Explore works from our contemporary collection. Click on the linked artwork to find out if it is currently on display in the Gallery.
Like many minimalist artists Donald Judd worked in a modular way. ‘Untitled’, for example, is a series of horizontal rectangular units. The proportions of the module start with a ‘given’ – in this case, the size and thickness of the plywood that determines all other proportions in the work. Sometimes the boxes appear irregular, but this is an illusion of perspective and of the light falling into and around each box. The way an object contains space or casts shadow is part of Judd’s work. While his works were often made of steel and sometimes plastic, for ‘Untitled’ Judd made a very deliberate choice of wood, which retains the traces of its grain and has a glowing natural colour.
what do you want?
Francis Alÿs’ idiosyncratic work resists classification. Encompassing lists, plans, and drawings, performances (including public parades and solitary walks) and collections of objects sourced from flea markets, his work is inclusive and plural and is often inspired by and located in the streets of Mexico City, where the artist lives and works. ‘Sleepers II’ is formed out of the colourful ecology of these streets documenting people and dogs asleep on streets, benches and bus stops. While the work could easily lend itself to social commentary the artist’s celebratory approach to his subject undermines such an interpretation. Embracing the disorder and openness of Mexico City, Alÿs has commented that: "'Sleepers' records the way dreaming might have a role in a possible rethinking of our conviviality."
In the 1950s and 60s Frank Stella was a leading advocate for American artists who were attempting to break with the tradition of European painting that made reference to the world beyond art. Stella wanted to make an art form that was complete in itself, with as little internal division of its form as possible. His early paintings were determined by certain givens, such as the width of the canvas or paintbrush, or the nature of the paint itself. Stella said he wanted to ‘keep the paint as good as it was in the can’. He had a favourite house-painting brush 2¾ inches wide and stretched his canvas over stretcher bars that were also 2¾ inches wide – both determining the width of the stripes painted parallel to the stretcher. This structural premise can be considered as the trigger for American minimalism.
Portrait relief PR3 (portrait of Claude Pascal)
The son of artists Fred Klein and Marie Raymond, Yves Klein was baptised a Catholic and dedicated to Saint Rita, patron saint of lost causes, in the same year that Kasimir Malevich wrote ‘The painter is no longer bound to canvas, but can transfer his composition to space’.1 These coincidences seem to set the scene for Klein’s heroic and sometimes tragicomic life and work. Malevich, who was one of the few art historical figures Klein profoundly admired, described himself as an aviator taking art to new heights (strangely similar to Klein’s claims). Klein did not study art but informally dedicated much of his time to the Rosicrucian teachings of Max Heindel and he was a keen Judo expert (the first European to secure a fourth Dan black belt in Japan). Throughout his short life he earned his living by teaching Judo at least as much as he did through his art. Klein paradoxically launched himself as an artist by self-publishing a retrospective catalogue of his monochrome paintings. The preface to this book is by Claude Pascal (the subject of our portrait relief) and consists only of rows of black lines. The reproductions are merely coloured paper tipped in; the dimensions are included without denominations of measurement. The coloured paper may suggest that these are fraudulent, that they are not reproductions, but at the same time they may be thought of as small monochromes in their own right. It was to be typical of Klein that he would make great claims for transcendental achievements and at the same time sow seeds of doubt on the authenticity of his claims. His defining project was the conquest of the void. Klein’s spiritual exercises and his Judo both played a part in this quest, and his monochrome paintings – most particularly the intense ultramarine that he copyrighted as International Klein Blue – aspired to provide a sensation of space and suggest the infinite void. This void for him is replete with spiritual energy. His most controversial act, a seminal example of performance art, was to leap ‘into the void’ from a second-storey window in Paris in 1960. In the photograph by Harry Shunk we see Klein leaping up into the sky not plummeting to earth. His face is yearning up and his arched body speaks of the deep desire for flight, and indeed of belief in its possibility. In 1962 Klein began a project to record himself and his circle of intimates in a quartet of body casts. ‘Portrait relief PR3 (portrait of Claude Pascal)’ belongs to this group, left incomplete at Klein’s death. The portrait is cast from the poet’s body and coloured in International Klein Blue pigment. Seeming to levitate in front of its golden field, the figure re-enacts Klein’s ‘Leap into the void’. Klein himself was to have been represented, conversely, in gold against blue but he died before making the cast. 1. Kasimir Malevich, ‘Suprematism’, www.artarchive.com © Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Pendulum with emu egg
