Dick Watkins: An Artist's Artist - Art Collector

Issue 31, January - March 2005

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Singled out as one of the best artists Australia offers the world, Dick Watkins's extraordinary critical reputation is not yet reflected in his prices, writes Carrie Lumby.

It is an understatement that American art critic Clement Greenberg, the internationally acclaimed doyenne of high art modernist critique, is out of favour in contemporary art theory circles. Nevertheless, when still highly influential in the early 60s, after surveying Australian art, he singled out one Australian artist as the best this country had to offer.

High praise from one of the high priests of modernism. Interestingly a cursory survey of people educated in Australian art history reveals that few know which artist to pin this praise to.

Dick Watkins is that artist. For some, Greenberg’s statement would have been enough to elevate Watkins to the status of the great masters of Anglo-Australian art along the lines of Nolan, Boyd, Fairweather and Olsen. What continues to perplex the many staunch supporters of the belief in Watkins’s significance as a major figure in the landscape of Australian painting however is that he, arguably more than any other living artist in this country, has not been publicly and, in particular, commercially, recognised as such.

There are perhaps a number of reasons for this. Let’s look at two. Watkins is not and has never been by any accounts, as we now say, a networker. He is an artist’s artist in the traditional sense. When asked about his work he is often tentative and introverted, or when pressed, given to making elusive statements such as: “I don’t know what it is, I just paint”, and “All you can do is your best. And often politics fouls the paint.”

What separates him from his contemporaries and marks him as a modernist artist who has influenced a much younger generation of conceptual artists is his deceptively slapdash capacity to get the paint down hard and fast. As one of the many younger generational Australian artists who spoke with me put it: “He just puts the paint on the canvas – and then he works very quickly and he doesn’t waste a mark.”

More importantly from an art historical point of view, as an abstractionist (although certainly not exclusively) working in a country where the textbooks suggest that one of the criterion for great Australian art is that it tells a story about the antipodean experience in a literal, figurative sense, conventional wisdom often fails to recognise that abstraction is an equally powerful aesthetic language in itself.

Of course, this perspective of Australian art is just that: a perspective. There are many in the art community, past and present, who have argued that the traditional story of Australian art has failed to understand the place of abstraction and the more sophisticated modes of figuration that Watkins’s work proposes in the dominant narrative told about our culture and that this failure is reflected in the lack of credit given to major artists like Watkins.

For Watkins, abstraction is a language of feeling which, for him, is the basis of art as a form of communication. Contemplating his pictures, there is a sense that each seemingly arbitrary flick or slash of the brush reveals a spontaneous yet carefully mastered capacity with the medium – particularly in his rare ability to mesh colour and form, or colour as form, in unique ways. At its best, the cumulative effect of his uncompromising gestures congeals into an image whose meaning is greater than the sum of its parts.

Watkins’s oeuvre is of course not reducible to his abstractionist reputation. He has flirted with figuration throughout his career and was also considered a leader of colour-field painting. As Chris Chapman, curator, writer and lecturer at Australian National University, and a leading expert in the more avant guard end of contemporary Australian art for more than a decade, puts it: “The interesting thing about Watkins’s work is that he has a sophisticated understanding of the realist tradition of landscape and figurative art. And uniquely, has also developed an entirely original approach to abstraction which challenges the conventional understandings of abstract art which have often been related to pure formalism.”

Watkins was born in Sydney in 1937. In keeping with his iconoclastic personality, he was to a large extent an autodidact, attending only the occasional art class in Sydney in the 1950s. To further his own, self-taught style of art education, he has travelled extensively over his long career, beginning with a trip to Europe in the late 50s and returning to Australia via the USA in 1961. His first solo exhibition in Australia in 1963 was held at Barry Stern Gallery, Sydney. In the 60s he showed internationally as well as here.

During his time in Australia in the 60s he become known as a pioneer of colour-field painting, marked by his inclusion in the ground-breaking group exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, The Field, in the late 60s.

In the 70s he travelled again, basing himself in Hong Kong between 1974 and 1979 while continuing to travel throughout Europe during this period. Rather than excavating the Australian history of the landscape tradition he felt the need to go back to the fundamentals of figurative landscape, and in order to centre his landscape, visited the places from which Turner and Corot, amongst others, had sought inspiration.

As the pre-eminent antipodean art theorist Bernard Smith wrote of Watkins in his seminal text on Australian art Australian Painting 1788 – 1990: “The desire for continuous experiment with new styles and the styles of the recent past has remained with him.”

Returning to Australia on a permanent basis in the 1980s he was represented for over a decade by Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney. A high point during this period was his appointment as the Australian representative at the XVII Beinal de Sao Paulo in Brasil in 1985.

In the early 1990s the National Gallery of Victoria mounted a major survey of Watkins’s work entitled Dick Watkins in Context. The exhibition was accompanied by a monograph by Mary Eagle which situated Watkins in the pantheon of Australian art.

It was around this time that James Erskine, currently director of Liverpool Street Gallery, proposed a commercial relationship that wasn’t focussed on regular exhibitions but was more akin to the old-fashioned notion of patronage – that suited Watkins’s prodigious output and secured his ability to approach his practice in the way he always has – as an artist who is continually making work on a day-to-day basis, without an audience in mind.

In short, from a collector’s perspective Watkins is the embodiment of the cliché: he is an artist to watch. This overused phrase is usually attached to emerging artists but is rarely so true of an artist of Watkins’s stature. There is no doubt his work remains undervalued.

John Dwyer, Director of Australian Art for Christie’s auction house, reinforces the idea that Watkins is not only significant from an historical viewpoint but is also one of the few critically acclaimed living Australian artists whose work has lots of room to move in the marketplace. He says: “Undoubtedly Watkins is one of Australia’s leading artists. He is held in high acclaim in academic circles but unfortunately has been undervalued in the commercial market of auction. Without hesitation I would recommend potential collectors having a close look at this artist as there will be a renewed and a well overdue adjustment in his prices.”

Chapman backs up this view: “There is respect for Watkins within the art museum world – he is highly regarded as a major figure in Australian art and should be reconsidered in the market place in light of this.”

Watkins has been collected by most state museums in Australia and the Australian National Gallery, as well as a number of major corporate and private collections here and overseas, including the prestigious Mertz collection in the USA.

He is currently represented by Liverpool Gallery Street, Sydney but continues to show nationally. Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne recently held a survey show of his work which included two paintings from the early 90s which were very modestly priced at between $20,000 – $30,000. Watkins’s work is also held by a number of secondary dealers, particularly in Sydney.

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