“He’s due for a late flowering,” says artist, McLean Edwards. “I just wish he hadn’t burnt so many bridges on the way.” One of those bridges is Mclean himself, who has already told us he no longer has any relationship with Keith Looby. It made me think: “Do I have any sort of relationship with Looby?” The last time I saw him I nodded a greeting and got a blank stare, so I suppose the answer is “No”.
This documentary, credited to Sean Murphy, Merlyn Alt, Nicholas Garner and Iain Knight, is currently being submitted to the film festival circuit in anticipation of a general release. One of the original producers was the late Des Murphy, a self-confessed friend of lost causes who once stood as the Labor candidate for Mosman.
Looby must be one of the most unusual portraits of an artist ever committed to film. Whereas most artist docos are barely veiled hagiographies, almost none of the interviewees (self included) are able to contain their frustration and disappointment with this particular specimen.
Looby, who is 78 this year, speaks lugubriously about his own failures but everyone in this film, with the possible exception of his partner, April Pressler, views him as the author of his own downfall. It’s a strange fate for an artist of talent, vision and dedication. In the 1970s and 80s Looby was a star, with loyal collectors and a ready market.
I saw my first Loobys in the 1970s at the Von Bertouch Gallery in Newcastle, while I was still in high school, after one of my art teachers had raved about the show. It was that extraordinary series of drawings, A Black and Whte History of Australia, which took up the indigenous cause long before Aboriginal art had become part of our national consciousness.
In the film, Adam Hill (AKA. Blak Douglas), talks about his huge admiration for these drawings. Humphrey McQueen reminds us that even Patrick McCaughey once said Looby drew better than Whiteley, but laments the fact that his works never get included in any of the major drawing surveys. Why? “He’s too much trouble”.
Trouble is Looby’s speciality, and he’s sought it out with relish. Nowadays he’s the closest thing in Australian art to Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’, who takes pleasure in his own insignificance.
For many people, alas, Looby is not an avatar of existentialism, but a moaner and groaner with a passion for conspiracy theories. If he’s been sidelined it’s allegedly because of the art mafia, the charm school, the sinister bourgeoisie, and so on. McQueen suggests Looby’s problem was that he never knew when to let go of an argument, being capable of pursuing a victim around a crowded room for hours on end. “You could say he’d never been properly brought up,” theorises McQueen, “never properly socialised.”
The film explores Looby’s upbringing at Bondi, where he trots out that well-worn line about his father being a communist and his mother a Catholic, as if that explained their offspring’s self-destructive tendencies. Looby’s childhood would provide subject matter for numerous paintings and drawings, but there never seems to have been anything particularly traumatic in his past.
Looby went to East Sydney Tech (The National Art School) at the age of 15, became a fellow traveller with the Sydney Push, and never looked back. A lot of people tolerated his foibles and even looked after him. His most significant alliance was with art dealer, Ray Hughes, who’ll be ready for the epithet, “legendary”, as soon as we’ve forgotten all the appalling things he did and said on a regular basis.
One former curator who hasn’t forgotten is Julie Ewington, who decribes Looby and Ray’s banter as being delivered in a “testosterone-fuelled blear”. Like every other interviewee, however, she remains an admirer of Looby’s work.
The Hughes-Looby relationship endured for 28 years – 28 years of hard drinking, scathing commentary on curators and art bureaucrats, and general bad behaviour. The saving grace was Ray’s relentless vitality, and his willingness to take risks no other local art dealer would contemplate. One simply had to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad.
One of the most well-chewed bones of contention was the Archibald Prize, which Looby entered year after year, finally emerging as the winner in 1984, wth a portrait of Max Gillies impersonating Bob Hawke. On the way to this hard-earned victory he submitted many paintings that in his (and others’) opinions, shouldhave won. The most controversial year was 1979, when Looby’s portrait of veteran journalist, Paddy McGuinness, was overlooked for Wes Walters’s portrait of Philip Adams. Looby claims he was told by an insider that he had the votes, and was dudded by a last minute conspiracy that favoured a piece of “advertising art”. His portrait of Anne Summers was a stand-out the following year, when the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW decided (incredibly) not to award the prize at all.
The 1979 verdict is one of the few occasions when one feels inclined to believe the artist’s theories. The Paddy McGuinness portrait is an overlooked icon of modern Australian art and Looby had every right to feel aggrieved.
With Looby everything has had a tendency to come to a sad and bitter end, from his personal relationships to his long-running battle with the art establishment. His final “divorce” from Ray Hughes occurred in the oddest manner. It was on the night the Federation show opened in Canberra in late 2000. I was the curator, and had included Looby’s massive religious painting, Resurrection (1964), which was being gifted to the gallery by James Fairfax. Sitting in a corner with Ray, at the after-party, I was listening to a long recital of Looby’s virtues.
“Imagine someone coming from overseas and seeing that show,” he said. “Who do you think they’d reckon was the greatest Australian artist? Keith Looby!”
This was interrupted by Looby appearing and telling us that he’d been watching from the other side of the room. He knew we were talking about him and he wasn’t going to stand for it. Angry words were spoken. Artist and dealer went their separate ways. This absurd mistake was never resolved, and the split grew very ugly very quickly. When Looby removed his work from the Ray Hughes Gallery a cameraman from The Australian was on hand to record this historic occasion – a little twist that infuriated Ray even further.
This wasn’t the end for Looby, but it was the beginning of a retreat back into his shell. Some 17 years later he has become an invisible man in the Australian art scene, with a storage facility full of massive paintings that can’t be sold. He is consistently overlooked for museum exhibitions and his auction prices have plummeted. It may be a self-inflicted wound, but it’s still an injustice. The drawback with this sympathetic but brutally honest documentary, is that it doesn’t fire us with indignation on the artist’s behalf or make the case strongly enough for his critical resuscitation. Instead, the viewer is drawn into Looby’s maudlin world-view, which feels like a small hotel room with no windows. We are left in no doubt as to Looby’s talent, but are left longing for a Hollywood ending.
Written & directed by Nick Garnier & Iain Knight
Starring: Keith Looby and (sometime) friends
Australia, 80 mins
Published in Artist Profile 45, November, 2018