One and three tables
When he arrived in New York in 1965, Joseph Kosuth was a 20-year-old recent graduate from art school, yet he quickly established himself as a founding member of the conceptual art movement in the United States. At this time Kosuth was inspired by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s investigations of language. Wittgenstein’s posthumously published book ‘Philosophical investigations’ was a radical departure from previous philosophical texts, presented as a series of aphorisms that proposed assumptions from the traditional Augustine view of language and then deconstructed them, exposing the impossibility of using any set of rules to explain how we learn and use language.1 In 1965 Kosuth conceived a number of works using words written in neon that conveyed nothing more than what they were: ‘Five words in red neon’, for example, consisted of the five words of the title written in red neon lights, while ‘One and eight – a description (pink)’ consisted of the words ‘Neon Electric Light English Glass Letters Pink Eight’ written in pink neon lights.2 The next year he started his ‘Art as idea as idea’ series, in which he printed enlarged dictionary definitions of words in negative (white text on black ground). He deliberately chose words that commonly appear within the lexicon of art writing, words such as ‘original’, ‘meaning’ and ‘material’. In the series ‘One and three’ Kosuth poses the question, ‘What do we mean by a specific word such as “table”?’ He placed a pre-existing object in a gallery space next to a photograph of that object taken in situ, and a dictionary definition of the word used to describe, generically, that object. The viewer is led to compare the levels of accuracy in communicating meaning through both visual and verbal means. The dictionary definition is more accurate as a generic description of a table, whereas the photograph is more accurate as a description of this specific table. Yet removed from its functional context and placed in a gallery, even the table itself is only a sign: a three-dimensional and generic ‘example’ of what might be meant by the word ‘table’. Displayed as a triptych, the three signs for ‘table’ are all ultimately unsatisfactory as signifiers of the word if shown to an individual who had never before come across the notion of ‘table’. By exposing the limitations of language in such seemingly simple and concrete words as ‘chair’, ‘table’ or ‘broom’, Kosuth questions the possibility of using any language, and specifically, the language of the visual arts, to convey the meaning of more abstract phenomena such as ‘love’, ‘spirituality’ or even the meaning of the word ‘art’ itself. 1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Philosophical investigations’, GEM Anscombe (trans), Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1953 2. This work is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
'Cash Crop' consists of a vitrine filled with little sculptures of fruit and vegetables carved from a variety of natural soaps. These pieces of 'fruit' are accompanied by labels and painted bank notes. The terms appearing on the labels are taken from the language of economic activity. The juxtapositions are both amusing and sharply critical: 'liquid asset' is a grape; 'share market float' is a lotus; 'tax return' is a peanut; 'global liquidity' is a cola nut. In 'Cash Crop', Fiona Hall explores the connections between trade, natural resources and botany. These concerns have been central to Hall's body of work since the 1970s. Soap is destroyed by water: it is ephemeral and changing. Commerce and trade, too, change with the slides in 'global liquidity'. Botany, like trade, is a system: of classification and collection. Botany is a science developed in order to 'collect' the world of nature. Cash Crop is about the exploitation of natural resources for commercial interests and the artifice of classification. Julie Ewington writes, "Sir Joseph Banks created elaborate cabinets for the exploration voyages of James Cook, in which numerous specimens of plants were taken back to England, studied, dissected, analysed and planted. Later, the economic uses of collected plants were investigated, for medicine, cosmetics, prophylactics and profit... Fiona Hall has selectively emphasised the tendency towards conjoined terms in systems of Western classification. This is not a merely whimsical rubbing together of similarities, differences, binaries: it is a purposeful play between different orders of things, set up to embrace, pull apart, to slip and to slide".
