— Essay by Charles and Kate Nodrum
Radiant Colour, Clarity, and Crisp Light in Embraced Space
(enough to frighten horses and timid collectors but not small children)
Ron Robertson-Swann’s career spans over five decades – as an artist, teacher, mentor and as an advocate for sculpture in public spaces. This survey exhibition seeks to celebrate his long and varied life’s work as both painter and sculptor and highlights the materials, look, and influences that together form the essence of his work.
We say “both painter and sculptor” in the clear understanding that whilst he is indeed better known as a sculptor he has always been ill at ease with being exclusively typecast, and considers painting to be a vital element of his practice. In fact the first mature works he made were paintings. In the early 1960s he studied sculpture under Anthony Caro and Phillip King at St Martin’s in London – the school then at the forefront of the move towards abstract, formal and monochrome sculpture and assemblage, usually made of steel. Of this school, he remembers that “we all wanted colour to be an integrated part of our sculpture” and that there was a drive to break with the solidness that had governed sculpture since antiquity; “traditional sculpture displaces space, but [this new sculpture] embraces space”. While studying, Swann was an assistant to Henry Moore at his studio north of London. (Moore was at that stage the doyen of the older generation of figurative sculptors and never took the new medium to heart). During his time with Moore Swann did not have sufficient resources to make steel sculpture, so dedicated his energy to painting. He had been struck by the work of Morris Louis whose billowing stains he remembers - ‘naively’ - as having a ‘sculptural sensibility’, and this ignited a central concern for him - that of exploring how painting could be sculptural; how the pictorial rules of figure and ground could be achieved in space, and vice versa. Across Matisse, 1964, comes from this period.
This was clearly contrary to Greenberg’s influential insistence on flatness, yet Swann managed to keep a foot in both camps. In 1965 it was Clement Greenberg who, invited to judge the John Moore Painting Prize in Liverpool, awarded Swann’s painting first prize in the junior section (the senior section included works by the likes of Patrick Herron and Lucian Freud). The work was a precursor to Golden Breach which, together with Start and Orange Oriel, was selected by John Stringer to hang in The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968 – so clearly within the parameters of the time. Whilst it must be acknowledged that Stringer had hoped to show his sculpture rather than his painting (and the reason this did not eventuate was basically a result of time and logistics) once back in Australia, Swann’s painting continued alongside his sculpture: his first exhibition with Rudy Komon in Sydney, with whom he would continue to show with for several years, included both painting and sculpture. In 1969 his major painting Sydney Summer was awarded The Transfield Prize by James Fitzsimmons, owner and editor of Art International and who, in 1970, published an article by Harry Nicholson on Swann’s work – and illustrated Sydney Summer on the cover. The same year he sent an exhibition of paintings to the Bertha Schafer Gallery in New York, and in 1975 David Thomas curated a survey exhibition of Swann’s painting and sculpture from 1965-75 at the Newcastle Art Gallery.
Stylistically, the paintings and the sculpture diverged early on. In sculpture, the use of straight, curved, fabricated and found steel, welded and then painted in monochrome - with its endless scope in the way narrative and mood can be evoked through scale, form and colour - has remained his favoured process. As he says, “monochrome is the best way to keep form and form is a top priority”. In painting, the straight lines and thinly washed polychrome surfaces of the 60s gave way to curvilinear forms and slightly richer surfaces in the 70s (Tamarama, 1974, being a monumental example); the 80s and 90s saw a reduction in scale and the addition of heavy impasto; and in his most recent works he takes this process further, combining flat, relief and 3D works that celebrate colour, both in its own right and in its interplay.
Despite being a prize-winning painter, it was as a sculptor that the major commissions came to fruition for Swann. Vertex, in Devonport, and Leviathan Play, in Brisbane, were preceeded by Vault which, when commissioned for Melbourne’s City Square in 1978 ignited a culturally and morally divisive controversy such as not seen since the Dobell affair in the 40s or the Blake Prize awarded to Rapotec’s Meditating on Good Friday. When unveiled, Vault was reviled by many; letters poured in, cartoons proliferated, and demonstrations were staged, and eventually the work was removed in the dead of night and re-located to a part of the city few people frequented. Aesthetics aside, this brought up issues of Artists’ moral rights (the work was site-specific and its removal potentially undermined its integrity) and of Artists’ legal rights (as to whether the removal constituted a breach of contract and caused damage to the artist’s reputation). These are issues that have achieved greater attention since - and to a degree as a result of - the "Yellow Peril".
At the time, public opinion swung round: on the psychological side, some saw the artist as being bullied by the council, so classic support of the underdog came into play; and on the aesthetic side, time and familiarity seemed to soothe the ruffled feathers of many who had initially disliked the work. This has continued and today, forty years down the track, Vault has emerged not just as one of Melbourne’s icons but arguably as the best known public sculpture in Australia. The now eponymous ‘Swann yellow’ and the tensely balanced diagonals of its hard-edge geometry have been re-called, borrowed and extended by architects and designers across Australia. Robertson-Swann muses that all artists have a “living dream of influencing society beyond their work” and, through Vault, the realisation of his dream continues on.
Charles & Kate Nodrum