Tony Tuckson: Modesty's Blaze - Art Collector

Issue 16, April - June 2001

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John McPhee profiles the late, great Sydney abstract painter Tony Tuckson, whose posthumous reputation is growing in the wake of a major touring retrospective.


Tony Tuckson is one of Australia’s few abstract expressionists. During his lifetime Tuckson held only two solo exhibitions and participated in few group exhibitions. Yet no account of 20th century Australian art would be complete without his work, and he is heralded as Australia’s most impressive abstract expressionist.

Tony Tuckson was born in Egypt in 1921, the son of a Suez Canal pilot. He spent his childhood in Egypt and England, where he went to school, and first attended an art school. During the war he served in the Royal Air Service and was posted to Sydney in 1942, where he met and married his wife, Margaret. After a period back in England he returned to Australia and was discharged from the airforce in 1946. Throughout the war Tuckson had continued to draw and paint, and under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme for ex-servicemen, he attended East Sydney Technical School. While there he encountered the modernists Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson who taught an abstract painting class and who had the greatest influence upon his attitudes to modern art.

In 1950, Tuckson obtained a job as an attendant at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and later that year as Assistant to the Director, Hal Missingham. His work was mostly curatorial; cataloguing acquisitions, helping to prepare and install exhibitions, both temporary and permanent. He also travelled and lectured with the Gallery’s Travelling Art Exhibitions Service as it toured country New South Wales. During this period Tuckson was painting, and in 1952 he took four months leave to prepare for the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship. During the 1950s Tuckson showed eight paintings in five of Sydney’s annual art exhibitions.

Appointed Deputy Director in 1957, Tuckson was an active member of Sydney’s contemporary art scene and he is thought to have refrained from exhibiting in deference to the professional ethics of his position. While involved in acquiring contemporary art for the Gallery he believed it improper to be seen in competition with his fellow artists. Another reason may have been that, like many perfectionists, he believed the next paintings would be the best and therefore those to exhibit. But that time came much later than he might have thought.

In the late 1950s Tuckson accompanied Dr Stuart Scougall to Melville Island, in the Northern Territory, to observe the carving and painting of a group of grave-posts which were to be Scougall’s gift to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This trip ignited Tuckson’s desire to form a collection of Aboriginal art at the Gallery. With Tuckson’s enthusiasm and Scougall’s patronage, the collection quickly developed. In 1960-61 Tuckson curated the exhibition, Australian Aboriginal Art, which toured Australian state galleries. In 1963 he began to acquire Melanesian work for the collection. This resulted in the exhibition Melanesian Art in 1966. Tuckson’s belief in the importance of Aboriginal and Melanesian art within the context of an art museum came to fruition in 1973 when a permanent gallery in the Art Gallery of New South Wales was devoted to the collection. It was the first such display in an Australian art museum.

The late 1960s were a time when Tuckson had great bureaucratic responsibility at the Gallery. After an exhaustive trip looking at art museums overseas he prepared a report on the Gallery’s future direction, including its rebuilding. During its renovation and expansion Tuckson worked closely with the architect, and coordinated the Gallery’s activities until its re-opening in May 1972.

Like most artists who teach or work as administrators in museums, Tuckson had little time for painting. But during this extraordinarily busy period he began painting again and organised his first solo exhibition at Watters Gallery in May 1970. The exhibition consisted of 64 paintings dating from about 1958 to around 1965, and one painting from 1970. He held his second solo exhibition of new paintings in April 1973, and died, of cancer, in November that year.

The works: influences and genesis

Tuckson’s oeuvre consists of about 450 paintings and about 10,000 drawings. Most are undated and establishing a chronology has been the task of his wife, and those who saw his work during his lifetime. Most works are given an open time span of a few years and are dated on the basis of style and his preference for particular colours.

Tuckson’s earliest paintings reflect his awareness of the School of Paris modernism. Art books and magazines would have been his primary source of knowledge about modern art although in 1953 the exhibition French Painting Today was shown in Sydney. The exhibition included the work of Braque, Leger, Matisse, Miró and Picasso, as well as work by Buffet, da Silva, de Stael, Hartung, and Soulages. The influence on his work of the semi-abstraction of artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Leger and Braque is manifest. Many works show the influence of Klee, with shapes strongly outlined. At times the interest that these artists had in ‘primitive’ art from Africa, and even child or naive art can be seen to have influenced Tuckson’s approach to painting.

