Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson
This exhibition had its beginning in 1981 when, as a curatorial assistant in the National Gallery’s department of Australian art, I was asked by the Senior Curator, Daniel Thomas, to catalogue the Lucy Swanton Bequest. This gift from the late director of the Macquarie Galleries and doyen of Sydney dealers contained superb works by Ian Fairweather, Ralph Balson, John Passmore and Grace Crowley amongst others. To my untutored eye however one painting, Tony Tuckson’s White sketch c.1973, stood out from all the others.
I knew nothing about Tuckson or his art, and White sketch hardly looked like a ‘real’ painting at all. Yet this single, long white brushstroke, on a man-sized piece of masonite, had a strong, almost physical effect on me. The grace of the brushstroke, despite the rudimentary materials, was far more beautiful than any other painted mark I had encountered. The abrupt slash of paint across the shoulders of the board and its long downward journey right to the bottom edge, also seemed sad somehow, like a perfect painterly rendering of an introspective moment. I did not need to know anything about the painting because it spoke to me inside; I felt as if I knew the person who had painted it.
Over time this singular abstract mark came to look like a self-portrait or perhaps a perceptive physical self-description of the painter – his size, balance and, remarkably, his state of mind. White sketch also came to feel strangely like a portrait of myself. Like many people I could imagine making this same gentle, self-descriptive brushstroke that looked so easy (... ‘my kid could do that!’). I found it unsettling not only that Tuckson had been able to paint with such intuitive and abstract economy, but that his painting had also caused in me an unknowing and melancholic response. I knew what I was feeling but could not tell why.
While cataloguing White sketch I found a paragraph in Daniel Thomas’s essay for the memorial exhibition Tony Tuckson 1921–1973 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1976) that mirrored my thoughts exactly: ‘Watteau’s “Gilles” prompted the most lyrical dissertation Tuckson ever gave me [Thomas] on a single painting. It is a full-length, life size man in white satin, standing straight, his round face gazing directly at the spectator. Though not a self-portrait, Watteau clearly identified himself with this image. Tuckson had a similarly poignant sense of being present in his own work, as well as a Watteauesque tenderness with shimmering white surfaces.’ The visual unity of graceful form and implied content in White sketch came to represent for me what painting could be – Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson is the result of this fascination with the humanity of Tuckson’s painterly gestures.
Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson contains 59 paintings, 42 drawings and three sketchbooks. All have been selected for their pictorial resolution of surface, palette, gesture and painterly ideas. As a consequence I have been aware that a type of tough, miscoloured working quality in both Tuckson’s paintings and drawings has been largely excised from the exhibition. Yet, as Tuckson himself wrote, ‘meaning is not possible without the means’, and I have taken him at his word, selecting only those works of art that show him at his clear, sensitive and decisive best.
The selection is purposefully weighted towards Tuckson’s mature paintings and drawings – those made between 1958 and 1973. In the story of Australian painting Tuckson is more important for where he got to than where he came from. Like many of his generation who saw active service in the Second World War, Tuckson was a do’er. He was a decisive, ethical, hard painting, hard drinking, ‘Craven A’ smoking artist by inclination, and an innovative and conscientious Art Gallery of New South Wales Deputy Director by profession. As Daniel Thomas put it, ‘he had been racing against death all his life’, and it is a tragedy that he died at the peak of his painterly powers. This is not to say that his training, sources and influences are not worthy of interest, simply that the power and originality of his mature abstract paintings demand precedence.
Ultimately it was Tuckson’s openness to what could be great painting that allowed him to make it himself. It was, however, openness gained through self-education, professional experience and dogged painterly practice, knowing himself as much as his subject matter. There can be little doubt for instance that Tuckson’s extensive (and longstanding) interest in Aboriginal art aided his leap into pure abstraction between 1957 and 1960, though not through literal or formal quotation.
His delight in the delicate paint surfaces of Arnhem Land bark paintings, or the sculptural red and white ochre forms of New Guinean shields did not extend to his becoming what he derisively termed a ‘Pseudo-Aboriginal’. Rather, Tuckson’s interest lay in ‘the underlying spirit of their imagery’, and how he could interpret or reinvent this subjective and symbolic state through his own body and gestures. The changes to his art involved a subtle re-evaluation of the painted surface itself, principally the relationship between the mostly white ground and the graffiti like, abstract subject matter. His compositions moved from figure-based grid paintings, characteristically leaning towards the right, to unruly, exploratory, scribble paintings where delicate contrasting marks are struck into the white ground.
