MARGARET WORTH is an artist who epitomises the Know My Name initiative. Although her practice has at times been obscured and challenged, her pioneering work in the fields of abstraction and environmental art is at last gaining greater recognition.
ELSPETH PITT: Margaret, I’d like to ask how you came to art and how you came to be an artist. Was art something that presented itself to you, or was it something you worked to find?
MARGARET WORTH: I’ve loved art from childhood. However, it was not an option for me in a ‘streamed’ education. In first-year university, studying science and education, I crossed paths with students doing art and education. I immediately applied for a transfer and, following three days of tests and interviews, succeeded.
‘I had to face the question of which would take priority, motherhood or art, and decided on motherhood. What I didn’t anticipate was that it meant discontinuing a career as an artist.’
You initially studied at the South Australian School of Art in Adelaide. Could you say something about what it was like to be a student there? What classes did you take and who did you study with?
In the 1960s, the art school was a custom-design building in a leafy inner suburb. The relationship between students and lecturers was free-flowing, with a pub across the road for after-class socialising.
It was an exciting period of change. The old guard of European artist-teachers was taken over by the new guard of English and American artists, as well as Australians who had recently returned from overseas.
For me, the teachers who made a substantial difference were Dora Chapman in life drawing, Geoff Wilson in design and, for my final year, Syd Ball in painting.
You’ve recently written a very beautiful piece about Chapman, who you refer to as your most influential teacher. There is so little written about her, and yet her early abstract paintings are very tough. There’s an implicit steeliness and resolve that propels and fortifies them. While you were a student, were you aware that she was an artist in her own right?
No, I wasn’t. It was a loss not to know her also as an artist. Dora was aware, uncompromising and clear-thinking in her teaching as well as her art. She is remembered by colleagues and students with respect and high regard, in spite of, and because of, her forthright style.
You met your husband, Sydney Ball, at art school. You both worked in the vein of hard-edge abstraction but how did you distinctively inflect this shared language?
Colour as energy was the driving force in my work. The compositions were pared down to energy patterns. I incorporated three dimensions to make colour an object as well as subject, and embraced it as a means of transcendence to purity.
Could you say something about the NGV exhibition The Field? Historically, it has come to be recognised as an event that symbolised Australia’s growing cultural sophistication and the increasing mobility and internationalism of its artists. Although, in recent years, the exhibition’s clear gender bias has been much remarked on. What was your impression of this exhibition at the time?
I experienced the exhibition as a ‘boys club’ event. When John Stringer, the curator, was making the selections in Adelaide, he visited Syd and me at our home. My first understanding was that only artists with established reputations were to be included. I realised later that artists whom I regarded as equals were represented. I wondered why I had been excluded.
I saw that Syd’s painting in the exhibition was very similar to an earlier one of mine. It might have been why Stringer did not visit my studio. I wish I had pressed him, but I was conflicted by public perceptions and personal conviction. I missed the national significance of the exhibition.
You spent close to two decades in the United States. Could you outline what you did there and who you worked with?
In the first year, I attended the School of Visual Arts on West 20th Street in New York. Lucy Lippard, Richard Serra and Donald Judd were the instructors who made the greatest impression. Visits to Judd’s studio on Broome Street demonstrated what a professional practice looks like. A photographic project with Lippard was published in Art International. And a personal challenge from Serra is still with me today.
In 1969, Serra took my canvas panels and wood bars into a large space, where he propped, leaned and stacked them precariously. He was excited and I was sceptical. He challenged my aim for purity with chaos and disharmony. At the time, our roles as artists seemed worlds apart. Now, I see them as similar.
At a studio on Broome Street, I had a job producing screenprints for artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Sol LeWitt. I admired LeWitt, even more so when I worked at his direction on the Composite Series. He was disciplined and meticulous, and the only artist to give me a set of signed proofs.
I graduated from Columbia University with a Masters Degree in Fine Art in 1972. There, art history came alive and into the present. In 1973, when Clement Meadmore asked me to take over his class in 3D design at Parsons School of Design, I jumped at the chance. It was for one year, and valuable in developing my sense of space and placement.
Following, I freelanced across a range of jobs. In 1977 and 1978, I taught painting for Sarah Lawrence College at their International Summer School in France. As a young mother, I taught drawing at Columbia-Greene Community College in New York and subcontracted for a series of mechanical drawings for the US Air Force. I also did illustrations for Macmillan Publishing in an encyclopedia and a monthly education magazine.
Could you comment on your experience of motherhood and how it affected and influenced your art practice?
I had to face the question of which would take priority, motherhood or art, and decided on motherhood. What I didn’t anticipate was that it meant discontinuing a career as an artist.
Subsequently, I embarked on a career of services and collaboration, integrating art and culture into the planning and design of public places. I don’t regret the decision and, now, the human experience is key to all my concept development.
In recent years you have made site-specific wind instruments and sound installations. Is there a connection between this kind of work and your earlier abstractions? There appears to be a purity or a very refined elemental distillation underpinning both.
Yes, the energies of movement and sound are like the energies of colour and light. As in the early works, I aim for the simplest possible presentation.
And finally, how do you see colour, how do you put it to work and what has it given you?
Colour can be imagined in pure form but experienced only through material reflection. Together with lived experience, the physics, the psychology and art theories of colour all inform my use of it. Colour was my first love, followed by movement and sound. As pure abstractions they transcend lived reality. Imagination creates a pathway between them.
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now is on display at the National Gallery 14 Nov 2020 – 9 May 2021.