Untitled (old woman in bed)
Encountering Ron Mueck’s sculptures is like suddenly being in a contemporary version of ‘Gulliver’s travels’: everything looks real and familiar but the scale is wrong. Giant boys and pregnant women tower over us, small men row boats and lie dead, a swaddled baby is shrunk to miniature size. In ‘Old woman in bed’ a frail elderly woman lies under a blanket on a gallery plinth, her small scale increasing her vulnerability as we loom over her. This is one of Mueck’s most poignant works: the woman seems only to have a tenuous hold on life as she shrinks from this world into whatever comes next. It is imbued with the pathos of our own experiences of the death of elderly friends and relatives just as it foretells our own inevitable demise. As with all of Mueck’s sculpture, this figure is more than life-like. The moist eyes, veins just below the skin and flushed cheeks all add up to an near palpable sense of life, or in this work of life ebbing. We almost expect to hear a rattling breath as we look at the work for signs of the life that is about to end. The realism of his sculptures is like a series of three-dimensional freeze frames taken from the world, life momentarily paused but still fully evident. This filmic metaphor is not inappropriate as Mueck has worked as a modelmaker for television and film. While we know these people are sculptures, it is almost impossible not to touch them to make sure that they are indeed not real. Mueck’s deployment of scale distances this realism just as it entices us by the sense of wonder it evokes. The expressions of his sculptural subjects are subtly exaggerated to increase their emotional impact; indeed their heightened emotional and psychological states and the response this triggers in the viewer is the subject of Mueck’s art rather than their extraordinary verisimilitude. His figures are almost always alone and there is a strong sense of isolation and vulnerability to many of his works. Mueck’s realism is perhaps sculpture’s riposte to the virtual reality that digital technologies have made possible. Filmic and digital photographic recreations of past worlds, mythical places and future possibilities have stretched the real in so many directions as to make it no longer a viable visual category. There is no digital sleight of hand to Mueck’s work, however, as he makes his sculptures traditionally, applying clay to a framework, modelling the figure until he has the form to create a mould and then casting the final work. It is a labour-intensive and highly skilled process. The resulting works seem to have the weight of the history of sculptural realism behind them, just as they seem to mark its end by leaving it with nowhere further to go. © Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Listening to reason
Like many of his generation, Richard Deacon adopted Marcel Duchamp’s proposition that titles were an extra colour on the artist’s palette. In using language in this way the younger artists of the 1970s put distance between themselves and the abstract artists who came before them (who often labelled everything ‘Untitled’). ‘Listening to reason’ is a case in point.1 The shape of the work describes five double loosely ear-shaped curves, connected by twisting pieces of laminated wood to make one continuous line. The title encourages us to think of a circle of people listening to an argument, each connected to the other but all slightly differently. It is far from being a symmetrical form; each section is joined by twisting connections that appear to be arranged at random. The line is made up of multiple layers of laminated ply, which have been glued together in sections and clamped onto forms that give them their twisting motion. Deacon has left the hardened glue that squeezed out of the laminations as a trace of the process, thereby adhering to a principle of truth to materials and processes. The plain, glowing yellow surface of the ply against the beige colour of the glue in the side grain of the wood helps to reveal the twisting body of the loops. The sections were then bolted together through offset joints, once again making a virtue out of the visible process to articulate the form. The resulting curves and loops defy imagination. The piece is like a five-fold moebius strip but some-how it all comes together into a convincing whole. When asked how he had visualised this complex form in order to be able to make up the necessary jigs and formwork, he acknowledged that he never visualised it as a whole. It seems that he had the twisting straight sections lying around waiting to become a star-shaped work. On the other side of the studio were the five ear shapes destined for another work. Living with these forms, he eventually realised that they would fit together with a few minor modifications and the resulting sculpture is what we see here.2 There is an interesting parallel between this accidental juxtaposition and the working methodology of assemblage artists such as Haim Steinbach or Janet Laurence. Sculptors of this kind accumulate objects and materials in the studio and one day bring them together to make something new. This aspect of chance encounters belies the purely formal aesthetic that most American art aspired to at this time and leans towards a history of European surrealism, in particular to Duchamp’s theory of chance.3 1. This work was first reserved by the AGNSW in 1986 but only acquired when it was brought out for the 1988 Biennale of Sydney 2. Conversation noted by the author after a studio visit with Deacon in 1987 3. Duchamp believed in allowing chance to play a part in the creation of his works, for example the accumulation of dust that he used to colour the sieves in his ‘The large glass’ 1915–23 © Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
Plate, pole, prop
Richard Serra is a New York Minimalist who emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. Typical of that movement he uses industrial materials in simple unmodified modules as does Carl Andre. Contrary to the commonly held view that Minimalism is without emotion or feeling it is the physical properties of the object that affect the viewer. The emotion expressed is not that of the artist but that of the viewer encountering the object. The sheer massiveness of the steel that leans heavily against the wall makes us doubly conscious of the effects of gravity. The work incorporates the wall and the floor as essential components heightening the experience of fundamental vertical and horizontal planes and of their interaction with gravity.