Pop to Popism, held at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2014, was not a show that left glowing memories, but one work has remained lodged in my mind. Peter Powditch’s The Big Towel, which appeared in the Australian section of the exhibition, looked incredibly fresh for a painting made in 1969.
Part of its freshness was its sheer simplicity, its unwillingness to make political or sociological statements.
It’s precisely this need to editorialise that plagues The National, the survey of new Australian art currently showing at the AGNSW, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Carriageworks. We need to consider why The Big Towel still looks good, and why so much of today’s issue-based art will be quickly forgotten.
In an ideal world the AGNSW would have played host to Peter Powditch: Coast – A Retrospective, but like almost all major surveys of living artists it’s the underfunded, heroic S.H.Ervin Gallery that has taken the initiative. Much of the background work has been done by Defiance Gallery, which is showing Powditch’s life drawings and lithographs at their Newtown venue until 29 April; and his paintings and sculptures at the Yellow House, from 10 May to 4 June.
It’s ironic there should be such an explosion of Powditch’s work over the next month, when the artist has spent much of the past two decades living in seclusion on the north coast. Even before Powditch left Sydney in 2000 he had allowed his profile to sink almost to invisibility. A former student, graphic artist, Reg Lynch, says that many of Powditch’s pupils at Sydney College of the Arts didn’t even know he was an artist.
It was a huge come-down from the 1970s when Powditch was one of most fashionable and successful painters in Sydney. But even while he was basking in the spotlight Powditch seems to have been indifferent to thoughts of fame and fortune. His work in the studio followed its own logic, regardless of whatever his collectors or his dealers wanted. Making art had its own satisfactions and complexities – it was a serious, solitary business, not an attempt to court popularity.
Psychologically, Powditch is an unusual case study: indifferent to worldly success, yet prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. He will slave away relentlessly in the studio, labouring for hours over the smallest of decisions, but then lose interest in a work once it is finished. In the 70s he looked like a rock star, but he has ruined his health with his compulsive smoking, which continues unabated.
Coast provides a sweeping overview of Powditch’s career, although it’s hardly definitive. The two Defiance shows will help flesh out the picture, but there must be many paintings tucked away in public and private collections that deserve attention.
To declare an interest, I wrote the catalogue essay for the show and made the opening speech, but this should not present a conflict. I was exceptionally critical in my first newspaper piece about Powditch in the early 1980s, but have come around to the work over time as I’ve begun to understand the contexts in which it was made.
Nowadays it’s possible to view Powditch alongside Godfrey Miller or John Passmore as one of Sydney’s eccentric masters. Although he may have made a splash in Pop to Popism, Powditch was never a Pop artist. His taste for hard edges and geometric rigour may associate him with the schools of abstract painting so prevalent in the 60s and 70s, but he never lets go of figuration. He is a law unto himself.
The show is still dominated by the flat, brightly-coloured works of the late 1960s, notably The Big Towel and Recess II (1969), which shows a blonde-haired woman, her body silhouetted as a brown blur on a shower screen; and by radically-simplified landscapes such as Seascape II (1969). Upon entering the 70s Powditch begins his epic series Each picture shows the female body, either nude or wearing a bikini, but the sense of abstract design overpowers any hint of sexuality.
These paintings are celebrations of sun, sand and the body beautiful, but strangely impersonal in nature. Most of Powditch’s female torsos are lopped off at the neck. The lack of a face may sound alarming but it forces us to read these works as compositions, not as windows onto the world through which we play the voyeur with the female form. We may be drawn by the superficial sexiness of the subject but we end by savouring the way a bikini becomes, in Powditch’s memorable phrase, “something flat on something round”.
There is a odd mixture of chasteness and sexiness about all of Powditch’s work. Chasteness, because he refuses to portray the female nude in the time-honoured fashion of male painters, as an object of delectation with its own built-in fantasy of possession. One thinks of Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus (1863), which Emile Zola compared to pink and white marzipan.
Powditch’s nudes remain aloof from mere vulgar display. They are indifferent to the male gaze in a way that would have been inconceivable to Cabanel. On the other hand there is something intrinsically sexy about paintings that have been done for an artist’s own pleasure, not for an audience. If Powditch would persist with a theme for years on end it was because he felt there was still much that needed to be explored. If the size of his works diminished, or the colours faded to the softest pastel pink, he was responding to nothing more than inner necessity.
From the early bikini girls to a recent series of small sculptures made mainly from cigarette packets, Powditch has aimed to please no-one but himself. At the same time he can’t be accused of selfishness because he was also an outstanding teacher who held nothing back from his students. It may be that learning to please oneself is the hardest lesson an artist can learn. This retrospective reveals all the pain and pleasure of an artist’s life, and the eternal difficulty of distinguishing one sensation from the other.
Peter Powditch: Coast – A Retrospective
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 31 March – 16 July 2017
Peter Powditch: Life Drawings & Lithographs
Defiance Gallery, 5 – 29 April 2017
Peter Powditch: Painting & Sculpture
The Yellow House, 10 May – 4 June
Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2017