A.D.S Donaldson: History Never Repeats - Art Collector

Issue 24, April - June 2003

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Immersed in a busy international career, there’s nothing abstract about the rise in temperature for Sydney contemporary artist, A.D.S. Donaldson, writes Michael Hutak.

Andrew Donaldson – you may already know him by his ‘trade name’, the artist A.D.S. Donaldson – is at home in his inner-Sydney backyard, expanding enthusiastically on contemporary art over coffee and cigarettes.

“International art is not seen in terms of nationality,” he tells Australian Art Collector. “It is not about country, it’s about city. It’s about where you live and it’s city to city. It’s not national or even trans-national but metropolitan. And it’s even trans-metropolitan. When I show in Zurich I’m a Sydney artist, not an Australian artist. Yet I’m also a local artist – local and/or global.”

He pauses before confiding in a tone of resignation: “And that’s all I really am – a Sydney abstract artist. I’m in Sydney doing abstract work. That’s all there is.”

There’s a lot more to account for, of course, after two decades of diverse and compelling creative output: from the brown monochromes, to the op-ish spray painted stripes, shaving brush paintings, pour paintings, shoe-polish paintings, the hard edges, the colour fields, the floor works, the “offset work” that encompasses invitations, catalogues, and posters, the sculpture, the photography, the archive.

Donaldson may be keenly aware of the role of abstraction in his work, but he also knows it has been subsumed beneath the patina of a typically post-modern practice, one influenced more by post-war conceptualism and minimalism than prewar modernism. A practice that marks him an artist of his generation: that group that earned their stripes in the rigorous, theory-driven contemporary art scene of 1980s Sydney.

Donaldson was a bastard child of the seminal Sydney 1980s art collective, Various Artists Ltd, a group that engaged the post-modern interrogation of the very notion of history. Donaldson says he was “the baby of the bunch” that numbered now-prominent mid-career contemporary artists such as Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, John Young, and Lindy Lee in its ranks.

It was a generation, studying at Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), that had engaged with the then nascent French cultural theory that among other things was questioning the notion of authorship: “When you ask questions about the figure of the artist,” says Donaldson, “or of who created the initials A.D.S. for instance, it arises in the context of this engagement with the authorial problem.” He runs off a quick list of popular 1980s talking points: “Who is the author? What is the author? Death of the author, birth of the reader, intertextuality, appropriation and quotation…”

One natural artistic by-product of this creative context is the very figure of the artist: A.D.S. Donaldson. In keeping with his dictum that the production of art be driven by lived experience, Donaldson says he doesn’t make the art, “the art is making A.D.S. Donaldson”. In the catalogue for his 2002 survey at the University Art Museum (UAM), University of Queensland, there is no traditional artist’s curriculum vitae. Instead, it lists a chronology of the artist’s life, listing events where A.D.S. Donaldson “studies”, “visits”, “attends”, “organises”, “curates”, “publishes”, and “exhibits”.

The 1990s saw recognition at home, and study and exhibitions abroad. In 1990 Donaldson joined the cutting-edge stable of Sydney gallerist Kerry Crowley at Yuill/Crowley Gallery. The same year he travelled to Germany to study with Professor Klaus Rinke at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In 1993 he was selected for the Perspecta contemporary art survey at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in 1994 studied painting with Claus Carstensen at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, courtesy of a coveted Samstag Scholarship. Later that year he joined former design editor and Crowley employee Sarah Cottier in her new gallery in Newtown, alongside Matthys Gerber, Hany Armanious and John Nixon. In 1995 Donaldson was chosen for Primavera, the influential annual showcase for emerging artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Throughout the decade he exhibited works in New York, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Munich, Malmo, Basel, Vienna, Zurich, Dusseldorf, and in Australia, at a score or more group shows and solo exhibitions.

In the new millennium he finds himself a local artist with an expanding global profile. In 2000 he was the artist-in-residence at Power Studio in the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris. 2002 saw Donaldson’s first solo show with the important Zurich gallerist, Mark Müller, and also the first comprehensive account of his work in a survey at the University of Queensland’s University Art Museum, curated by his Brisbane dealer David Pestorious.

“It was very exciting,” says Donaldson of the UAM survey, “because I acknowledge that my work may seem difficult and I feared that to have so much of it in the one place might prove disheartening to the public. However the exhibition proved popular and the response was tremendous.” Apart from a signed edition of prints that sold out within days, Donaldson benefited from the exposure such a survey can command.

