Gough Whitlam 1916–2014


Gough Whitlam, 21st Prime Minister of Australia, has impacted the lives of every Australian, whether they realise it or not. He ended conscription, recognised Aboriginal land rights and introduced universal health care. I, for one, can thank him for my tertiary education, which may well have been out of financial reach had he not abolished university fees. And the art world also has much to thank him for. It seems almost impossible to fathom now, but his approval of the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, in 1973, created a scandal. The National Gallery of Australia was only able to authorise purchases up to $1 million, so Blue Poles, at $1.3 million (a world record for a contemporary American painting), required Whitlam’s approval. The purchase brought into question the perceived financial ineptitude of the government and elicited public debate about the value of abstract art. Blue Poles is on permanent display at the NGA now, but I first saw it at the Art Gallery of NSW during its first showing. I don’t remember how I got there—I can only think that my mother took me—but I do remember the long line of people waiting to view it. The line snaked out of the front door and down the steps, and we had to wait patiently, shuffling along until it was our turn in front of the great work. I loved it then and I love it now. As for Gough’s investment, Blue Poles has gained status as one of the major works of abstract expressionism, is significant in terms of Australia’s politics and history, and is now valued at many more millions of dollars than the purchase price.

Be less curious


It’s not so much the quote, but the juxtaposition of textures and the harmony of colour and tone. I like how the tears in the paper of the poster look like intentionally designed black triangles, and how the light through the dirty pane of glass illuminates the shapes inside. The whole reminds me of one of those fabulous Rauschenberg ‘combines’, the ones where he silkscreens on to sheer fabric which is floated in front of the collage. The typeface looks like a version of Helvetica Heavy Condensed with a little judicious kerning and condensing to improve the fall of the lines.



Recently, in response to encouragement from my book group to enter work into a local miniatures show, I turned my hand to making a miniature book. Although I don’t work on a particularly big scale, it certainly proved challenging to work so small. The result was Spark, a concertina book in a matchbox-sized box, inspired by Dante’s quote: ‘A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark.’ You can find details here.



I wonder if it is ever possible to successfully analyse one’s aesthetic sensibility. Sometimes I puzzle over why I like the look of some things and yet find other (often much nicer) things completely unappealing. For example, I have no idea what part of my brain or my upbringing or my cultural heritage makes me find this—a fading red number inside a white circle on a dirty grey tank—inordinately pleasing. And the geometric pattern of the rusty stairs only makes it better!



If I had to come up with a list of my top ten favourite artists, Alexander Calder would be on it. As long as I can remember I have loved his mobiles and wire figures, but his monumental stationary sculptures—stabiles—are equally compelling. I don’t often find myself at the top end of George Street, but whenever I am there, I stop for a moment at Crossed shears, the Calder stabile that stands in the forecourt of Australia Square. I am also reminded of a time when I was very young, barely a teenager. I picked up a copy of Time magazine and read something that still makes me giggle. It was a story about a punning game that proliferated in the Manhattan art world: pick an artist’s name, then make up the question for which it is the answer. My favourite: Why did the chicken cross the road? Alexander Calder.



This is more secco than fresco, but it hardly matters how the wall ended up as this—to my eye—aesthetically beautiful work of art. Fresco is a technique where pigment, using water as a medium, is applied to wet plaster, so that when the plaster sets, the paint becomes an integral part of the wall. Secco is done on dry plaster and needs a medium such as tempera to make the pigment stick to the wall. I can hardly imagine that the Renaissance painters would share my appreciation of this cracked, chipped and crazed masterpiece, but fortunately they are not here right now to fix it.

Red crossing


Pedestrian crossings are not usually red. This one wasn’t on a particularly dangerous corner and visibility was good in both directions, but it was certainly eye-catching — not only because it is brightly coloured (luminous even in the greyness of a cloudy day) but because it is weathered and patchy in that most fabulous abstract expressionist way. My experience of photographing it was interesting: in the city, no one would have taken the slightest bit of notice of me (let alone given way to me, a pedestrian), but in the small town where this crossing is located, every driver stopped to let me cross, and I had to keep waving them on.



I’m pretty certain the letters POL are missing from the left hand side of this window work of art, but the vacant and run-down building gave no other tangible clues to indicate whether it was once the police station in reality or just in my imagination. I like the gaffer tape covering a crack in the glass, the cobwebs and the imperfections and reflections, and I particularly like the drawn embellishments around the letters — the white sort-of-outline and the blue sort-of-shadow — and that the pane of glass really does look like it has been frozen.

Today’s stall


Here’s a work of art and it comes ready framed! A rich story could be constructed from the elements presented here: a garden club, a raffle, a butcher’s shop, what did Trish and Carol win, and why are the chairs being returned to Taylor’s? The chalk-drawn handwriting displays the running writing style that was taught in Australian schools in a certain era, and the background patina of many-times-rubbed-out chalk holds the social history of a community.

Pink grille


Fordson manufactured small, lightweight, affordable tractors that went into mass production in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1917. Eleven years and more than half a million tractors later, production was transferred to Ireland and then later to England. I chanced upon this old Fordson tractor along the New England Highway when I was stopping to look at something else. It was obviously no longer in use, but it looked like it had been well cared for and it was still in pretty good nick. The most corroded part was this grille, and although I like the typography, it is the grille I find most interesting: a modern art bas-relief sculpture at the side of the road.