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Last month one of the enduring figures of the Australian art world, John Nixon, died. From the beginning of his career, Nixon remained an artist who believed in the ideal of a perpetual avant-garde.” By Doug Hall.

John Nixon’s generous legacy

Robert Rooney “Portrait of John Nixon” 1979. Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Credit: Courtesy Estate of Robert Rooney

John Nixon’s presence over almost five decades is unusual among Australian artists. There was no flare, burn and sputter. Until his death last month, he remained an important figure, unavoidable for two generations from most accounts of Australian art history.

He emerged in the ’70s when Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd were making their weakest work. Their notions of Australianness, allegory and myth painting dominated institutional and commercial attention, but art schools ignored them.

From the beginning of his career, Nixon remained an artist who believed in the ideal of a perpetual avant-garde. There was no flitting between new, short-lived attractions and his formative base, and certainly no nationalist bravura. His was a career that evolved in increments, which included experimentation. But these experiments occurred within his specific context and personal temperament.

Nixon began his EPW (Experimental Painting Workshop) in 1978. Its rejection of narrative, realism and pictorialism, in favour of abstraction inspired by his antecedents, was the intellectual approach he would take to various media and disciplines through his career.

Nixon was a teacher but he preferred the term “mentor”, because much of his contact with people was outside institutions. His manner was quietly certain, somewhat withheld, and his tone evenly modulated. Something he regarded as interesting was stated with the same intonation as, “Would you like milk in your coffee?”

The Russian avant-garde was critical to his formative thinking. In an interview with David Homewood, he spoke with clarity and precision, his usual approach to most things: “Constructivism radically changed the focus of art,” he said. “It was the first type of art to throw away realism … A new language … abstraction was one of those breakthroughs that actually affected the whole world … Without the baggage of postmodernism, we can now better appreciate that the relationship of my work to the history of abstraction is one of influence rather than appropriation.”

Five years ago I recorded hours of interviews, mainly with artists, for a book I was working on. I spent time with Nixon, and other artists and colleagues offered observations about him. Their comments abound with generosity.

Nixon’s unforced energy and sturdy commitment meant doing many things at once; it became a natural and intuitive condition. In 1979 he established Art Projects in a run-down warehouse, painting the walls white and operating a gallery that was framed within a conceptual whole to realise his intellectual purpose. The underpinnings of Art Projects gave it the authority to be independent and unencumbered by any obligations to anything other than its own agenda. It produced some of the most uncommercial exhibitions of the time. Many artists involved later enjoyed important and lasting careers.

In 1980 he went to Brisbane, becoming director of the Institute of Modern Art: an important time with a lasting legacy for a city that was locked in fractious battles with a reactionary government. There Nixon exhibited important art from outside Brisbane. His friend Peter Tyndall ran Art Projects for 18 months. It was here that Tyndall’s Slave Guitars, an experimental music project, was created. When Nixon returned, they found that “the costs were impossible” and Art Projects closed in 1984. Nixon moved on to a new beginning.

Anna Schwartz was then running United Artists in St Kilda with Luba Bilu. Schwartz bumped into Nixon and his then partner, the figurative painter Jenny Watson, at the Rivoli cinema and asked if they’d like to meet and talk about exhibiting. They agreed. She regards it as the most important moment of her professional career.

Schwartz described Nixon as “very influential, incredibly generous, but also, wanting to create, he’d run Art Projects and Mike Parr had run Inhibodress [in Sydney]”. She said they both knew what the culture of running a gallery was. “They really wanted to infuse this with everything that they experienced and knew … I was really open to it.”

Nixon welcomed the opportunity. “You know, I’m opinionated, and so I’m opinionated about the aesthetic of the building, about the lighting, about all the sorts of things, invitation card, all the things that go out … promote and make what it is you do,” he told me. “I was there and talking to Anna and saying, ‘Well, I think you should do this, I think you should do that.’ ”

Nixon and Watson remained friends of Schwartz and part of Anna Schwartz Gallery’s stable of artists. Schwartz sought and took Nixon’s counsel. Artists with speculative commercial prospects wanted to be where Nixon was represented. Stieg Persson recalled Nixon’s first exhibition. It was, he said, “absolutely magnificent … just extraordinarily beautiful … John’s one of the few artists in the country who can really curate a room to absolute perfection.”

In the art world, falling out with someone is an occupational certainty. Nixon fell out with a couple of people, but he didn’t hold grudges. When Robert Rooney wrote a less than generous review, there was a response; but he always regarded Rooney as one of the few artists who really interested him, and later bought one of his works.

For Nixon, the interconnectedness of everything was simply a way of living and making art. Artist Stephen Bram recalls being in Munich in 2000. Some people there had heard of Nixon and on a couple of excursions Bram saw work in various public and private collections. He wanted to explain to his German colleagues why Nixon was important.

