Dick WATKINS | Anniversary

Australia 1937
Great Britain, Europe, United States of America 1959-61; Australia 1961-74; Hong Kong 1974-79 with periods in Europe 1974-75 and 1977-78;

Anniversary 1973 synthetic polymer paint on canvas
signed and dated reverse u.c., crayon "Dick Watkins 1973"
165.5 (h) x 284.6 (w) cm Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1983.1590

  • the artist;
  • with Coventry Gallery, Sydney;
  • from whom bought by Philip Morris Art Grant 1974;
  • by whom given to the National Gallery of Australia, May 1983
  • Australian Art 1940-1990 from the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
    • The Museum of Fine Arts, Gifu 28 Jul 1995 – 03 Sep 1995
  • Wall to Wall
    • National Gallery of Australia 14 Oct 1998 – 26 Jan 1999
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Philip Morris art grant: Australian art of the last ten years, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 1983, p. 95, illus. col., p.13;
  • Barbara Dowse, Dick Watkins in context: An exhibition from the collection of the National Gallery, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 1993, no cat. no., p. 19, illus. col.;
  • Misato Shomura and Atsuko Yamamoto (eds), Australian art 1940–1990: From the collection of the National Gallery of Australia: In search of an inner landscape, Gifu: Museum of Fine Arts1995, cat. 66, illus. col., p. 145

Anniversary 1973is a large abstract painting in landscape format, created with energetic diagonals, darts, arcs and drips. Onto a putty coloured ground, the artist has painted a series of gestural marks in black, red, green and blue; these are overpainted with more pink and black, and highlighted with yellow and poster red. As the vertical drips demonstrate, Watkins seems to have worked on Anniversary over several sittings. The work captures the energy of paint, a sense of compression, and elements of collage. We could be watching fireworks.

Watkins has described his oeuvre as a product of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock.[1] From the 1970s, when he made a commitment to studying these masters, he concentrated on their ‘plastic problems’ and, in doing so, ‘established his own analytical categories for understanding their work.’[2] In an earlier painting Deposition 1972, also in the Gallery’s collection, Watkins applies the paint in the manner of Pollock, almost as if drawing using coloured paint.[3] The result is a brilliantly-coloured, labyrinthine work. In Anniversary,Watkins develops the web-like marks of Deposition into more acrobatic gestures. Here, his lunges, slashes, and stabs owe something to Willem de Kooning and their calligraphic quality suggests the human figure. The use of bodily deconstruction or figurative elements in Watkins’ work has been traced to Picasso,[4] but, in this case, a further connection may be drawn to the work of Lee Krasner. Indeed many of Watkins’ paintings suggest aspects of other artists’ work, but are ultimately entirely his own.[5]

‘There is not a great deal to work with on straight lines and curved lines after all,’ said the artist.[6] In Anniversary Watkins demonstrates how much territory many be explored by limiting himself to a small number of elements.[7] His comments have particular resonances when applied to this painting:

The four sides of the picture are the boundaries (as of a playing field).
The energy of the painting and its parts are generated, on the whole, by its contact with the four sides.
Forms that are parallel to the sides develop little energy (though they have their purposes).
Forms which approach the diagonal are of a higher energy; they tend to bounce off the sides. …
Painting is risk-taking and the courting of disaster is the essence of a good painting.
To paint well is to forget to ‘paint.’[8]

The diagonal forms of Anniversary serve to illustrate these ideas. They, and the horizontals and verticals, are bound by, and resonate from, the edge of the work. Mary Eagle likens the artist’s way of working to a dance or a fencing match: he ‘paints with speed and aplomb,’ to a dance of his own choreography, as if parrying ‘one move after another, movements of slash, lunge, and swivelling turn.’[9] In the case of Anniversary we might extend the analogy, and imagine a boxer, both hemmed in by the ring, and bouncing off its ropes. Watkins has indeed ‘courted disaster’ and his risks have paid returns.

Lucina Ward

[1] See Grazia Gunn, ‘Dick Watkins’, Art and Australia vol. 21 no. 2, Summer 1983 pp. 210–16 or Daniel Thomas, ‘DickWatkins and the flood of art’ in DickWatkins: Australia: XVIII Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil,The Broken Hill City Art Gallery 1985, p. 6.

[2]Gunn, p. 210.

[3] Deposition 1972, acrylic car lacquer on unprimed canvas, 160.3 x 190.8 cm, Purchased 1973, National Gallery of Australia 1973.186.

[4] Specifically in his use of a circle as breast or eye or, as Barbara Dowse puts it, his ‘furtive ideographs’; see Dick Watkins in context: An exhibition from the collection of the National Gallery, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 1993, p. 19. Watkins saw the Tate’s Picasso retrospective in July 1960; the catalogue for this exhibition, and many others, is part of his extensive library.

[5] In the paintings following Anniversary, Watkins incorporated a larger range of figurative elements; these body parts, while not overt, are set within a dense calligraphic environment, and result in works which are akin to Pollock’s totem paintings; see, for example, Storytime 1976, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 167.6 x 124.8 cm, National Gallery of Australia 1983.1591, and A visit to the studio 1981, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 177.6 x 181.5 cm, National Gallery of Australia 1983.1592.

[6] Watkins quoted by Thomas, p. 7.

[7] Watkins limited himself to a similar range of marks in several other works of the same year: see, for example, Untitled 1973, oil on canvas, 165 x 262 cm, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, and The visit 1973, oil on canvas, 168 x 125 cm, New England Regional Art Museum, Armidale.

[8] See the artist’s statement, prepared for his 1989 retrospective at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery.

[9]Mary Eagle, ‘Dick Watkins’, Art Monthly, October 1990 pp. 22–23, at p. 22.


The National Gallery of Australia holds 31 works by Watkins: 14 paintings, 16 watercolours, and 1 drawing.