Paintings from the 1950s depict Tuckson’s world, his family and friends, the still lifes of the dining room and kitchen, nudes, and studio interiors. They are bold and often brightly coloured with a preference for pink and blue but frequently featuring a strong black line defining objects. Apparently at the same time a series of abstract paintings began to occur. These became more loose and free in their execution towards the late 1950s. Many are painted on newspaper, an inexpensive and readily available surface on which to work out ideas that were obviously coming thick and fast.

By 1960, Tuckson was experimenting with collage and creating some of his most worked surfaces in which the unusually thick paint was scumbled, scratched and worried into some of the most beautiful abstract expressionist works painted in Australia. The nature of the surfaces of some of these works has made many people remark upon their similarity to Aboriginal rock engravings. While Tuckson was aware and enthusiastic about Aboriginal art, and its influence cannot be denied, these works also exhibit the extraordinary excitement of an artist finding his power as painter. The undoubted thrill for Tuckson was that of finding his own form of expression and of making his own marks.

In the first half of the 1960s Tuckson’s paintings were almost exclusively painted in red, black and white. These totemic colours, the colours of flags and blood and death, were almost violently worked over his surfaces. These are very powerful works. They do nothing to prepare us for the lyrical beauty of the paintings that followed after the five years in which his bureaucratic responsibilities meant that he seldom painted.

Tuckson’s first (and second last) solo exhibition appears to have propelled him to work in a kind of fury. The large and powerful paintings of the last few years of his life possess, at first, the same kind of vigour and violence of expression found in the red, black and white paintings. Then comes a more gentle relationship with his materials. Paint is applied more thinly, dribbles and drips and smudges are left and large areas of his surfaces remain unpainted. The overall effect is more calligraphic and more revealing of the hand and mind of the artist.

These are some of the most personal paintings in contemporary Australian art. On boards never taller than Tuckson could reach, the strokes of his brush are vigorous but gentle. There is an urgency about these works, as if he knew he had a lot to say and little time in which to say it. Gradually they became more abbreviated until a surface might be disturbed by very few lines – sometimes scratched through the paint layer. At this time he also created the Zen-like charcoal drawings in which the barest minimum of black lines on white paper expressed a sense of frustration and achievement. Some soar up and off the paper and suggest the endless possibilities towards which most art can only hint.

The best works and where to find them

There have been two major exhibitions of Tuckson’s work. In 1976 the Art Gallery of New South Wales mounted a memorial exhibition which brought his work to national prominence. Currently the National Gallery of Australia is touring its exhibition around Australia: Painting forever: Tony Tuckson. Anyone interested in Tuckson’s work should see the wide variety of work that this exhibition presents.

In 1989 Craftsmen House, Sydney, published an excellent book, Tony Tuckson, with text by Daniel Thomas, Renee Free and Geoffrey Legge. It is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the artist.

Watters Gallery, Sydney, acts as agent for the Tuckson estate. It regularly mounts commercial exhibitions and publishes small catalogues devoted to various aspects of Tuckson’s oeuvre. The catalogues for these exhibitions are enormously helpful in gaining an understanding of many aspects of the artist’s working life and more specialised aspects of his paintings and drawings.

All serious public collections of Australian art in the national, state and regional galleries include works by Tony Tuckson. The National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s collections are the most comprehensive.

Prices and where to start collecting

Works by Tuckson occasionally come up for resale, either through Watters Gallery or the few commercial galleries, such as Martin Brown Fine Art, Sydney, or Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, which specialise in historical contemporary art. In recent years the auction market’s interest in contemporary Australian art has meant that a few works have come up for sale at auction. However, the majority of works are still brought back by their owners for re-sale through Watters Gallery because it represents the artist’s estate.

Over the past 20 years prices for paintings by Tuckson have risen as the market has gained a better understanding of his importance. In the early 1980s a major painting could be bought from Watters Gallery for about $2,500. Similar paintings now sell for between $85,000 and $200,000. Works on paper which sold for hundreds of dollars in the 1980s today sell for about $5,000.

Tony Tuckson’s paintings are appreciated and collected by an increasingly large number of people. Their recognition of his achievement is the measure of the success he might not have sought in his lifetime, but which is undeniably due.

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