The artist’s 2003 agenda also includes New York’s pre-eminent contemporary art fair, the Armoury Show in March, a solo show at Sarah Cottier in May, the prestigious Art Basel in June and back to Australia to work with Pestorious on an exhibition concerning Donaldson’s interest in the artist Mary Webb.

The local/global split can also be seen in who buys his work. In Australia it is predominantly major collecting institutions like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Queensland Art Gallery. In Europe and the USA it is serious private collectors. Cottier regularly takes his work to Basel, where he has sold out in the previous two years. “I do sell in Basel. Brisbane is quite keen on me, in the last two years my work has been bought by collectors from Barcelona, Madrid and Zurich.” We press him on prices for his work, a topic he openly resists. Offset work, editions and prints start at around $2,000, large abstract paintings have leapt beyond $15,000.

But we’re quickly back to local again, as the artist has a point to reiterate: “I’m a Sydney abstract artist and it turns out I have a proud and honourable tradition.”

Donaldson explains that this tradition remained obscured until one day in 1991 when he was scouring secondhand bookshops. He came across Michel Seuphor’s Dictionnaire de la peinture abstraite [Dictionary of Abstract Painting], published in 1957. In 1929 Parisian critic, Seuphor, founded the key artist group and magazine Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), and later the just-as-influential Abstraction and Creation. The discovery provided something of an epiphany for ‘A.D.S. Donaldson’.

“Now we often hear that this country has no continuing tradition of genuine geometric or hard edge abstraction in the early part of the 20th century. But in this dictionary, by the most pre-eminent scholar in the field, we find entries for [Australians] Ralph Balson, Grace Crowley and Frank Hinder. How are they there? How is Seuphor aware of these Sydney abstract artists? The answer is Mary Webb.” The overlooked Sydney artist, Webb, moved to Paris in 1949 where, according to Seuphor, she “launched out into abstraction.”

Donaldson disappears from the yard into the house to do more impromptu data-mining in his extensive, immaculately maintained archive of abstract artists’ original printed materials – curios and catalogues, monographs, invitations and journals – a resource that, as it stands, would be gratefully received by any serious art institution. He re-emerges with more books and catalogues and concludes the history lesson with an on-the-run chronology of 20th century Australian abstraction: “John Power, Balson, Crowley, Mary Webb, Syd Ball, Central Street, conceptual art, the evacuation of painting in the 1970s, and then we pick it up, in the late 1980s-early 1990s.”

Donaldson clearly has a context, and it’s no surprise to see his Sydney dealer programming a show of Syd Ball’s modular paintings from 1968-69 for April, with Donaldson’s next solo show coming directly after. And it’s not only the crew at Sarah Cottier who are interested in unearthing Sydney’s rich abstract legacy. The exhibition Central Street Live, curated by Rhonda Davis and Christopher Dean, looks back at the seminal Central Street Gallery (re-opened in 1970 as the Institute of Contemporary Art under the directorship of Paul McGillick) in its first three years, 1966-69. Sydney Morning Herald critic Anne Loxley was left giddy encountering anew works by Wendy Paramor, Alan Oldfield, Michael Johnson, Dick Watkins, James Doolin, Harald Noritis, John White and Rollin Schlicht on viewing the show at Penrith Regional Gallery in February 2003. “The astonishing array of locally produced hard-edge abstraction left me more than punch drunk,” wrote Loxley. “I was confused. Why is all this great stuff so little known? Why didn’t they show it to us at university? … I was also ashamed. I have seen a few of these works in the past and I dismissed them.”

Donaldson has maintained an active engagement with the artist-run gallery scene throughout his career, most recently at Melbourne’s CNR gallery, in a show curated by fellow abstract artist Melinda Harper. Indeed while fellow travellers like Harper and many of his 1980s contemporaries have enjoyed much exposure in the growing secondary auctions market for contemporary art, Donaldson’s own works have yet to surface, a situation the UAM survey will likely alter.

Pedagogy, he believes, is crucial to a well-rounded practice. He currently teaches in the painting department at SCA, and he has taught in the sculpture department at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW and the painting department at Queensland University of Technology.

His studio is a short walk through the backstreets of Enmore. When he is in Sydney his ritual is “to go there every day”. “You have to. Art is lived and you make art out of your life. I believe in the studio. You have to go there.” Another tenet to which he has remained steadfast: he has never entered an art prize. A position driven by his belief that there are no definitive judgements to be made about artworks – neither good, better, or best.

Golf is a passion. His series of green glass floor sculptures are dedicated to Don Farden, professional golfer. He’s made five of them over the decade and plans to complete a full round of 18. As he says: “When greens are fast it’s like putting on glass.”

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