Rollin Schlicht was a complex personality. Many people found him to be abrasive and self-centred, but he was also strikingly intelligent and could be charming if it suited him. Schlicht was born in 1936, and died of pancreatic cancer on 1 March, last year. He was by turns, both artist and architect. Torn between these two occupations he probably never fulfilled his potential in either.
The retrospective, Rollin Schlicht: A Man for all Seasons, has a week to run at the Macquarie University Art Gallery. It’s taken me too long to see this show, put together by Rhonda Davis and Paul McGillick, but it’s worth discussing because Schlicht may not have been an iconic artist, but was a fascinating, versatile figure. As the son of the psychiatrist, Dr. Theo Schlicht, who worked in London, he grew up immersed in a world of Australian expatriates. The Schlicht household was a port-of-call for many Australian painters, including Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Margaret Olley and Justin O’Brien.
Theo and Katy Schlicht had an unconventional marriage, and this must have had a large – albeit indefinable – influence on Rollin’s character. From an early age he knew all about the Bohemian life style. In 1959 he began studying architecture, and fell in naturally with a group of young Australian artists who lived and worked in London during the 1960s, notably Michael Johnson, Brett Whiteley and Tony McGillick.
Tony McGillick would return to Sydney in 1965, where he helped establish the Central Street Gallery in April 1966. Schlicht followed and became a driving force in the activities of this pioneering, avant-garde venue. Not only did Schlicht exhibit his hard-edged abstract paintings, he designed the downstairs space as one of Australia’s first examples of the ‘white cube’ that has become the standard for public and private galleries.
When Central Street closed in 1970, Schlicht designed another gallery for board member, Chandler Coventry. The Coventry Gallery in Sutherland Street, Paddington. was one of the most elegant exhibition spaces this city has ever known.
As a painter, Schlicht had a boom year in 1968. His big break was to be included in The Field, the famous exhibition of Australian abstract and minimalist art that opened the new National Gallery of Victoria building on St. Kilda Road. He had also been chosen, along with John Coburn and Carl Plate, to have his paintings translated into tapestries by the Aubusson Workshops in France. In 1968 the completed works were shown at public galleries around Australia.
The current exhibition includes Schlicht’s hard-edge painting, Dempsey (1968), which was hung in The Field. The work is divided into three panels, arranged symmetrically. Each panel is filled with shapes that resemble architectural details such as stairs, doors, windows, tiled surfaces, but it would be wrong to suggest that the work represents anything more than itself. The prevailing dogma of the time, which had grown out of the writings of New York critic, Clement Greenberg, was that a painting should be seen as an object in its own right, not a window onto the world.
At 2.8 X 4.1 metres, Dempsey is impressively large and confident. Paul McGillick suggests that Schlicht was influenced by the American painter, James Doolin, who was working in Australia at the time. This may be so, as Doolin’s abstract archways seemed to relate to a classical culture that Schlicht also admired.
From this point, Schlicht’s work veers in many different directions. His abstractions become progressively more loose and colourful, and he begins to delve into art history. Nabis (1970) pays homage to the French Post-Impressionists such as Bonnard and Vuillard; while Untitled, of the same year, is a direct sampling of the large, ragged, abstract expressionist paintings of Clyfford Still. In the years that follow he borrows heavily from Matisse and Picasso. In Homage to Picasso I and II (both 1973), he seems to be trying to look at Picasso through Matisse’s eyes, creating an unholy synthesis of these two masters. I wish I could declare the experiment a success, but the paintings are cluttered and awkward.
In 1971 he copied self-portraits by Leonardo, Bosch, Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin. The latter held a special appeal, because Schlicht bore a physical resemblance to this self-proclaimed “savage” of painting, but whatever their private meaning these works remain whimsical exercises.
In 1978 Schlicht returned to London, where he worked for a large developer. Over this period he gave up painting and would not resume until he came back to live in Sydney in 1993. In this late phase he was even more eclectic. There were funky self-portraits, loose and hard-edged abstractions, quasi-Pop paintings such as The Shaman in Disguise (2004), and a series of works such as JB’s Parrot (2007) that attest to an interest in Matisse’s technique of making collages with strips of torn, painted paper. He had a preoccupation with the concept of shamanism, presumably picked up from Joseph Beuys. But the idea of the artist as a shaman, forming a bridge between the material world and the world of the spirit, is as dubious as it is grandiose.
Schlicht was already thinking along these lines in 1970, when he painted The Shaman in his House – recognisable as a room in which blobs of colour float like protoplasm.
It is frustrating to look back over Schlicht’s life’s work, because he obviously had talent but lacked some vital ingredient – possibly self-belief, or simply application. He never came close to matching Michael Johnson’s gift for colour, or Brett Whiteley’s graphic facility. Although he used amazingly vivid colours, Schlicht’s pictures have a disturbing flatness. This is partly because he painted in acrylics rather than oils, but today’s acrylics are so much better than their 1960s ancestors that this is no excuse. Artists such as David Aspden and Robert Jacks have shown that one can get powerful effects from acrylics. The real excitement doesn’t come from the colours themselves, but from the ways they are combined and juxtaposed.
Beyond the vibrant, busy surfaces of Schlicht’s paintings, there is an emptiness. They are the works of a man who felt himself to be an artist but never settled on a style. Perhaps it was a matter of having too many competing ideas, or being too much of a skeptic to pursue any single path to a conclusion. He had the intellect but lacked the instincts that are so important to every great painter.
I never knew Schlicht well enough to say whether he was too harsh on himself, or too indulgent, but the outcome is the same: a body of work that has all the signs of significant art but lacks the substance.
This show made me think of a 1997 exhibition of late works by John Passmore, filled with interesting failures. It underlined just how hard it is to make a successful work of art. The higher one’s aspirations; the more pressure an artist exerts on himself, the harder it becomes. There’s no disgrace in this. In fact, it’s almost the natural state of things. Masterpieces are few and far between. With almost every artist, from the toils of a lifetime we remember only a handful of works.
Small wonder Schlicht opted out of art for a good fifteen years. The sad thing is that the last pictures in the show suggest he was more focused and composed than ever before. We may have been robbed of a rousing finale to a peripatetic career.
No matter what reservations I entertain for Rollin Schlicht’s work, I can understand the struggle that went on the studio. What I can’t understand is the bottomless enthusiasm of the art world for Shaun Gladwell’s video works. Having watched the films and read the essays, these installations still feel like the very definition of tedium.
Gladwell’s new piece, being shown at the Art Gallery of NSW, is called Broken Dance (Beatboxed). For 85 minutes and 41 seconds, one may enjoy the audio-visual stimulus of a DJ making funny noises on one screen, while dancers gyrate in a very stop-start manner on another. I only lasted about ten minutes, but it felt like 85.
Strangely enough, I never got this feeling of creeping rigor mortis from 4 hours and 48 minutes of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, or seven hours of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle. It’s not the length of a video that’s significant it’s the sense that something is actually happening. Gladwell’s combination of dance-trance rhythms and sweeping references to “street culture” create a sense of nullity, of merely filling in time, like a video game. Surrender to that electronic beat and embrace the void.
Rollin Schlicht: A Man for all Seasons: A Retrospective, Macquarie University Art Gallery, July 18 – September 08, 2012
Shaun Gladwell: Broken Dance (Beatboxed), Art Gallery of NSW, until 21 October.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 11, 2012