By Chris Wallace
I waved at the Queen as she sailed towards Commonwealth Avenue Bridge on Thursday. A policeman stopped several of we cyclists crossing the bridge until the royal dinghy – so small the flags it flew were nearly bigger than the boat – passed underneath. We must have looked like republican rock hurlers. But I didn’t want to throw a rock. I wanted to wave her on to the National Gallery of Australia before she visited Floriade.
Because Elizabeth could have seen something really extraordinary at the NGA: the new Indigenous galleries and the Fred Williams retrospective which has just two more weeks to run. What an unparalleled opportunity to experience the art particular to and powerfully about Australia from both Indigenous and modernist perspectives – as it turns out, a lost opportunity. I’ve tried but failed to fend off the suspicion that the privileging of tulips over this special moment at the NGA is indicator of the philistine temper of the times.
The strength of the art in the Indigenous galleries is well known but some may be unaware of the Deborah Hart-curated Williams show’s significance. Hart has occupied one of the most significant jobs in the Australian art world as the NGA’s Senior Curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture for just over a decade. The previous Williams retrospective was curated by then NGA director James Mollison in 1987, so she had a hard act to follow. Some would’ve been cowed following in Mollison’s tracks.
Not Hart, who rose to NGA director Ron Radford’s challenge to bring us Williams through fresh eyes, to surprise and open up new ways of thinking about his work – so much so the show’s poster and the cover for her accompanying book Fred Williams: Infinite Horizons is a detail of one of Williams’ water works, Beachscape with bathers, Queenscliffe IV (1971), rather than one of his iconic bush landscapes. That’s brave.
Patrick McCaughey, himself a formidable Williams scholar, described the retrospective in the Times Literary Supplement recently as “magisterial”. Hart, McCaughey writes, “has deftly mixed the classic Williams of the various series with non-anthology works that avoid neat categorization” – works he says are often the most expressive.
“Everything is poised for the international recognition of Williams as a major twentieth-century landscape painter nearly thirty years after his death,” McCaughey writes. “It took a similar amount of time for those eminent American landscape painters, John Marin and Edward Hopper, to receive their full dues internationally. If a version of this great exhibition were shown outside Australia, it would secure a lasting international reputation for Fred Williams.”
McCaughey is right. The retrospective will travel to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and then the Art Gallery of South Australia but Radford should exert his international clout to get this show abroad. It should also be recognized as a big notch on Deborah Hart’s belt – a curator who has had a stellar decade at NGA and who, if there was any justice, should move onwards and upwards to be a major museum director herself at this stage of her career.
For exhibitions don’t just put themselves together. There are two creative intelligences at work in any big show – those of the artist and the curator. Without suggesting any equivalence between the two – there isn’t and no reasonable curator would claim one – great artists deserve highly intelligent and creative curators to mount their work.
Artists know it, too. Two facing pages from Fred Williams’ 1966 diary reproduced in Hart’s book show Williams’ detailed thumbnail drawings when planning the selection and placement of works for a joint show he and John Bracks were to have together the following year. Which works, in what order, in a dialogue that creates a whole that’s greater than the sum of the individual parts – that’s the goal. The best artists want the best curators to help them achieve it. Hart pulls it off in spades in the Williams retrospective as she has in all her recent shows and it’s all stacking up into quite a career.
As it happens the directorships of both the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW are vacant at the moment. Hart, quintessentially the creative curator, disavows interest saying being the boss would get in the way of what she really likes doing: curating. However, directors like Ron Radford show you can walk and chew gum at the same time. He’s always writing catalogue entries, chapters for books and generally being the curator manqué. Sometimes you’ve just got to step up, even if you don’t want to.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 22 October 2011