The NGA has one of the most important examples of Abstract Expressionism ever produced: Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles 1952, purchased in 1973. In response to the painterly exuberance of this form of abstraction new movements evolved referred to prosaically as the ‘New Abstraction’. This included hard edge or geometric abstraction, colour field painting, minimalism and Op art. The graphic reductionism inherent in this new optical form took off like wild fire in Australia. A new group of artists emerged who shook off the institutional bias towards European cubism and figuration and began to work with bold colours eschewing all illusion of space and narrative.
Surfaces became increasingly uncluttered using few pigments, abutting clashing colours or monochrome to emphasise the fact that there is no pictorial hierarchy. For some, colour itself is the subject of the work. Looking at these works another characteristic is evident. While the form is non-illusory and hard edge, often the underlying subject is quite traditional but the artists force us to look at the content through a new prism and not as a complete narrative. Abstraction was a new way of describing the intangible such as climatic phenomena, spirituality, philosophy or emotion.
Before the NGA opened its doors in 1982, we had a strong impetus to collect the art of our times and as a consequence we now have one of the nation’s finest collections of abstract art of the 1960s and 1970s. This ‘New Abstraction’ was celebrated in the watershed exhibition The Field, which opened at the NGV in Melbourne in 1968 and travelled to Sydney. James Mollison, the inaugural director of the NGA, wrote to the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board saying, ‘The Field exhibition of 1968 was a showing of the style which appears to date to be pervasive of the 60s … I propose that the Board collect for the Australian National Gallery a representative group of paintings and sculpture from the exhibition’.
Many of the works on display at the NGA came into the national collection as a result of that courageous recommendation and form the foundation of the nation’s extraordinary collection of geometric abstraction. We have dedicated two spaces to this aspect of the collection where audiences encounter a range of works across painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, photography and decorative arts.