Rick Amor: On the brink of despair - Art Collector

Issue 45, July - September 2008

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Rick Amor has been a quiet presence in Australian art for almost 30 years, his reputation rising inexorably over the last decade due mainly to the support of his private collectors. Art critic John McDonald takes a look at a current survey of his early works.

“Inspiration comes from everywhere,” says Rick Amor. “Sometimes it comes from a line I’ve read in a poem…I once painted a whole series of pictures based on one line by TS Eliot. I may have seen an obscure artist’s work somewhere, reproduced overseas, and that’s given me an idea for a picture. I’ve looked at old paintings of my own and felt compelled to rework them. Things I couldn’t do once I can now do. So it just comes from everywhere. You keep your mind open and wait for things to float past. But it’s very hard to force it. You have to allow it to happen.”

Short of a full-scale retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, one of the most desirable honours for a Melbourne artist is a survey at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. With the show Rick Amor: A Single Mind, a painter of many years’ experience, has received a recognition that many of his admirers believe to be long overdue.

Following closely on another survey – Rick Amor: Standing in the Shadows, held at the McClelland Gallery & Sculpture Park in May 2005 – this exhibition focuses on the artist’s early work, his portraits and self-portraits, rather than the brooding urban landscapes for which he has become best known. It reveals another side of Rick Amor – as a young, experimental painter, working his way through the influence of his mentor, John Brack, and the pop and expressionist styles of the early 1970s.

Nowadays Amor pronounces flatly: “Expressionist art is for young people.” The bright, pop art palette and vivid, angular compositions have given way to a subdued tonality, and a form of realism that teeters always on the brink of melancholy. In the picture of his life revealed in the self-portraits, Amor has had plenty of reasons to feel melancholy. His Self-portrait (as a drinker) of 1986-88 is one of the bleakest, hardest stares into the mirror in all Australian art. It was painted at a time when alcoholism had brought him to the brink of despair. Sixteen years later – seemingly fit, healthy, painting at the peak of his powers – Amor was diagnosed with a blood disease, and had to undergo a bone marrow transplant. His monument to this episode is Self-portrait in a grey jumper (a month out of hospital) of 2005. In this stoical, unsentimental picture, Amor, with chin and head equally bare, looks out from the grey haze of his convalescence and braces himself for the future.

That future now looks more assured than he might have imagined while fighting addiction to the bottle and mortal illness. At the age of 60, Amor has found a new energy and poetic force that makes his recent works among his most impressive. Although he was regarded from the beginning of his career as an artist of the greatest promise, Amor has been a quiet presence in Australian art for almost 30 years. If his reputation has begun to rise inexorably over the past decade, it is because of the solid support he has enjoyed among private collectors, who usually provide a more reliable indicator of an artist’s quality than the public collections. With the show at Heide, it seems the museums are finally getting the idea.

Rick Amor: A Single Mind will be showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art until 13 July 2008. His work will also be showing this quarter at Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney from 16 August to 11 September and at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne from 2 September to 4 October.

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