Charles Nodrum: Appreciates Abstraction - Art Collector

Issue 28 April-June 2004

Melbourne dealer Charles Nodrum discusses the vagaries of collecting Australian abstract art with Michael Hutak.

MICHAEL HUTAK: There’s been many claims made of late about abstraction.
CHARLES NODRUM: It remains undervalued in that abstraction does not attract the dollars that figurative painting attracts. There’s a curious divide between Australia and New Zealand here. In New Zealand you have the essentially abstract work of Colin McCahon, which can bring well into seven figures. There is no Australian abstract painter who commands anything like this level. The highest we get is somebody like Ralph Balson, who would be very much in the old master category in that these date form the 1930s and 1940s, prior to that he was really still a figurative painter. There is Tony Tuckson, of course, but again, does he get over $200,000? No, you can buy a very good work for around $50,000. (In fact his auction record is just $82,250.) Even the second most expensive New Zealander, Gordon Walters, is still above the Balson price range.

MH: And the people who are buying these are New Zealanders?
CN: Yes, although McCahon is also collected here and in the United States. My point is that in a smaller economy such as New Zealand, they nevertheless give much more vigorous support to their abstract artists than we do here. You also have really good contemporary painters like Max Gimblett and Jeffrey Harris, major mid career New Zealand artists who, have really just about given up on Australia. I know Gimblett shows, for instance in New Zealand and New York – but not Australia. I said to him I don’t know if I could do the right thing for you here.

MH: As a dealer?
CN: Yes.

MH: Abstract artists of the 50s and 60s have not kept pace, in terms of prominence or price, as their figurative counterparts in Australia. Has abstraction always been figuration’s poorer cousin in Australia?
CN: Broadly speaking yes. In the 1950s, you had a fundamental debate about the essential value of abstraction over figuration and we’ve seen the latter dominate. I think the work of Australian abstract painters doesn’t always get a good showing in our public galleries. Although the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I think, does a better job than it’s Melbourne counterparts. You can see good work there by Peter Upward, the hard edge painters like Syd Ball and Gunter Christmann. It would certainly extend people’s knowledge and understanding if there was a wider selection on semi-permanent view. The market is not responding to these sorts of works because the good works are not being shown. The public galleries have good collections but they aren’t showing them because the whole scene is considered not “hot” enough. However, as an art adviser telling people what I think constitutes good market buying, I say all countercyclical buying has the potential for growth. If you are paying at the top of the market it’s harder to make a medium to long-term profit. The other point is you can get really first-class museum quality work here.

MH: How does one source the work, if it’s not surfacing at auctions?
CN: These things turn up in all sorts of places. I do find some of it at auction, but because we aren’t talking megadollars you don’t find Christoby’s and Deutscher~Menzies scrambling over themselves to compete for works. I buy privately and in some cases I get it from the artist. I’ll be getting very good work from the 1970s and 1980s from David Aspden soon, beautiful paintings. I won’t be getting any 1960s field period paintings. You rarely get bargains unless you consider the whole category as a bargain.

MH: Could you say that the figurative modernist Australian painters had a distinctive style not really seen elsewhere, whereas the abstractionists were much more in the tradition of international movements.
CN: This is true, whether its gestural abstraction or hard-edge abstraction, they come absolutely straightforwardly out of a wider international context.

MH: Is it just a matter of educating collectors? Are we waiting for the cycle to rebound, if you like, for the first time? When was the first wave of interest in this work?
CN: The first wave of interest was at the time, in the 1950s and 1960s when the discussion was strong and the interest was firm. You then had that period problem of aging and dating. A painting that is up to 10 years old still tends to look fresh. A painting 20-30 years old tends
to look a bit dated, but then as it hits 40, it starts to look fresh again. For instance the neoexpressionist work from the 80s is starting to look a bit off to me. We’ve waited a long time for the abstract cycle to come round and it’s still not with us. Another important factor is the Aboriginal painters who, especially if you look at the top end, are easily the highest paid abstract painters at the moment … To me the whole of the western desert (work) is abstract painting. It does contain historical and geographical information in a highly coded form. But the market for these paintings is in the white community who for the most part couldn’t care less if it was a yam dreaming or a this or a that. They buy it because they like the look of it. I can’t think of any other occasion when what would have previously been referred to as a primitive art form has taken over in such a way.

MH: To return to European-Australian abstract art, we’re all still waiting, and you’re still collecting?
CN: Well, am I waiting? Yes, but it’s not as if the scene is dead. It’s just that it sells slower and for less than either the figurative work or the Aboriginal painters. I do actually deal in the work I collect. I’m buying both for investment and because I find the work attractive. I’m reasonably comfortable with the market at the moment, I wouldn’t want it to rocket up like it has for some of the contemporaries.

MH: Are there any trends within abstraction that you see emerging?
CN: In the 1950s you saw emerge two streams of abstraction in Australia, firstly what Bernard Smith refers to as Symbolic abstraction, artists like Leonard French, John Coburn, Lawrence Daws, George Johnson – it was often semi-abstract, or quasi religious and you were meant to read these things as symbolising something beyond. Then you had the gestural and textural abstractionists like Stan Rapotec, Elwyn Lynn, Peter Upward and of course Tuckson. Someone like Rapotec would call his paintings things like Tension, so you saw they were painting abstract concepts. But I think we are going to see a return to favour of the symbolic painters.

MH: Does this work need a breakthrough event like a major touring show or some serious publications to bring it more to people’s attention?
CN: Yes, and I’m doing my little bit, putting shows together like the one opening tonight at Ballarat and I am doing a group show in Brisbane with David Pestorious later this year. It’s called What’s the Matter and its about textural painting, it will show Balson, Lynn and younger artists like ADS Donaldson.

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