Art

An exhibition of Tony Tuckson’s works on paper reveals an artist whose paintings did not so much respond to the world as express it. By Patrick Hartigan.

Tony Tuckson’s abstract expressionism

Tony Tuckson’s works at Watters Gallery, with TD806 at far left.
Credit: Tony Tuckson Estate / Watters Gallery

Frank Watters remembers vividly the first time he visited Tony Tuckson’s studio, a section of the Tuckson family home in the north shore Sydney suburb of Wahroonga. Frank and his fellow directors at Watters Gallery, Geoffrey and Alex Legge, had been surprised to receive an invitation from the then deputy director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and in many ways they dreaded the ensuing encounter, particularly the prospect of having to tell the powerful bureaucrat that his work was no good.

This was 1970 – the year Tuckson would have his first one-man exhibition, 32 years after his training at Hornsey School of Art in London, and just on three years before he would die of stomach cancer.

In anticipation of their arrival, Tuckson was in the process of getting extremely drunk. By the time the gallery directors turned up, he was struggling to stand and was thrashing and dragging paintings around the studio. If his guests were overwhelmed by the vast collection of work, about which they were learning for the first time, they were also horrified by the drunken spectacle that had given birth to it.

 

It’s easy to appreciate Tuckson’s anxiety that night, why he had to be so thoroughly inebriated. Bringing outsiders into the private domain of a studio is always nerve-racking, so one can only imagine what turning the lights onto 20 years of immersion might have felt like. Tuckson’s working conditions as an artist, alongside a career in which he was deeply involved with art on a daily basis, explain a lot about the unique trajectory of this painter, namely the character of unity rather than style in his work.

“Art,” Tuckson used to say, “isn’t made in a vacuum.” But while a world of artistic riches was constantly orbiting his studio – he visited more than 300 museums across the world in 1967-68 alone – there was never the requirement to posit or position himself in that orbit. Perpetual motion was the key to an artist who took what he liked – what made sense to him at the time – and ran with it. Recalling Picasso’s kleptomania, Tuckson was a “thief” in the very best sense. He was also prolific – the final three years of his life were ones of wild invention, which drew on a lifetime of looking and making.

A couple of weeks ago I was at Watters Gallery, the institution of 53 years’ standing that will be closing its doors at the end of 2018. Winter sunlight was filtering into the back room, where a group of Tuckson works on paper, to be shown in the upstairs gallery between August 15 and September 2, were being viewed by a client. I was a lucky fly on that wall by virtue of my surgeon, who would soon be removing a tumour from my nose at the skin hospital around the corner but was running behind schedule.

A heavily foxed sheet of paper, about the size of a torso, was being held up for a client. Through its centre ran a vertical river of red. The work is known by the reference number TD806 (c. 1964), part of a vast catalogue maintained by Tuckson’s wife, Margaret, including some 10,000 works on paper. The single-breath boldness of TD806 had me thinking of the Zen traditions of calligraphy and martial arts. In both cases, art relates to a state of mind rather than a set of objects.

Something of what led to that bold action can be found in Tuckson’s Self-portrait at easel (1952), an earlier oil-on-paper work not shown here. From its page the artist looks somewhere over the viewer’s right shoulder while standing a little stiffly. His upper body and easel form a V at the picture’s centre in the manner of Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel (1888), painted shortly before that artist abandoned bourgeois life in Paris for the privacy of the countryside. While in the eyes of van Gogh I find determination weighed down by inner turmoil, in Tuckson’s I see just one thing: impatience.

 

Drawing was core to Tuckson’s drive and discipline. The lines were flowing on whatever paper was available: in notepads, on the back of exhibition invitations, and, commonly for his gouaches, newspapers. Many of the works in this exhibition are on double-page newspaper classifieds; they show fleeting marks and calligraphic turns of the wrist, floating above, or landing on, regiments of ink. The end result is as if in direct confrontation with those closed systems of language.

