Collector's Dossier: Ken Whisson's Cult Status - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

Painter Ken Whisson refuses the easy path. A fierce individualist, he rejects what he calls good technique and spurns fixed ideas. It’s a recipe that may not have found him fame and fortune, but that’s ok, he never wanted that anyway writes John McDonald.

Ken Whisson may not feature in the lists of iconic Australian painters, alongside names such as Nolan, Boyd or Tucker, but in his own quiet way he is one of this country’s most influential artists. Whisson’s pictures may seem almost wilfully oblique, but they chip away at the viewer in an uncompromising fashion. Those who have grown familiar with his work over the past few decades will find echoes in many unlikely places. To take just a few examples, one may discern Whisson’s influence in the work of younger artists such as Robert Moore and Scott Whitaker, in the early paintings of the celebrated landscapist William Robinson and the recent pictures of abstract painter Wendy Stokes.

No one could be less concerned about being influential than Whisson himself. Since 1977 he has lived in Italy, a country he loves for its politics, not its renaissance masterpieces. He returns to Australia on an annual basis for exhibitions at Watters Gallery in Sydney or Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. He is that paradoxical figure: the gregarious loner, always full of ideas and conversation, but happy to spend most of his time at a great distance from the Australian art scene.

Whisson was born in Lilydale in 1927, and during his younger days was a peripheral member of the group of artists that gathered around Heide Park, where John and Sunday Reed held court. He studied briefly at Swinburne Technical College, but his real education came from Danila Vassilieff, the expatriate Cossack, who ran his own experimental art courses in Warrnadyte, Victoria. Not only did Whisson embrace an expressionist style of painting under Vassieleff’s tutelage, he also picked up a lifelong commitment to anarchism and non-conformism. He believes that intuition is an artist’s most important asset, and sees any kind of fixed idea as a recipe for disaster.

This is reflected in Whisson’s work, which has never belonged to any school or movement. His early paintings are dark and murky, but already displaying a complete disinterest in capturing an accurate likeness of people or places. While these pictures are obviously based on real life situations Whisson has transformed everything in accordance with his mood, which seems consistently grim and anxious. In the artist’s own words, in those days he saw “a really dark heavy world, a world in which it was difficult to see any glimmer of improvement”.

A painting such as Three women at a tramstop (1947) is as bleak as anything painted by Edvard Munch, although Whisson seems to emphasise the grey monotony of life rather than any underlying trauma.

There are relatively few paintings from these early years. It is not until the 1960s that Whisson begins to find his feet with a succession of works in which he covers every part of the canvas with claustrophobic brushstrokes, treating motifs like lumps of clay that can be bent and twisted any way he pleases. The sky in a typical Whisson picture of this era, such as Dark sail (1967), often seems more solid than the earth over which it presides. Although these must still be seen as figurative paintings there is a powerful abstract component. Like many artists, Whisson hardly recognises a distinction between these two poles.

The work that follows in the 1970s is felt by many to be the best and most original of Whisson’s career. The colours are fresher and brighter, the forms confidently sculpted, and there is a sense of space that makes these pictures remarkably upbeat. Works such as Disembarkation at Cythera (Idiot Wind) (1976) and Jean’s Farm (1972) are notable for their light palette, intricate compositions, and narrative content. By this stage it is obvious that Whisson is enjoying himself. From this point, his paintings become playful, in the way we think of Joan Miró’s paintings – a form of unfettered invention that gives the artist a license to rearrange the visible world to his own whimsical specifications.

What follows in the 1980s and on into the present day, is a constant attempt at self-reinvention, as Whisson allows a greater degree of neutral space into his canvases. Many of his pictures feature traceries of spidery lines and small jagged planes of colour.

A work such as Kitchen table (1982) shows a tabletop still life that blends imperceptibly into an industrial landscape, the cups and jugs being echoed by the massed smokestacks of factories. Painting after painting is devoted to a style of schematic landscape where the coloured outlines of buildings seem to jostle and overlap.

But Whisson is never predictable, and from 2002 to 2006 he painted a surprising series of pictures titled From the newspapers, based on photos of battleships, helicopters and other signs of a world at war. These were naturalistic in style, as if the artist felt he needed to do something to keep his work in touch with the realities of politics and current affairs.

Whisson says that he hates things that “close one down,” and reserves a special distaste for art that is “clever and skilful”. He feels that artists go astray when they become too concerned with money, too caught up with technique, too self-conscious and self-obsessed. When a painter begins to set rules and regulations for himself, it only impedes the free flow of creativity and ends in formula.

He claims to have spent his entire life trying to get away from “good technique”.

For much of his long career Whisson has flown under the radar of public attention, but he has always found admirers among the ranks of his fellow artists, and occasionally, the curators. His works may be found in all the major public collections, although he is most fully represented in the National Gallery of Australia, which owns more than 70 paintings, drawings and prints. Many of his best works, including masterful paintings from the 1970s, remain in private hands.

In 1987 a touring retrospective was put together by Bernice Murphy for Broken Hill Regional Gallery. Another touring survey was initiated by Pinacotheca Gallery in Melbourne in 1990. Apart from these exhibitions, Whisson’s work has been included in numerous group shows, the most recent being Making it New: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009.

Whisson’s work appears regularly at auction, where the highest price it has achieved was $70,000 excluding buyer’s premium for View from my Window (1974) at a Deutscher Menzies sale in September 2006. As a general rule his paintings seem to sell for between $20,000 to $40,000, while works on paper rarely exceed $3,000. This is pretty much in line with the prices for new works at Watters or Niagara. While the drawings are obviously much more accessibly priced than the paintings, they can also be more challenging – minimalist marks drawn with a pen, quick squiggles and doodles. Whisson’s drawings are essential to his creative processes, but it is impossible to decide whether they are rehearsals for the paintings or a more pure distillation of his thinking.

Some would argue that Whisson’s work is too much of an acquired taste to be classed as a promising investment. On the other hand, there are very few artists of his generation who are so highly regarded. There is only one significant publication to date: Ken Whisson: Paintings 1947-1999, with writings and talks by the artist, which was printed by Niagara Publishing in 2001. This book, for which I wrote an essay, reproduces 100 of Whisson’s best pictures, although there are many others that might have been included.

By any reckoning Whisson is overdue for a major retrospective – an unhappy distinction he shares with many senior Australian artists. Until we see his career in the form of a coherent overview he may never progress beyond the cult status that he currently enjoys. If he is often overlooked or underestimated it is partly because he has kept his paintings easel-sized, with no desire to produce those over-scaled monsters painted with museums in mind. As we have seen, he is also an artist who is accustomed to pleasing himself, who gives little thought to fame and fortune. He recognises that there is a density and a randomness in human life that cannot be easily translated into shapes on canvas.

Ken Whisson, resident of Perugia, is a great individualist among Australian artists. His paintings are as various as thoughts themselves and just as hard to pin down. Art, he says, is what happens at the end of the brush when it meets the canvas. Beyond that he is unwilling to theorise. This is apparent in the titles that he prefers, such as Thoughts as they are about to form or Flag of my disposition. For Whisson, each painting is strictly a provisional proposition. It is no simple matter for the artist or his admirers to single out Whisson’s best pieces, as paintings that seem uninteresting at first glance have a disconcerting habit of improving over time. This is why many collectors have grown increasingly attached to their Whissons. Like all good works of art they are very reluctant to give up their innermost secrets. •

Ken Whisson’s current solo exhibition at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne closes on 23 October 2010.

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