The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Across No.7 1972
Painting, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
132.3 (h) x 244.2 (w) cm
gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982
29 August 1979 [unknown location]
James Gleeson: This is Across 1, is it? Is that the one that comes after?
John Firth-Smith: Yes, that one. Yes, well, we didn’t talk about the smoke one very much but, anyway, we could go on a bit if you want to about that one.
James Gleeson: Yes, well let’s finish that one.
John Firth-Smith: But that was just basically that thing. I like the way if you can get up on top of a headland and look down at the way headlands come into the harbour like fingers and so on.
James Gleeson: Yes.
John Firth-Smith: You get a lovely, you know, difference of quality between the trees and the rocks and these sort of built up things. I found an old Persian–or not found, I bought one years ago–very cheap rug at a rug gallery. It’s not very big but it’s an interesting one because it’s just a flat woven rug and then it’s got pile that comes in from each side, like fingers, all the way up.
James Gleeson: I see, yes.
John Firth-Smith: They’re like headlands coming in and the flat part of the rug is like the water. It’s like actually flying over something like the harbour. It’s not as irregular, it’s quite irregular thing, but it’s very beautiful. It’s just sort of again that texture sort of something. I mean, I’m just amazed that nobody’s really working with texture. When I talk about that I don’t mean the Spanish school but sheets of glass next to sheets of fern next to sheets of brick and, you know, just walls of panels of things, because I don’t think anyone’s really done things like that. I don’t know, may be they have. But things that you can go up and touch and actually get some sort of—
James Gleeson: Tactile response.
John Firth-Smith: Tactile sort of response to and so on. But that is what sort of happens. I mean, you get that sort of surface of the water and the surface of the rocks and the land. It’s just that visual tiled sort of quality that is there, that is just that play between the two. And the smoke was another thing. It wasn’t really about trying to record anything.
James Gleeson: No.
John Firth-Smith: It’s like these diagonal things aren’t trying to tell about building. It’s all something about really the abstract qualities of the things that are around us all the time.
James Gleeson: They have been absorbed into your subconscious and just come out in one way.
John Firth-Smith: Well, it’s like the side of a new Mercedes or something, which is a beautiful sort of burgundy and 500 coats of paint of whatever it is with the chrome strip along the side and it’s immaculate and so on. Then somebody might scrape along the side with a truck and just gouge in a line, which is breaking through all that immaculate paint and exposing the metal which has rusted over a week because it happened a week ago. Then the two weeks before that somebody had put another dent in it and that man had come along with that pink putty and puttied it up. Not conscious of making any shapes though, just somehow putting it on there. So it’s just a play of all these sort of types of marks and things, but they all have to be saying and doing something in the right place.
James Gleeson: Yes, yes.
John Firth-Smith: Just a build up sort of evidence of man being there or something, I don’t know.
James Gleeson: This feeling was coming through in ’65, ’66?
John Firth-Smith: That’s right, and early with those things, you know, the garage doors and the bush. It’s always the same things really that have sort of interested me. But there it was just a thing of almost just sitting on a rock and looking down at the harbour and smoking a pipe but noticing while you’re sitting there that all the smoke’s coming out of the pipe and blurring your vision, you see, so that you can have things that were dissolving in other things.
The harbour ones that were concerned about yachts and things on the harbour and the collage was used as the manmade element on the water. So the paint was nature and the collage was the manmade which related to the early thing. After that it was trying to take that a bit further and it was almost a thing of trying to fit things in, thinking of the whole rectangular area of the painting as being one element and then trying to put marks on it that were sort of opposite or something. So that it ceased to be about a view or about a natural situation, but making a situation in the painting. To do this I started becoming aware of the importance of the rectangular quality of the painting. The first decision about doing a painting is what proportion is the painting. You know, that’s the first decision. I started thinking then well you can have a long painting or a square painting or a round painting or a triangular painting. That’s the first decision really. Then once you’ve made this arena you can then make marks and things which have to relate to that first decision of what the size of the painting is. So right from the beginning it’s not just pulling a sheet of masonite out that happens to be four by three so that’s the size of the painting. So you can have a painting that’s 20 feet long and only an inch high, or whatever.
James Gleeson: Yes, it’s an active decision, and the first one in the process.
John Firth-Smith: That’s right. So that then started taking over from that thing. That became almost like the manmade decision or the manmade thing on the harbour, you see. Then the marks on it were sort of the natural thing, you see. So any paint you put on the canvas was like weathering on a plank of wood. The plank of wood might be 20 feet long and six inches wide, but the way the deterioration, bird droppings, dirt, rot, all that sort of stuff, alters the shape and the character of that thing. So that in making up the stretcher, I’d sort of make a decision on the shape of it. They were always generally rectangular but some of them did actually have extensions added on to them and so on. Then I’d allow the paint to just be this weathering process on that surface. There might have been marks or something like lines, and most of them were vertical at that stage, vertical lines.
James Gleeson: Yes.
John Firth-Smith: Then there were a number of them where I think the proportion was something like six squares and then I’d take one whole square out of the bottom, so that I’d have a sort of a stretcher that was sort of like that.
James Gleeson: Yes.
John Firth-Smith: And one bit would fit in perfectly so it became a rectangle. But instead of having to paint a very fine line, just the fact of where they butted up, and they were two separate stretchers, meant that there was just a slit there. You know, things like that, just working with—well, it was like sort of the vertical ones that you’d chop in half and one bit would fall down and then the other bit would fall down and you get things happening like boxes and things. It’s quite interesting because they were about sort of trying to become very conscious of the process of painting and the problems of painting. Because I’d tended to have spent the last, whatever it was, eight years going through the bush and the new house and the harbour and the boat and all that sort of stuff about these opposites and so on. Now it was just trying to work it all out in an abstract way and leaving all these figurative elements out completely.
James Gleeson: I see. What years were these? This was what, the mid-sixties?
John Firth-Smith: That would have been from about 1966 or seven until about 1970. There are numbers of paintings. For instance, there were some that were big arcs and the thing is it was again trying to fit the longest, a very large sort of—
James Gleeson: Element.
John Firth-Smith: Element into a picture that’s unbroken. Like a diagonal, you see. It’s like doing a Tarzan thing and just bending down a bit of cane and then putting it into a box. Then the fact that it wants to do that, holds it in place, you see.
James Gleeson: And gives it tension?
John Firth-Smith: And the corners actually sort of become these sort of parts where those bits sort of stay in. They can’t move out of the corners, you see. So this arc is just in there. I just sort of became interested in doing things like that. They were just about almost a physical thing of trying to put something into the painting or something. Of course, I’d thought of doing things out of bits of wood and wire. I thought of doing a sculpture which filled up a room where you had a stainless steel pipe that was a straight bar. Again, you got into the room and the only way you could get it in was, say, putting one bit in that corner and because it was longer you’d have to arc this great thing right across the room. But I never actually made any of those things, but I did think about making things like that.
James Gleeson: I see. Did this precede the painting of these arced—
John Firth-Smith: Yes, they all came after the painting. See, what seems to happen is I sort of almost instinctively come up with things that have come out of some sort of process that I seem to go through. I don’t know how it works. I haven’t decyphered that. But afterwards I spend a lot of time just sort of contemplating and meditating and wondering why I’ve done it and so on.