Sydney Morning Herald Column

Some Mysterious Process

Published June 5, 2020
Philip Guston, 'East Tenth' (1977), transcendent trash

When an art museum celebrates 50 years of its own collecting with an exhibition called Some Mysterious Process, it doesn’t suggest a highly developed sense of irony. One might imagine such a show would stress the insights and knowledge of the curators, the strategic planning involved in tracking and purchasing key works. To say it’s all a “mysterious process” is tantamount to abnegating responsibility.

– “Why did you buy that crappy painting?”

– “I dunno. It’s a mystery to me.”

It’s a strangely defensive approach. When the museum should be proudly displaying its treasures it’s telling us art is such a mysterious entity no-one could be expected to make definitive judgements. But if we give up on evaluation we’re stuck with those purely subjective responses: “I like it/I don’t like it”.

Andy Warhol, ‘Mao’ (1972) 63/250 with 50 artists proofs

The title comes from a line by American painter, Philip Guston, arguably one of the great artists of the late 20th century. In discussing how art is made, Guston said: “There’s some mysterious process at work here which I don’t even want to understand.”

This is all very well for an artist. In fact, to ask an artist what his or her work “means” is a futile exercise, as most would prefer you to tell them what it means. The ones who can provide an answer are often better talkers than they are artists. Dreadful artists can be marketing geniuses.

The curator of this exhibition is AGNSW director, Michael Brand, a point repeated so frequently I initially thought “curated by Gallery director Michael Brand” was part of the title. Unless it’s believed Michael is such a celebrity the mere mention of his name will draw crowds, one assumes this is intended to lend an official imprimatur to proceedings. In other words, it’s a dinkum, true-blue exhibition, not just another rearrangement of the permanent collection that avoids the expense and bother of outside loans or a catalogue.

If we are to accept this claim it will be thanks to COVID-19, which has made it virtually impossible to organise loan exhibitions for the next few months, forcing all art museums to fall back on their own holdings. What’s disturbing is that this was already a long-term habit at the AGNSW. Even though the virus should encourage a sympathetic reception, Some Mysterious Process was scheduled long before we went into lockdown.

Gerhard Richter, ‘Abstract Painting’ (812), (1994). Not his masterpiece

The exhibition is a showcase of highlights of the international contemporary art collection arranged in a novel manner. It begins with Early Works, notably pieces by Morris Louis and Josef Albers acquired from the 1967 touring show, Two Decades of American Painting. There is a room dedicated to Pop Art and one for Minimalism and Abstraction. Style is abandoned in a room featuring works gifted by the AGNSW Foundation. The strangest category is Universal Ideas, which includes “personal narratives” and “cultural memory”, even though one might assume such things were specific rather than universal. The final room is called Future Directions, being a selection of recent acquisitions that we are told “augur well” for the gallery’s long-anticipated Sydney Modern extension.

Considered simply as a diverse collection of artworks Some Mysterious Process is a reasonably engaging survey. For old hands like myself it’s almost an exercise in nostalgia to see things that have been on and off the walls for so many years.

Nevertheless, the show will find its fans among those who have little familiarity with contemporary art. For anyone who has spent time in the international art museums much of the display can only seem mediocre.

Miriam Schapiro, ‘Black bolero’ (1980)

My views are no less subjective than any other viewer’s but I’ve always thought that dreary yellow abstraction by Gerhard Richter must be one of his least interesting paintings. Rachel Whiteread’s three elongated plinths have grown no more fascinating over repeated viewings. The same goes for Yinka Shonibare’s huge, black Alien toy painting (2011) which never makes me want to pause for more than ten seconds. Charlotte Posenenske’s Square Tubes [Series D](1967/2019) appears to have been remaindered from a roofing supplies shop. Silkscreen prints by Andy Warhol (ed. 63/250) and Roy Lichtenstein (ed. 40/100) only serve to underline the absence of a major painting by either of these artists.

Colin McCahon, ‘Teaching aids 2’ (July), (1975). Number mysticism from NZ

On the other hand the gallery can be justly proud to own Philip Guston’s East Tenth (1977), or Miriam Schapiro’s Black bolero (1980), which is a work of significance for the Feminist art movement. Colin McCahon’s Teaching aids 2 (July) (1975) is a major piece, although I’d hesitate to call it “Minimalist”. The paintings by Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach are solid examples of their work. Most of the things on display didn’t stir any strong feelings of approval or distaste. The ‘wow factor’ was not much in evidence.

The conclusion I drew from this show was that the AGNSW has a pretty ordinary collection of international contemporary art. This doesn’t “augur well” for Sydney Modern as it seems likely there will be a heavy emphasis on the contemporary in the new building. Neither was there much sense of strategy in the recent acquisitions, beyond a few self-conscious attempts to include more works by women, and by artists who don’t happen to live in Europe or America. Need it be stressed that such policies are ideological not aesthetic? It’s much easier to recognise a worthy political stance than a great painting.

Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘The subjector no. 1’ (2009). Look under the staircase

There is a singular lack of imagination in the choice of artists who have had works acquired in recent years. Figures such as Dana Schutz and Mark Bradford are among the most heavily promoted contemporary American art stars, while Stanley Whitney is now seen everywhere, thanks to a sudden surge of interest in Afro-American artists that has roared through the global market.

Perhaps philanthropists will take pity on the AGNSW after seeing Some Mysterious Process and make a few generous donations. Judging by the handful of names that turn up again and again on the wall labels there’s plenty of room for new contributors.

The patchy state of the collection cannot be blamed on the current administration, being the result of many years’ negligence in the field of international contemporary art. Although he got excited about the Cy Twombly triptych (also included in this show), I doubt that previous director, Edmund Capon, ever felt much affection for contemporary art. Curators were too ready to acquire ‘names’ instead of works, with the result that we often appeared to get the last one in the shop.

The danger today is the very opposite: namely an over-enthusiasm for international contemporary art at a time of massively inflated prices and reputations. One can spend a lot of money chasing trophies that turn out to be made of fool’s gold.


Some Mysterious Process:

50 Years of Collecting International Art

Art Gallery of NSW, until 16 August (or beyond)


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June, 2020