings. McCaughey notes that the bushfire pictures came at the end of a period in which Williams had worked systematically on one series after another. The fires had been so dramatic that he felt compelled to paint the landscape while the scars were still visible. The works that resulted began with long distance views of black-brown earth and smoky skies, as in Fire burning at Upwey II, but soon became preoccupied with the spectacle of new life rising from the ashes.
For Williams, the bushfire paintings interrupted his methodical progress and gave new impetus to his work. There was a closeness of focus, an interest in detail that had not been seen before. The landscape was no longer viewed as a plane upon which incidents are distributed as blobs and dashes of colour, but as a place in which nature was stirring in the form of new shoots and buds. Having come so close to extinction, life seemed suddenly precious and wonderful. The two major works in this show, Ferns I and II, which should be viewed as a diptych, are celebrations of the earth’s resilience. Williams has not even attempted to paint a naturalistic backdrop – his ferns float in a pale green abstract space, like plankton in a pool.
As always with Williams we are constantly reminded that we are looking at a man-made artifact, not a window onto the landscape. Much of the excitement of these pictures resides in the way the artist has laid down the paint in a series of vigorous notations. Like Cézanne’s work, it is a representation of the world as seen through a particular temperament. We recognise the regenerating ferns, but more importantly, feel the urgency in the way Williams has painted each scene. This is something that transcends all considerations of style. We see how the work has been constructed, not simply found, yet this never seems to impinge on its truthfulness.
If Fred Williams is notable for the consistency and longevity of his work, Victor Rubin (b.1950) presents a very different story. In a career that stretches back more than thirty years Rubin has had his share of highs and lows. Like Malcolm Turnbull he has plenty of talent but seems to lack judgement. By this stage of his life he should be better known and more widely collected. Instead, he is still wading around in the shallows of Bohemia, waiting for the tide to come in.
Rubin is a frustrating artist because he is restlessly inventive, but his work gives little impression of progress. In this he is the very antithesis of Williams, who had a profound understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses. Naturally it could be argued that Rubin is a more spontaneous and unpredictable artist while Williams had a rather stodgy approach, but the results of these contradictory attitudes speak for themselves.
Eva Breuer has been extremely shrewd in putting together an exhibition of Rubin’s early works. In these Small masonite paintings from Raine Street, Bondi Junction 1974-1976, we see the sparkle and daring of a young artist who is still finding his feet and open to many influences. One sees echoes of Soutine and Picasso, but also Sydney artists such as Martin Sharp and Garry Shead, whom Rubin knew through the Yellow House. I thought I could also detect a hint of those artists associated with Heide Park, such as Boyd, Nolan, Tucker, Perceval and Hester; and perhaps even Kevin Connor and Ken Whisson.
Finally it’s impossible to be sure with these references, because the paintings have their own special personality. The show contains portraits, street scenes, still lifes, cartoons and abstractions, all cheerfully jumbled together. They are full of irreverent wit and oblique observations. One unusual but attractive still life contains an aerosol can of fly repellent, and a Kleenex box with a Harlequin pattern.
This show is a timely reminder of Rubin’s abilities, which remain intact, but have been scattered like seeds before the wind. If only this mysterious, stop-start painter could be inoculated with a bit of Fred Williams-style true grit we might still believe that the best is yet to come.
Fred Williams: Regeneration – after the bushfires 1968-1969, Rex Irwin Art Dealer, August 11 – September 5, 2009
Victor Rubin: Paintings from Bondi Junction 1974-76, Eva Breuer Art Dealer, August 22 – September 5, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 29, 2009