Tuckson’s oeuvre consists of just over 10,000 drawings and around 450 paintings. His drawings in pencil, charcoal, ink, watercolour, gouache and mixed media, on whatever paper, newspaper, cartridge paper, cardboard or exhibition invitation the artist had to hand, form both a comprehensive repository of Tuckson’s artistic life and a record of the exploratory role that drawing played in his art. Often, radical pictorial ideas are initiated and developed through the swift repetition of a series of drawings. These are not studies so much 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. Some of the most beautiful, sparse and expressive abstract painted marks ever made in Australia are tried out and pushed to their limit on sheets of classified advertisements from the Sydney Morning Herald.
For most of his life Tuckson painted in his spare time, and on occasions (due to pressure of work or building projects) ceased painting altogether. It is obvious from the number of works on paper that drawing formed a vital continuum in his artistic life. Small biro drawings on lined paper, dashed off at work, or sustained series of powerful charcoal drawings, relentlessly stretching a pictorial idea – all were grist to the mill. For an expressive artist to draw well he or she must be acutely aware of their body, of posture and balance. In fact the development of a haptic and intuitive drawing style depends upon being able to call on physical movements without thinking, those that have become second nature.
Drawing allowed Tuckson the exploratory freedom of speed, nonprecious materials and an unconscious internal preparation, essential for the explosive act of painting. In a number of his 44 sketchbooks it is also plain that Tuckson accentuated the conceptual and spatial shift that occurs when moving from working flat on drawings to the verticality of painting. He created depth within paintings by drawing onto the painted surface. In many cases the drawing whispers a tangential answer to the emphatic statement of paint.
In Tuckson’s studio, which remains largely as he left it in 1973, a carefully printed homily is pinned to the storage shelves: HAVE YOU STEPPED BACK FROM YOUR PAINTING LATELY? This first person admonition can give us an insight into Tuckson’s painting technique that might not otherwise be apparent. During the preparation of this exhibition Margaret Tuckson saw me standing in the (6 metre by 4 metre) studio looking out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and into the wooded gully that is filled with giant blackbutt eucalypts and impossibly elongated angophora saplings: ‘Tony used to do that all the time while he was painting’, she remarked. ‘He would stand and look at the reflection of his painting [leaning on the wall behind him] in the windows.’
Looking myself, both out at the bush and at the reflection of a small black and white Emily Kam Kngwarray painting that now hangs in the studio, I suddenly came to understand Tuckson’s painterly perspective – that he saw himself within the painted surface, that the act of painting was at once the meaning of the painting, and that this metaphysical insinuation had come through a painterly practice, not through theory. Painted space, created intuitively within the confines of a roughly sawn piece of masonite actually extended outwards in an unbroken embrace of reflection, reversal, light becoming shadow, lines moving past one another and space opening and closing. Nothing is fixed or concealed in this shifting world; even the physical and emotional costs of painting so hard are open to scrutiny.
c.1973 synthetic polymer paint on composition board Collection of Margaret Tuckson more detail
Ian Fairweather, the Australian artist Tuckson admired most, was instrumental in making this porous, infinite painted surface seem possible. The Tucksons spent every penny of their savings (£16.6s) in 1953 to buy a ghostly Fairweather gouache, Pattern 1952, from the artist’s first one-man show at the Macquarie Galleries. It still hangs just outside the studio, in pride of place. The see-through, interconnected figures in Pattern float above a heavily worked, soft coloured ground, seeming to speak of both the surface and the void. Perhaps at this vital stage in his painterly development, Fairweather was able to distil for Tuckson the pictorial ideal of physical (and emotional) sensation combined with abstract visual acuity. An artist’s portal into the subconscious.
This innate sense of self-awareness, of balance between corporeal substance and emotional expression, became Tuckson’s greatest gift. It was not borne from isolation, as has been suggested (although both he and Fairweather did paint for much of their lives in solitude), but through hard work, openness to a multitude of examples and a magical ability to somehow completely expose his inner self through hand and touch and brush. The power of Tuckson’s art is contained in the image of the artist standing with a loaded brush as far back from the surface as possible, before darting forward to deliver paint, gesture and the cry of inspiration at a single blow.
Tuckson is an artist who grew out of unusual circumstances and sources. I am most indebted to Terence Maloon, Special Exhibitions Curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for his perceptive and accessible essay that follows. Terence has written with an economy and originality that Tuckson would have appreciated, adding a distinctive contemporary voice to the existing scholarship. I trust that both exhibition and text will elucidate, delight and perhaps sadden the viewer. As is appropriate for this extraordinary and original abstract artist.