Few contemporary Australian artists become well-known names, but Peter Powditch had his 15 minutes of fame. In 1972 the Sydney Morning Herald was putting together a front page feature on who was going to win that year’s rugby league grand final and Powditch was one of the celebrities contacted for an opinion. In later years he would become intensely private, spending his final two decades working in seclusion on the north coast.
Powditch, who died from a respiratory disease at the end of February, was a paradoxical figure. When he found himself standing in the spotlight, he turned his back. When he worked as a high school teacher he quit as soon as he managed to get an unruly class under control. As a respected teacher at art school, he threw himself into the role so completely his own work was relegated to the small hours of morning.
In 1974 Powditch received an Australia Council grant that enabled him to live in New York for ten months. This would be a dream trip for most artists, but Powditch found that although he enjoyed visiting the galleries, he was unable to work. Back in Sydney he began to believe the visit may have damaged him as an artist.
As an artist Powditch would become increasingly obdurate and introverted. At the same time, he was engaging company: intelligent, articulate, possessed of a remarkable memory. When I first wrote about his work in the early 1980s I could see nothing in it, largely because I couldn’t understand where it was coming from. There was such reticence in his delicate, schematic paintings it seemed as if Powditch was being dilettantish. In fact, he was dedicated to an obsessive degree, spending hours and days on the most minor aesthetic decisions.
Powditch was born in 1942, in Burwood. His father was a town clerk, and the family moved from place to place before settling in Taree, where Peter went to school. During the war his mother had got to know Miriam Robertson-Swann, who had fled Sydney for the coastal resort of Bundarra. This led to a close friendship between Powditch and Miriam’s sons, Ron Robertson-Swann and his younger brother, Campbell, who both became sculptors.
When he went to Sydney to study at the National Art School, Powditch would live with the Robertson-Swanns in Bellevue Hill. Like Ron, he studied under sculptor, Lyndon Dadswell. He made friends with fellow students such as Martin Sharp, and teachers such as Robert Klippel, but would stay at the NAS for only a year. He spent the best part of another year at a private art school run by John Olsen, who was an important early influence – mainly for his can-do attitude rather than his painting, which has few echoes in Powditch’s work.
Powditch held his first solo exhibition in 1966, at Anne Lewis’s Gallery A, attracting attention with vibrant pictures and painted wooden sculptures that defied categorisation. His best-known subjects were the nude, bathers, girls in bikinis, and coastal landscapes, constructed of sharp angles and planes. His female figures somehow managed to be sexy but extremely formal. In the years that followed, Powditch would ring the changes on these motifs, becoming known as a Pop artist – a label he always repudiated. Pop was just one thing among many that caught his eye – Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Giacometti were more important. In Australian art he admired Bob Klippel, Ian Fairweather and Fred Williams.
His friend, Peter Brown, got close to the mark in a 1974 profile, when he described Powditch’s work as “classically weighty, grave and authoritative”. His bikini girls may not have looked like Greek marbles but they came from the same family.
Powditch himself cut a slick image in those days – tall and lean, with a rock star haircut, he was as photogenic as his paintings. In 1970 he was commissioned to paint a mural for Sydney International Airport, although you won’t find it there today. The Sun Torsopictures of the early 1970s consolidated his popularity. These pink-and-brown, quasi-abstract paintings of suntanned female bodies were judged quintessentially Australian. He didn’t see them as icons for the sexual revolution, famously describing the bikini as “something flat on something round.”
His first marriage, to Jennifer McGrath, saw the birth of two children, Petra and James. His second marriage, to Janthia Walsh, would last 55 years. The couple had two more children – Ellie and Beth. There are now ten grandchildren.
Many remember Powditch as an exceptionally talented teacher, first at high school level, then at the National Art School, and finally at Sydney College of the Arts and the NSW College of Fine Arts.
A dispute about who should be Head of Painting at SCA in the 1990s, drew Powditch into an acrimonious court case which he pursued against all advice, believing he had right on his side. Friends say it was a legal mismatch that turned into a trainwreck. Always prone to depression, the case left Powditch in an unhappy state.
In 1999, Janthia moved the family to the north coast, with Peter following eight months later, when he could finally be prised out of his crowded studio. They would make their home in Bangalow, surrounded by family.
For most of his career, Powditch showed with two legendary dealers: the Rudy Komon Gallery from 1971, until its closure in 1982, and then the Ray Hughes Gallery, where he would remain until it was wound up at the end of 2015. His final shows were with Defiance Gallery, owned by his childhood friend, Campbell Robertson-Swann. When Powditch’s 1960s works were featured in the Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition, Pop to Popism, in 2014, they looked incredibly fresh. In 2017, there would be a full-scale retrospective titled Coast, at Sydney’s S.H. Ervin Gallery. There will be a show of late works at Defiance in May.
Powditch was painted three times for the Archibald Prize, firstly by his son, James, in a portrait pointedly titled Peter Powditch is a Dead Man Smoking in 2009; by Mitch Cairns, in 2015, and Noel Thurgate in 2017.
Powditch’s friends and former students remember him as an artist of superhuman integrity who refused to buy into the petty disputes and jealousies of the art world. He could work impossibly long hours but emerge with only a handful of pieces whittled down by relentless revision and self-criticism. A painting or sculpture might absorb his attention for weeks, but when it was finished he would quickly lose interest.
Few artists have been so honest about their struggles in the studio, or the doubts they entertained about their own work. Although he may have been painting bikini girls and sun-drenched beach scenes, Powditch was like a character from a Beckett play who seemed to take solace from the possibility – perhaps the certainty – of failure. It inspired him to front up, day after day, and try again.
Peter Allen Powditch (March 23, 1942 – February 13, 2022) is survived by his wife Janthia; his brother, Geoffrey; children: James, Ellie and Beth (daughter, Petra, died in 2017); and grandchildren, Thomas and Benjamin Bewley; Ella and Harry Powditch; Mabel, Maggie, Mary, and Maisie Hall; Ned and Billy O’Neill.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March, 2022