For over a century each new artistic style or movement was viewed as a momentous historical breakthrough, but when everyone started doing it or buying it, the same stuff became mere “fashion”. As the pioneering sociologist, Georg Simmel, noted in 1895, with fashion, the moment of mass circulation spells the end of a particular look, which has to be supplanted by a new look in order for the system to keep perpetuating itself. This is true for clothes, but in the 21st century it has become increasingly relevant to an art market where an aristocracy of values has been dissipated by an influx of cash and new collectors.
Art – once seen as the repositary of lofty spiritual and intellectual values, as opposed to the low commercialism of fashion – is now hawking its wares in the same marketplace. Fashion, meanwhile, has taken over some of art’s most cherished pretentions, and muscled its way into the museums.
In an era of rampant recycling the visual arts have adopted the logic of the fashion industry, in which one vaguely familiar look rapidly supersedes another in a never-ending procession. Short skirts give way to long skirts. Minimalism is supplanted by Expressionism, or vice-versa.
In reality, as the cycles speed up there is no longer any clear progression. It’s a blur, a mess, in which all styles exist simultaneously, catering for less-than-discerning customers who want to buy the latest thing, whatever it may be. And yet, when all those shiny new things have been acquired, there remains a lingering hunger for authenticity, for some badge of historical validation.
One of the areas attracting renewed attention is the panoply of abstract styles that followed American Abstract Expressionism. If proof were required that we’re feeling affectionate about such work, only last week saw an article in The Ageannouncing Melbourne’s new appreciation for Ron Robertson-Swann’s public sculpture, Vault (1980), which had previously been dubbed ‘The Yellow Peril’ and dumped on the muddy banks of the Yarra. No hard feelings Ron…
From Hard-Edge and Minimalism to stain paintings, modular works, and so on, what all these styles of the 1960s & 70s had in common was a resolute disavowal of meaning. Where Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still had emphasised the tragic and sublime nature of their work, the generation that followed took a more formal approach. They saw art as primarily, inescapably, a visual experience, with any deeper meanings being the responsibility of the viewer rather than the artist.
This didn’t mean those artists weren’t motivated by the landscape, the built environment, literature, music or the experience of other art, but they were wary about admitting anything that seemed to adulterate the purity of the viewer’s communion with the object.
Among Australian artists who made their reputations in that period, Syd Ball (1933-2017) stands out for his willingness to sample every one of the aesthetic strategies that came surging out of New York. But it wasn’t as if Ball stayed in Australia waiting for the next issue of Artforum. He spent two long periods in the United States, becoming an assistant to Mark Rothko. In 1970 he would have the dubious honour of cleaning up the studio after Rothko had committed suicide by cutting his wrists.
In Sydney Ball: 1963-1973 Works from the Estate, Sullivan + Strumpf have brought together a representative selection from six separate series made during those years when abstraction was the cutting-edge artform. The show begins with three small geometric works from the Band series, originally shown in New York in 1963. These paintings are almost comically modest in scale and means – the smallest is only 20.7 by 25.7 cms – compared with the monumental Stain painting, Jackson Summer (1973) (218 by 381 cms) which closes the exhibition.
In this inexorable expansion we can chart Ball’s evolution from a raw beginner trying to make a mark in the daunting Manhattan art scene, to a high-profile Australian artist with a status that needed to be defended and consolidated. Along the way he produced the Cantos of 1964-65, the Persian series of 1967, the Modular works of 1968-69, and the Link paintings of 1970-71. Some would say he had an excellent understanding of the ever-renewing logic of fashion, but his desire to keep experimenting could also be framed as a very positive feature.
With each series Ball embraced an entirely new set of parameters. The rigorous geometry of the Cantos, represented here by one painting and ten coloured pencil studies, was followed by the rippling lines of the Persian series, inspired by the curves of Islamic architecture. The most unusual piece is Khamsa (1967), a bright red, sculpture in gently undulating plywood that looks as fresh as if it were made yesterday.
In the Modular works Ball breaks down the canvas into a set of interlocking panels, some small, some large, painted in acrylic or shiny enamel. They may look slick in reproduction, but viewed at first hand they have an appealing home-made appearance. It’s obvious that the idea was as important as the execution.
The Link series, which shares the ground floor gallery with two Stain paintings, features five large canvases on which coloured rectangles float on sombre grounds. There may be some plan in the disposition of these shapes but it would hardly matter if the design is purely arbitrary. They are colour exercises in which the brightness of a yellow, a red or a green is modulated by the low, enveloping tones of the background. The paintings are also responsive to changes of light in the room. One could think of them as ambient creations, the visual equivalent of slow-moving, layered pieces of music by Brian Eno or Harold Budd.
Such wilful simplicity might once have been greeted with hostility, as if Ball were trying to con us with a few rectangles on a dull ground. Where are the gum trees and the Ned Kelly helmets? In these more enlightened times (aesthetically, if not politically), I imagine that most people might enjoy these subtle manipulations of colour and tone in the spirit the artist intended: not as statements or illustrations, but as meditative arrangements that rest easily on the eye. No longer in competition with other vanguard artefacts they have come unscathed through the fashion cycle, and can take their place in a quiet corner of local art history.
Sydney Ball: 1963-1973. Works from the Estate
Sullivan + Strumpf, 30 July – 15 August, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August, 2020