He told them initially that Nixon was “Australia’s Joseph Beuys”. “But that’s not quite what I meant … Beuys revitalised the avant-garde after it had been abolished by the Nazis,” he said. “In Australia there was never a time [before John] when avant-garde was at the centre of culture.” Bram said that Nixon was perhaps less successful than Beuys, but it wasn’t through any fault of his own. “We have never been as capable at self-examination as the Germans … have had to be.”

Nixon is often regarded as the quintessential Melbourne artist of his generation, a well-worn catch-all that doesn’t mean much without explanation. He was intellectually sharp and knew art history. Music was hugely important to him, as well as his peers. He created Anti-Music in 1979, a project that experimented across musical genres but never performed live. Most participants had no musical training and made the mix for cassette tape.

Yet this doesn’t typecast him. He was a jazz devotee and collected album covers designed by Clement Meadmore. Links to Modernism were ever present. He also collected studio pottery from the 1930s, and after 2000 collected pottery from around the area in which he lived and worked, east of Melbourne. Like many other Melbourne artists, he never had a driver’s licence – he took public transport or was driven.

It’s impossible to map Nixon’s career as a series of anticipated and predetermined sequences. His place of comfort was where art, ideas and people might come together, where something important might happen. Being exhibited in New York – as he was in a group exhibition in the Guggenheim – or spending time and exhibiting in Zagreb were of equal value if connections grew and common interests flourished.

As he told me of his international exhibitions: “It starts somewhere, and you follow your nose, and it ends up somewhere, and somewhere, and somewhere … in 1982 I was in documenta 7 … that was the first … of me showing something somewhere apart from Australia … In 1986 I then start to show in New Zealand, and have done so since … I had an exhibition in 1988, at Villa Arson … Villa Arson knew about me and they chose me … In 1989 I had a show in Tübingen, near Stuttgart. In 1988, when I’d been to Villa Arson, I had been introduced to Ingrid Dacic from Zagreb … Braco Dimitrijević, an artist from Zagreb … I’d known him in the London years and he said, ‘You should go and see Ingrid’ … When I went to have the show, I saw an exhibition of Mladen Stilinović … that was my introduction … and then I organised an exhibition of Mladen at Store 5.

“But for me, this was how the thing then grew. This was sort of … you put the seeds in … and then this is how it grows, and then it just keeps expanding. And then you have another opportunity because you’re in Stuttgart, then I go to see the Stiftung für Konkrete Kunst in Reutlingen, and then they want to do a show with me. You know, Gallery PM in Zagreb in 1990. Reutlingen in 1991. I went to visit Sophia Ungers. She wanted to do a show with me because one of the artists she showed from Denmark, Claus Carstensen … Claus found out I was in this Australian exhibition in Stuttgart … went to see it. Next morning, a phone call: ‘Hello John, Claus Carstensen. You don’t know me, but I know your work and I’d just been to Stuttgart and Tübingen … I’ve got a show on at Sophia Ungers, will you come, can we meet?’ Then a show in Belgrade in 1991, that was organised by Mladen … it just keeps on going.”

Store 5, which became an artists’ space in the mid-’80s, was down an uneven laneway off High Street, Prahran, just before Chapel Street. In a former life it was a 19th-century store and its original sign, “Store 5”, was written on the door of one of its rooms, a heritage ready-made that was used to name the art space. While Nixon wasn’t the driving force behind it, it nonetheless represents his intellectual presence, featuring one-night-only exhibitions, all work conceived as whole in its presentation and a place for a community of artists to meet. Everyone there knew Nixon, and many were close friends.

His earlier work is best known for its spontaneous and mindfully rough making, with the cruciform as a recurring emblem. The later monochromatic works have a sheen and subtle surface intonations. When we look at the reach of Nixon’s syntax and presentation of works as single objects or part of an installation, we can grasp his concept of an enduring avant-garde – and marvel at it.

His marriage to Sue Cramer was both a steadying force and a source of reciprocal intellectual inspiration. Her distinguished curatorial and teaching career across three states marks an extraordinary double act. Their daughter Emma is an emerging art historian.

Nixon’s art was international – he was never represented internationally as a specifically regional variant of shared aesthetic interests. He lived in Australia but was never limited by his nationality.

His generous presence at so many events ended on August 18, when leukaemia took his life.

Nixon’s influence was pervasive across genres, generations and places. He was never one to age among the like-minded, clinging to previous triumphs. That’s because he remained always relevant and always in the present.

John Nixon 1949-2020

Doug Hall thanks Peter Tyndall and Katarina Klaric for their assistance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "An art of presence".

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Doug Hall is a writer, critic and former director of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art.