Remarkable collectors & philanthropists: Alex Mackay - Art Collector

Issue 55, January - March 2011

This profile appeared in the "Remarkable collectors & philanthropists" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2011"

There’s an enveloping sense of the pure pleasure of living with art that fills the enormous free-flowing space designed by architect Kevin Hayes for Brisbane collector Alex Mackay. Pure may not be precisely the right word, however, because the diverse array of paintings, drawings, photographs, prints and sculptures housed in the cliff-top eyrie is thematically bound by overt eroticism.

Mackay’s commitment to collecting took this idiosyncratic direction almost by accident. His interest in acquiring art was fired by a determination to get to know and understand artists. He generally seeks works that give the deepest insights into the artists’ lives – images that often include the most intimate scenes with partners and lovers. As a result, artists are seldom represented here by typical examples of their work. The large Richard Larter syringe painting of his wife Pat is exactly what the artist is known for, but the passionate picture of lovers by Weaver Hawkins is not. Even more surprising is a small study by the distinguished war artist Ivor Hele that graphically records his love-making with his wife (a painting in which the artist’s celebrated skill at rendering flesh tones really comes into its own).

Talking to Mackay makes it clear that works enter the collection because of the light they cast on the artist’s experiences, not the style or art historical moment they represent. “Your heart almost breaks they’re so personal.” He also buys work simply because it’s the best way of supporting artists.

He became conscious of the erotic theme of his collection in its early days 25 years ago, but it eventually took on a life of its own. “Dealers find out your interests and they find things for you,” he explains. A group of highly uncharacteristic nudes by Tim Johnson, better known for his synthesis of the Papunya painting movement and Tibetan buddhism, were acquired that way. Mackay doesn’t collect systematically. “It’s all gut feeling.”

Major figures in Australian (and Thai) art are represented, but not for art historical reasons. There are nudes by Charles Blackman, Fred Williams and Bill Henson. The hang of the collection is totally non-chronological and is based entirely on what looks right with what. A recent Scott Redford painting in surfboard resins is right beside a highly varnished James Cant nude from 1948.

There are, however, a few serious indications of art museum methodology. Works not on display are housed on sliding racks. There is a two-storey tall art library and an archive with drawers of suspension files.

Art and life are comfortably entwined in the warehouse-like structure. Juan Davila’s startling portrait of Joshua Smith sitting up in bed with Dobell’s billy boy is right next to the armchairs where the Mackays and their guests sit. Stewart MacFarlane’s Outcast, an enigmatic painting of a falling woman, has as its background the Story Bridge, painted from approximately where the painting now hangs.

Timothy Morrell

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