Allan Mitelman - Art Collector

Issue 33, July - September 2005

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Allan Mitelman’s career is remarkable in its consistency over three decades. His strong and steady output offers the collector abundant choice but as Carrie Lumby discovered the problems arise in deciding which way to collect Mitelman.

The art world is one where fashions come and go like the seasons. Amongst this fickleness, only a minority of artists achieve ongoing commercial success. An even smaller number experience enduring critical acclaim from the very outset.

Allan Mitelman is one of these few exceptions. Indeed, a couple of years out of art school in the early 1970s, he was recognised as an artist of significance. This is evidenced by, for example, the fact that a 1968 lithograph, Into the Stone, was reproduced on the cover of the landmark exhibition Australian Prints at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1972.

This young artist was also collected by the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York. An extraordinary feat for an Australian artist in his twenties just out of art school.

Since his spectacular arrival on the art scene, he has exhibited prolifically and continuously, including solo shows throughout Australia on an almost annual basis, as well as numerous group shows overseas. Even more remarkably, he has fashioned a career that appears strikingly absent of low points.

There is no doubt then that Mitelman is a unique artist; one who must command the attention of serious collectors of modern Australian art. As Terence Maloon notes: “Over the past thirty or so years, Allan Mitelman has produced a body of works on paper unlike any other in Australian art.”

Mitelman has been prodigious in his output throughout the length of his career. So, where does the serious collector look to buy into an oeuvre that spans more than 30 years and so much work?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to briefly review Mitelman’s career. He was born in 1946 and studied at Prahran College of Advanced Education from 1965 to 1968. At this time it was his prints that attracted attention and were well received. With the encouragement of teachers connected with the avant-garde movement of printmaking in Australia he then moved on to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) to improve his facility with this process through that institution’s considerable resources. RMIT allowed him to experiment with works on paper and to produce bigger etchings.

His early involvement in printmaking was serendipitous because it was a high point of the origins of this aesthetic practice in Australia. In fact, the young Mitelman became one of the original exhibitors with the Print Council of Australia. At that time the highly regarded artist Fred Williams was a staunch supporter of Mitelman’s work.

As Elizabeth Cross notes, in her major text on the artist, Allan Mitelman: Works on Paper – 1967 -2004: “the ascendancy of printmaking as an embodiment of the ‘new’ in Melbourne generated considerable excitement and attention from critics, the media and institutions, resulting in a focus on his (Mitelman’s) prints.”

It was also at this time that he began his close affiliation with the Ray Hughes Gallery where he has remained to this day.

In his youth, he studied and was inspired by European paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Remarkably, he began to paint abstract-like works at an early age. This trend continued during his teenage years when he was inspired by early Cubist art. During the 1970s, he came under the influence of American modernists, notably Cy Twombly whose residual inspiration can be seen in some of his striking earlier drawings.

In spite of these influences, Mitelman remains a singular talent. This talent was immediately recognised by both art critics and curators. As Cross notes: ”Mitelman drew regular and favourable critical comment from the then current Melbourne art critics Alan McCulloch, Alan Warren and Jeffrey Makin in their weekly newspaper reviews from the time of his first exhibition in 1969 and continuing well into the 1970s. Indeed, his critical reception has always been singularly positive, eliciting thoughtful, extended comment by a wide range of critics.”

Perhaps the key to understanding Mitelman and his singular importance in the history of Australian art is that, paradoxically, he has in many ways remained free of its influences. This, it seems, is what adds to the elusiveness of trying to position him in relation to his contemporaries. Cross’s opinion is that: “Central to Mitelman’s art [is] that he is European by birth and inheritance. Not only does it shape, perhaps even define his civility as a man, but it is at the heart of the kind of art he makes.”

Compounding this, he remains unforthcoming about his work and is not given to going on record to explain it, unlike some whose equivalent standing sometimes traps them into the carnival-like art world circus. Mitelman has no pretensions about what art means and specifically is not given to metaphysical explications of his work or to affix a single meaning to it. This is why since 1975 he has not given titles to his works.

Art, for Mitelman, is more a sensual experience than an intellectual one. As his work attests, his interests lie in the materiality of the craft and specific qualities of the various media he works with. For Mitelman, art making is not a pre-articulated, reasoned practice – although it seems important to him to pass on empirical and aesthetic knowledge of the process.

He eschews the commercial possibilities in favour of making art as an end itself.

Another thing that sets him apart, although not superficially unusual, is that he has remained a teacher as well as a practitioner throughout his career. Besides the fact that he remains enduringly grateful to the teachers in his youth from the age of 12, as well as the practical reality of having an income, one way of understanding the difference between Mitelman and some other artists who also teach is – and this is key to understanding the way he views aesthetic practice – that for Mitelman it is the process of art making itself which continues to intrigue him. He has experimented with a wide range of media and techniques and continues to do so.

It is possible that his greatest legacy will be the influence of his experimentation with the possibilities of artistic media seen through the younger generation of artists he has taught. Certainly, his increasingly intricate knowledge of the process of working through the limitations and possibilities of what art can be is, in part, made possible by working with the large-scale facilities available at an institution such as the Victorian College of the Arts. A sign of this commitment is evidenced by the fact that a number of his students have painted him for the Archibald Prize – most notably Lewis Miller’s portrait that won in 1998.

From an historical perspective the potential collector should consider buying works from the seminal period of print making in Australia – of which he is seen as one of the pre-eminent figures. These works are hard to acquire.

Another collecting strategy – because of Mitelman’s ever evolving explorations in abstraction – would be to collect a range of very reasonably priced works on paper that are representative of the various stages of his development.

Perhaps the best strategy is to invest in larger scale works, which include works on canvas, as they remain undervalued for an artist of Mitelman’s stature.

Mitelman’s recent works on paper range from $3,000 to $12,000 in price while larger works are fetching between $12,000 and $50,000. Works from the 1970s are still available from Ray Hughes Gallery and command from $3,000 for a small work and from $1,000 to $12,000 for a larger piece.

For anyone not familiar with Mitelman’s work, a good starting point for understanding his overall practice is Elizabeth Cross’s comprehensive text on the artist, Allan Mitelman: Works on Paper – 1967 -2004, published by the National Gallery of Victoria. Of course, a visit to Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney would also be essential as he is both his exclusive dealer and has had a personal and professional relationship with Mitelman for over 30 years. As such, Hughes would be one of the few experts with an intimate knowledge of the practice of one of Australian art’s more elusive figures.

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