TD2515 (1964), executed in black, has a remarkably light footprint. With the weightlessness of dandelion fluff, its array of shapes and marks flits across the page, while somehow clinching a deal with the newsworthy ground. Executed several years later, TD2561 (1970) and TD4043 (1969) can be found at the base camp of the mountain where Tuckson’s road was to climax – in those breathtakingly spare and vertically focused paintings. These works defined the 1973 Watters exhibition and made him arguably this country’s only true abstract expressionist. With their repeated parallel lines, the gouaches in this show demonstrate a body gathering rhythm and momentum: that “same old thing, up and down and across and back” was how Tuckson summarised his work late in life.

The red stroke of TD806, with its earlier date of 1964, hints at those late paintings. It shows the kind of time travel that always occurs in a studio – openings and possibilities returned to and seized on when the artist is ready for them. While undergoing various surgical perforations, I thought about the two grey drops on either side of that red surge. Were they intentional? Their placement suggested they might be, but as drops they seemed more likely incidental. Irrelevant, I concluded: terms such as incidence and intention, while crucial to my surgeon’s knife, have no claim whatsoever in these territories.

The image of movement and circulation, of a wet brush crossing between sheets of paper and boards, remained. As I lay staring at the hospital window’s mist, the idea of a body surrounded by rectangles and windows – light forming inside, as darkness and stillness took hold outside – seemed fittingly primordial.

Like 19th-century Romantic painters before him, Tuckson was increasingly dedicated to the elements: the light and dark of Turner, the energy of line found in Delacroix. Among his own generation, the emphasis shifted wholly inwards, towards bodily action; paintings were not “about” the world and the body so much as “of” it. If Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of the Vitruvian Man (1490) showed a male figure with arms and legs outstretched inside a square and circle, rationally depicting the workings of the body correlating with those of the universe, Tuckson’s late works came at the same equation but from within. To refer to them as simply “abstract” is to ignore their physical closeness and overstate the concreteness of the picture plane. Lines and shapes here don’t distance or simplify reality so much as prove it.

 

A couple of years ago, at Watters, I saw for the first time a series of late charcoal drawings measuring roughly the artist’s height or vertical span lay bare a body urgently taking stock of itself. In the resignation and grace of these and other late gestures, I find aural equivalency in Beethoven, that artist having gone completely deaf by the time he wrote his last string quartets. I mentioned this thought to Frank during a recent conversation. He’d been listening to those monumental murmurs that very morning and seemed to agree.

After decades of racing against the clock, of trying to adequately settle a score in their respective art forms, composer and painter found, in those very last moments, a way to translate what it means, in the end, to be – just be – alive. By the time Tuckson made these works, these gestures that so accurately measure the reach of his body and his art, he might already have been suffering the physical symptoms of the cancer that would kill him. 

Frank remembers clearly that night at Tuckson’s studio, as well as the many subsequent visits he made ahead of the 1970 show. “I’d just go up there and wash them,” he says, passing a tired arm through the air. Seeing my confusion, he adds: “I mean cleaning the paintings … I just needed to be with them.”

It is a need I understand well, affirmed by this exhibition, one of the last Tuckson will have at the gallery in which he first showed.

 

Arts Diary

VISUAL ART René Magritte: The Revealing Image

LaTrobe Regional Gallery, Morwell, until November 19

VISUAL ART Pat Brassington: The Body Electric

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 11

PHOTOGRAPHY Ballarat International Foto Biennale

Venues throughout Ballarat, Victoria, until September 17

LITERATURE Melbourne Writers Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, August 25-September 3

CINEMA CinéfestOZ

Venues throughout south-western Western Australia, August 23-27

CULTURE Desert Festival

Venues throughout Alice Springs, August 18-September 7

THEATRE The Merchant of Venice

Theatre Royal, Hobart, August 24-26

Last chance

VISUAL ART Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until August 20

MUSIC Tami Neilson

Ding Dong Lounge, Melbourne, August 19

The Basement, Sydney, August 20

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2017 as "Proving reality". Subscribe here.

Patrick Hartigan
is a Sydney-based artist.