Elwyn Lynn: Abstract Renown - Art Collector

Issue 30, October - December 2004

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Elwyn Lynn's work is undergoing a significant critical reevaluation while it remains undervalued by the market. Ashley Crawford reports.

The sheer physicality of Elwyn Lynn’s painting gives pause. For an artist who was essentially an abstractionist, what was driving him? The passion is all too apparent, the paint applied in a viscous layering, simple forms becoming physical statements. When Lynn paints a crucifix – as in White Cross (1989) – you can feel its weight, when he slashes an X over a white field of turbulent white – as in White Crossing Gray (1987) – you know he has marked the spot.

Lynn’s work ranged across myriad subjects. At times he clearly tackles the landscape, as in such paintings as Winter Meander (1986), and it becomes clear why he has been compared to John Olsen and Fred Williams. But, like Olsen, these are rarely real landscapes – in Mountains and Suns (1989) the simple rounded form of the top of the mountain is bathed in the light of not one, but two, bright red suns.

Elwyn Lynn was a unique figure in the Australian art world. He was the most rare of things; a gifted, articulate, and – most importantly – respected art critic, he was an extraordinary administrator and he was a painter of natural talent.

But for a man who carried an unwieldy and slightly preposterous name; Elwyn Augustus Lynn, he was always known simply as Jack.

“They never forgave Jack for doing so many things,” says painter and Herald Sun art critic Jeffrey Makin. “He was a dead straight guy who excelled in everything he did. I don’t think anyone forgave him for that!”

He most certainly kept busy. A self-taught painter, he was also the editor of the Contemporary Art Society magazine, Broadsheet, between 1955 and 1970 and he worked as an art critic for the Bulletin and the The Australian newspaper where he became renowned for his support of abstract and non-representational art, a stance that was not always fashionable. While painting and writing he also managed to work as curator at the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Sydney from 1969 to 1983 and from 1976 to 1980 he was the Chairman of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts Board.

As Robert Hughes noted in The Art of Australia (1966), Lynn “kept up a running skirmish with prevalent attitudes in Sydney – the gentility of the Charm School came under constant attack – and stimulated discussion about international issues in art.”

Lynn had travelled extensively through Europe from 1958 on, and returned inspired by such artists as Dubuffet and the neo-Dadaists, resulting in what Hughes somewhat dismissively described as an “insidiously creeping rash of polyvinyl acetate” in exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Society.

For all these activities he was no slouch as a painter. He won numerous awards, including the Blake prize – twice – and the Wynne Prize in 1988 and the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a marvellously meandering retrospective in 1991.

As Patricia Anderson noted in her book, Elwyn Lynn’s Art World (2002), by around 1990, “Lynn had already given his prognosis of the avant-garde, noting that it no longer had any Salon or Academy to rebel against. If everything was avant-garde then nothing was. When everyone became a revolutionary — the revolution was over.”

However there was still plenty of fire in the belly. When The Australian employed the arch-conservative Giles Auty as a critic, Lynn wasted little time in resigning in protest.

Sherman Galleries’ curatorial director William Wright remembers Lynn in the 1960s. “I had an exhibition in Sydney and Jack was terrifically supportive. He tended to go out of his way to support younger artists, but he was incredibly impatient with bureaucracy and especially that of the Visual Arts Board (VAB). Eventually they had to make him the head of the VAB just to quiet him down! He could be incredibly one-eyed, very unforgiving.

“When I was curating the Sydney Biennale, he felt I wasn’t listening to him and threatened to leave. I had to beg him to stay on.”

According to Wright, Lynn was a seriously “under-rated painter”.

“He didn’t fit into the more illustrative charm school approach of the time. He was more interested in ideas and to create a forum for debate and interface with the rest of the world – he was steadfastly not parochial.

“I think he was so well-known as a critic that people found it hard to also take him seriously as a painter.”

Makin agrees. “He was a first class administrator at the Power,” says Makin. “He was an excellent critic and commentator and his monograph on [Sidney] Nolan is still the best one. Then as an artist he had a great insight into the world around him.”

Melbourne art consultant John Buckley was originally introduced to Sidney Nolan by Lynn. “He was a person genuinely interested in visual art,” says Buckley. “He came from a painting background when he was working as both a critic and curator. He was a huge friend of Nolan’s and acted as a contact for him in Australia.

“But he was enormously enamoured with the Spanish painters such as Tapias. It seemed to me that he was struggling to get beyond that influence. I think later in his life he was starting to find his own language as a painter and they are certainly well-made pictures.”

Like Buckley, Sydney artist Michael Johnson is quick to pick up on Lynn’s influence by Tapias. “That’s what he explored, the sheer physicality of painting. You could attack Jack Lynn’s work with an axe and it would stand up. He was both arrogant and informative – he definitely contributed to the art world, but he could be a bit on the stoic side.”

Lynn has, thus far, made little impact in the auction rooms.

“He’s very well respected,” says Chris Deutscher of Deutscher~Menzies Auction House. “But he hasn’t to date appeared a great deal in the secondary market. He’s a sleeper but I reckon he’s a goody.

“They only really come up via a deceased estate or a corporate collection and even then they only get to around $2,000 to $3,000.”

Sydney dealer Eva Breuer has paintings ranging from the $6,000 to $15,500 mark while Charles Nodrum Gallery in Melbourne, in its August group exhibition What’s the Matter had a large canvas at $17,000.

“They do turn up occasionally on the secondary market, but they tend to fluctuate a great deal,” says Charles Nodrum who represents the Lynn Estate. “Last year there was a flurry of interest and then it’s died down again. That period can be difficult,” he admits.

But the Nodrum show, curated by David Pestorious, posits Lynn in intriguing company. Basically an exploration of the little appreciated thread of Australian abstraction – Matter Painting – Lynn was presented alongside such artists as Ralph Balson, ADS Donaldson and Frank Hodgkinson, all of whom have found their market niche.

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