Art Sets.

Australian art and the Russian avant-garde

By the Art Gallery of NSW


Revolutionary Russia was a catalyst for a remarkable period in modern art between the 1910s and 1930s. Avant-garde movements such as suprematism and constructivism emerged and artists strove to fulfil the practical and spiritual needs of a utopian society through abstract art, design and architecture.

The idea that art could stimulate social change was influential throughout the 20th century. The Russian avant-garde’s legacy has resonated particularly strongly in Australian contemporary art since the 1970s and ’80s as modernism wavered and Australian artists became increasingly aware of their practices in an international context. It is a resonance characterised by both admiration and scepticism.

Drawn from the Gallery’s collection, these paintings, sculptures and prints demonstrate a strong engagement with iconic works by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) and Aleksander Rodchenko (1891-1956), as well as those by Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953).

John Nixon

John Nixon came to prominence as a minimalist painter in Melbourne during the early 1970s, and has also been associated with appropriation practices of the 80s and 90s. Unlike some of his post-modern peers, Nixon’s engagement with modern art has not been critical, instead concerned with furthering its aims in an ongoing series of cross and square paintings and works on paper. In Black and orange cross 1992, Nixon has borrowed Malevich’s iconic composition for Black cross 1915 and enlarged it into a boldly coloured and monumental work that acknowledges the impact of its antecedent, while the painting’s rough and ready construction from common materials grounds the work firmly in the present day.

Emily Floyd

Emily Floyd’s practice explores concepts or models of utopia, primarily early modern art’s aspirations and accomplishments, but also theories of sociology and fictional feminist literature. Her works are characterised by a modernist vocabulary of primary colours and geometric forms as well as a social and political consciousness. These four works from Floyd’s All day workshop 2012 suite of lithographs was inspired by the graphic design of constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko, who elevated the advertising poster into a fine art form for the masses during the 1920s. Each text-based image addresses past and present examples of collectivism found in nature and society such as communes, Green Bans, unionism, bee hives, and even digitally socialist operating systems.

Rose Nolan

Rose Nolan came to prominence during the 1980s in Melbourne as a member of the Store Five group of artists which included post-modern abstract painters Stephen Bram and Melinda Harper. Like John Nixon and Emily Floyd, Nolan has maintained a commitment to exploring the romance and heroic aesthetics of the October Revolution and the Russian avant-garde in her practice, even admitting to having a ‘school girl crush’ on artists from this period. In Constructions 1993 her unrefined cross-formed sculptures combine Malevich’s spiritual suprematism with the industrial aesthetic and spatial qualities of Tatlin’s counter-reliefs. Nolan was raised Catholic, so her use of the cross form is of personal significance as well as a homage.

Nigel Milsom

Nigel Milsom often mines art history for images to reproduce in his trademark painterly style and black and white tonal palette. Milsom’s The incident 2007-08 paintings have their origin in photographs taken by Rodchenko of Stepanova’s paper cut-out figures. These photos were intended for publication in a children’s poetry book but were instead reproduced in Soviet cinematic magazines in 1926. They were constructivist in their visual and technological innovation and intended social value and purpose. This idealism is lost however in Milsom’s foreboding recontextualisation of the source material in this diptych, especially when the turbulent history of the Soviet Union is taken into consideration. It’s hard to ignore the fascist overtones in the saluting figure on the left or the Orwellian cast of animals and people on the right.

Ricky Swallow

Ricky Swallow’s Stair with contents 2013 presents a selection of modernist trinkets displayed on steps. These motifs include cross and spiral forms associated with Malevich and Rodchenko, but also pipes, guitars, and vessels identified with Magritte, Picasso and Morandi. The sculpture was cast in bronze from a maquette craftily fabricated by Swallow from corrugated cardboard and masking tape. Its informal appearance was inspired by displays in shop windows or flea markets in America where Swallow has lived since 2002. He has described these objects as ‘make dos’ which suggests ubiquity and diminished potency. Perhaps Swallow is questioning the current status of these archetypes and the lasting impression of modern art.

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett was an Australian artist of Indigenous and Scottish ancestry who challenged fixed constructions of race and identity in his work.

Bennett’s Notes to Basquiat (in the future art will not be boring) 1999 is from a series of works that began in 1998 as a posthumous dialogue with American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bennett had admired Basquiat since art school and identified parallels in their life and careers as ‘black’ artists whose ethnicity often overshadowed their practices.

To the left is an abstract composition based on a drawing by Malevich, and trapped within it is a figure adapted from Margaret Preston’s cartoonish depictions of Aboriginal people. Preston, a celebrated modernist, advocated for the domestic usage of Indigenous art and design during the 1920s and 30s, in what can now be seen as a culturally insensitive practice.

Bennett’s appropriation and juxtaposition is a metaphor for a little known or understood form of subjugation of Indigenous culture within the history of modernism, drawing attention to a local instance in Australian art.

Robert MacPherson

Robert MacPherson has maintained a dialogue with Russian constructivism throughout his career. He has recalled being affected by seeing photographs of constructivist exhibitions and taking inspiration from ‘the look of the work’ in his own paintings of the mid 1970s and early 80s which conceptually scrutinised the reductive and spatial possibilities of formalism advocated by modern art critic Clement Greenberg.

MacPherson continued a dialogue with Malevich’s Black square 1915 in his Mayfair series of works from the 1990s and 2000s which paired black monochromes with imagery drawn from road signs and blackboard menus in Australia. A former labourer, MacPherson has an eye for working-class materials and aesthetics, which may well have fed his interest in constructivist artists who identified with the proletariat and embraced folk art.

Scott Redford

Scott Redford grew up on the Gold Coast and takes inspiration from his hometown in works which address regionalism, queer culture and art history. The subject of Redford’s photograph Boy with surfboard cross 1999 is grinning surfer David Rastovich who is depicted shirtless, carrying a surfboard-shaped crucifix on the beach. Aside from the obvious and somewhat homoerotic allusion to Christ, Redford’s cruci-board sculpture also makes an art historical reference to Malevich. Redford has acknowledged the history of abstraction throughout his career, particularly the red-and-black square and the cross.
Exhibited until 22 September

Eugene Carchesio

Exhibited from 22 September