Looking at Art - September

<strong>Tony Tuckson</strong><br/>Born 1921 Ismalia (Port Said), Egypt;<br/>arr. Australia 1942; Died Sydney 1973 <br/><br/><i>Untitled</i> c.1968-1973 [TD1304] <br/>Charcoal on paper, washed & lined to echigo paper, 33.8 x 20.4cm<br/> Charles Darwin University Art Collection – CDU1709 <br/>Image © Estate of Tony Tuckson, courtesy Watters Gallery Sydney <br/>Acquired 2009

Tony Tuckson

Described as “Australian by adoption, Egyptian by early upbringing, English by schooling, fighter pilot through circumstance”, Tony Tuckson may be regarded as both a “great artist of his time and something of a prophet in his adopted country”.

Like Ian Fairweather, he “situated himself at a crossroads” of influences and experiences – European, Australian Aboriginal, Melanesian, Asian – and in Tuckson’s case, American, synthesising seemingly disparate strands in a deeply personal art of universal import.

During the Second World War, Tuckson served as a RAF Flight Lieutenant and was temporarily stationed in and around Darwin (1942-3), where he created a number of drawings and water-colours based on his experiences at the front-line in North Australia.

From 1950 until his untimely death in 1973, he served as Assistant Director, then Deputy Director, of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Although his onerous administrative and curatorial duties often kept him from the studio (he referred to himself as a “Sunday painter”), Tuckson’s commitment to art never waned.

For ethical and professional reasons, he desisted from exhibiting and practising commercially for most of his life, showing a mere nine of his own paintings between 1954 and 1962. He held his first solo exhibition at Watters Gallery in 1970 and his second solo show in 1973 (six months before his death).

Since that time, Watters Gallery has consistently staged numerous exhibitions of his paintings and drawings, confirming Tuckson’s stature as a “painter’s painter” and an influential figure: a prototype and pioneer of action painting and lyrical abstraction in the history of Australian Modernism.

In 1976, the AGNSW held a memorial retrospective exhibition in his honour. The National Gallery of Australia staged a retrospective exhibition (Painting Forever) in 2000-1, which toured to several state and regional galleries.

Tuckson’s “mature” paintings and drawings have been classified as those created between 1958 until his death in 1973. His oeuvre consists of just over 10,000 drawings and about 450 paintings.

Tim Fisher has described his drawings (in pencil, charcoal, ink, watercolour, gouache, and mixed media, on a range of paper) as “a vital continuum in his artistic life”. They are “both a comprehensive repository” of his creative self and “a record of the exploratory role that drawing played in his art”. In Tuckson’s case, the “radical pictorial ideas … initiated and developed through the swift repetition of a series of drawings” meant they acted less as “studies” than as “spatial and textural primers, where the marks are like shadows around light, rising and falling, swelling into the paper space, engaging torn edges or retreating into a fugitive almost-legible writing”.

They are an intensely personal expression of his mind and emotional state, echoing his own presence and physical engagement with the processes of creative thought and action. Like his paintings, they may be regarded as Daniel Thomas has described, as “a kind of self-portraiture, emphasising an inner, subjective world.”

Tuckson is also remembered for his pioneering curatorial work in collecting and exhibiting Australian Aboriginal Art as art – not ethnographic curiosities or relics of a dying race. In 1958 and 1959, he accompanied orthopaedic surgeon and art patron, Stuart Scougall, to Melville Island and Arnhem Land, collecting work for the AGNSW. Scougall subsequently gifted a significant group of carved and painted pukumani poles to the Gallery, which Tuckson radically installed at the entrance in June 1959.

Between 1960-61, he curated a major exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings, carved figures and sacred and secular objects, which toured all State Galleries. The book which followed the exhibition (Australian Aboriginal Art, New York, 1964) was a landmark publication which distinguished Tuckson’s approach to Aboriginal art as art, in contrast to the orthodox stance of Aboriginal art as cultural artefact championed by anthropologists who dominated the field.

As Terence Maloon has observed, Tuckson laid the foundations for one of the earliest public collections of Aboriginal art, acquired for aesthetic rather than ethnographic reasons. He emphasised its universal humanity, technical ingenuity, truth to materials and “inspirited” qualities, rather than its “otherness” from European traditions. Appreciated as unique creations of talented individuals who made their paintings with pleasure, imagination and intuition, he also sensed and related to the energy and “haptic knowledge” of Aboriginal art, rather than craving its embedded stories: an aesthetic response that relied less on cultural knowledge than on emotional and physical impact.

This drawing is a fine example of Tuckson’s mature, linear abstract style: its direct, gestural qualities and striking use of mark-making and negative space are deceptively simple. The flowing lines and arcs create volume and movement on the flat surface of the paper, with tantalising associations of meaning. The innermost portion could be read as a shorthand rendition or pictogram of a bird – or a sculpture of a bird – perhaps by a Tiwi artist? The top lines do not extend to the upper edge of the paper, grounding the drawing to the lower edge, emphasising its verticality and echoing the human figure and its maker.

As Maloon has observed, Tuckson was influenced by Aborginal art in less obvious ways than artists such as Margaret Preston. He admired Aboriginal artists’ directness, which left no room for mistakes or alterations and each stage of a technical process could be seen and appreciated. Equally important was the use of intuitive faculties: the imagination and the unconscious. For Tuckson, to “appreciate fully any work of art, we must use the same sense of intuition as the artist, together with our conscious knowledge of other works of art, in order to judge quality”.

[Ref: D. Thomas, T. Maloon, R. Free & G. Legge, Tuckson: Tony Tuckson, Watters Gallery for Craftsman House, Victoria, 2006; T. Fisher & T. Maloon, Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2000]

Anita Angel
Curator, Charles Darwin University Art Collection
3 September 2009

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