Portrait

In the workroom with punk veteran and abstract artist John Nixon. By Kate Holden.

Abstract artist John Nixon

It’s such a long time since punk. He’s got grey hair now, and glasses, and wears a neat polyester polo shirt in kingfisher blue. He sits at a slightly damp wooden table in the garden outside his airy blond brick home in a green outer suburb, birdsong in the brightening morning, coffee plunger in his hand. Howard Arkley might have painted this house. John Nixon works in it.

Nixon wasn’t the kind of punk who spat, though he saw Devo and Talking Heads at the Roundhouse in Camden Town in 1977, and hung out with Cave and The Boys Next Door at the Crystal Ballroom in Melbourne. He knew Arkley, and Juan Davila, and Jenny Watson, and Richard Lowenstein, and John Hillcoat, and Tobsha Learner. He was lured by conceptual art for a time there, but after London, it was Russian Constructivism. It was that fierce analytic Russian theory. Those pure pleasurable forms. Paintings were flung on the stage at the gig in those days, and musicians dragged themselves stoned to art school to scribble obscenities in their sketchbooks, and Nixon – 40 years early – set up pop-up exhibitions in disused office blocks in Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street and wrote two years’ worth of a manifesto newsletter about anti-music that went with 400 cassette recordings of non-musicians playing instruments.

They had so much pluck back then. I imagine him with darker hair, blazing and busy. They say he wore “melancholy black”, and he remembers he was too preoccupied to learn to drive, or play an instrument. He just wanted to do art all the time. So he’s been painting for nearly 50 years now, and he still can’t play anything but he’s made 93 albums. He teaches at Monash, gathers young artists to mentor, travels often. He has his own purpose-made studio, crammed but orderly, and put up five solo exhibitions this year alone. He loves the opera, and little paintings of alpine scenes, and seems very kind.

There’s something… Finally I have it: it’s that Flaubert quote. Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Nixon has perfected a placidity of demeanour, a deft, equable steadiness of practice. There’s nothing tamed about him, only expert. He’s hung so many exhibitions, never fusses. Honestly, he says, they just come off the truck that way.

“I can just walk around the block,” he says, “and I’ll see something useful. I’m able to filter the mess of the world, and just see things that other people wouldn’t see. So a yellow truck might go by, and that goes in; and is remembered; and something will come from that. Or a yellow and green truck, or a yellow and blue truck”– he is so specifically interested in these distinctions, blue is not the same as green – “so you think, ‘Yes, I’m going to do a painting in those two colours.’ ” He blinks. “I’m importing. You could put it that way: I’m importing information that I see. For my own use.”

His art, then: is it violent? No. Still, poised. He’s a magus of abstract art in Australia. Monochromes, often: panels paintily gleaming, perhaps with bamboo, or tiles, or some other practical, elegant, modest element – straw, once – laid thoughtfully over the flat. Intelligence framed: geometry so pure it might slice. But there is grain in the rolled paint; the colour dribbles down the sides. That’s the action, that’s the trace. When his daughter was born years ago he was so busy he painted monochromes in gloss paint from a hardware store, things he could bang out by the handful; now they hang revered in collections. It’s not to do with craft. He’s not interested in craftsmanship. He’s interested in the ideas, and how you take something, a yellow truck passing, a woman’s voice singing unsurely, and you put them into a form that goes back out into the world to be shared again in a different way. Minimal art, he observes, makes you precise in purpose. He is a man of intense concentration.

And he’s unafraid.

Punk, he says, is not about spitting at people and safety pins and demolition. It’s not defiance in that way. It’s seeing value in things that aren’t valued. Like in the inability to play a musical instrument. Like taking a bit of Masonite and rolling paint over it in a shed behind a blond brick house. It appealed to him from the start: just have a go.

“We don’t rehearse, we just record,” he says of the albums. “I bring different people to the situation, I give them the instruments; I get an idea about what we’re going to do, and then we improvise to make that happen.” Treees, he instructs a singer, tree-ees. The recordings hover between a reedy folk sound, lyric collage spoken-word and ecstatic thrashings of industrial chaos. It’s bravura fuck-up, the utter antonym to qualified. Trans-rational voices, Nixon shouts on one track, non-representation! Painting, poem, sound. Then they let rip with bashing bits of metal. Fabulous, bacchanalian, anti-establishment noise.

How has he managed this? Such mischief, sabotage, cheerful ructions. A proliferation of stimuli, projects, ambitions, all under the guise of a mild academic… Is he never overwhelmed? “No.” There is a cool, affectless method here. “The information goes into one sector or another. And sometimes the information goes into different ones, and then I can choose: I’m going to put that into a drawing, or I’m going to put that into a song.

“Always with me it’s this division of labour into different things, because you’ve got the energy and you’ve got the idea, and then you work at each thing as satisfactorily as you can.”

He sits courteous and alert in his shaded garden, outside his tidy studio, grey-coiffured, Flaubertianly composed, and smiles like a saboteur.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Next to Nixon". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.