Andrew Christofides

In a career spanning 40 years, Andrew Christofides has forged a distinctive painting practice, recognisable for its sobriety and intellectual curiosity, and steadily extending in expressive range. His story is unique in Australian art.

Born in Cyprus and raised in industrial Wollongong, he studied commerce and worked as an economist in Canberra before deciding, in his mid-twenties, to pursue painting. While studying in London he discovered early 20th century abstraction and came under the influence of a range of related ideas that were to extend the scope of invention in pure abstraction.

An experimental spirit has underscored all that Christofides has done since then, but mindful of painting’s metaphorical potential, and with respect for the emotional depth of the Old Masters, he has increasingly allowed intuition and feeling to shape his work. As he says: “all great art is the confluence of intuition and the rational, the classical and the romantic.”

Can you tell me how your new works have evolved?
Well, actually, these works have evolved over a period of nearly 30 years, but they had a rebirth after my survey show at Wollongong City Gallery in 2007. They looked refreshing to me, and a number of other people commented on them, asking where they came from. I started to look again at the use of numbers and the use of ‘the rational’ in image-making. The actual source is the Fibonacci Series [of numbers], which I’ve been using since 1975. These works are made up of various combinations and permutations of those numbers, combined in different formats to create varying visual outcomes.

How in practical terms do you get from that number sequence to the image that we see?
I set up a number sequence, which is made up of three numbers within the Fibonacci Series, and as these rotate they interact with each other and certain things happen. This in turn generates a tone or colour. Years ago I did a number of paintings called ‘Random Game Sequences’, and in a sense they referred to what happens in life. That is, that events interact upon each other creating outcomes. Numbers are the most elegant form of abstraction. They do not exist in a vacuum, they are the product of experience. They are pure, they are elegant, and they have endless possibilities when they are combined.

Is this the economist speaking?
No, this is the romantic speaking, because I think that a belief in something as pure and abstract as numbers is a romantic thing – to think that they could provide a journey of image-making that is endless.

The use of number sequences to create artworks has a history. You studied in the 1970s in London, and these were some of the ideas that were in the air at that time.
In England at that time there was a group, a loosely termed group, called the Systems Group, and there were a number of people – John Ernest, Malcolm Hughes and others – who looked at number sequences to create visual outcomes which were a bit more concrete than the sort of things that people had been doing up until then. And that whole idea of ‘the concrete’ in painting has always interested me.

In actual fact this idea goes back to Theo Van Doesburg, who was one of the De Stijl artists along with Mondrian. They fell out in, I think, about 1925 over the role of intuition in painting. Van Doesburg wanted to find a way of making pictures that didn’t rely on intuition. He believed that intuition was based on experience, and our experience as artists went back effectively to the Renaissance idea of picture-making and would always be influenced by it.

But over the years you have become gradually more open to the use of intuition, and in recent times your work has even drawn on other images such as maps and illuminated manuscripts. That’s a profound shift, isn’t it?
That’s probably correct, but while I do have a commitment to the idea of the concrete object establishing an autonomy for itself, I have also said on a number of occasions that all art is the confluence of the rational and the intuitive, and in a sense the romantic and the classical. What I see in abstraction is a language that shifts between the concrete and something which is much more intuitive. So I actually don’t see any contradiction between using numbers and taking from maps or, more recently, taking from things that relate to Cyprus.

After studying and working in England, you came back to Australia in 1982. What did people make of your work?
I really don’t think people understood the background for it, although there were plenty of artists who were familiar with Sol LeWitt’s work, for example. It was just seen as being out of step, and when I came back to Australia Post-modernism was in full flight. It was quite difficult, although I didn’t have a bad time of it simply because for a few people my work seemed refreshing, so I was able to show it.

But there were, over the years, some unsympathetic reviews. How do they affect you? Do they give you a positive impetus?
No, I don’t think bad reviews give one a positive impetus. I think what happens with bad reviews is they are generally hurtful, especially if the work is misunderstood. But what I’ve found in a couple of instances is that critics later on have actually acknowledged my commitment to the work. In the end the commitment does define the work to some extent. An artist’s work needs its own history to establish itself and be understood.

You have exhibited regularly in New York. What kind of reception has your work had there?
Generally speaking, the responses are good. I think they do see it as an extension of a tradition that many of them belong to, but I think – and I hope – that the responses are good because it has something to add to their tradition.

Whom do you see as your contemporaries, whether within the abstract tradition or outside it?
I love the tradition of art. I love a lot of art that isn’t abstract, because when art is good, for me it doesn’t really matter. All things being equal I have a preference for abstract imagery and there is a reason for that. I do like the idea that we can create things that never existed before, that have a basis in the real world but are presented in a way that says ‘Look at me. I’m different. I never existed before. Consider me’.

Are there any particular artists whose intentions you see as comparable to yours?
An artist that I greatly admire is Robert Mangold, who has worked with a limited range of language and has extended that, and seems to continue to refresh that language by virtue of the way he manipulates his imagery. Another artist I’ve admired from when I was a student, and who died last year, is Jack Smith, a British artist. He worked consistently, he had original ideas and the work is beautiful.

Although your work is inspired by Modernism, you regard the Old Masters with the highest respect. What is it about their work that gives them such prominence in your mind?
The Old Masters never let one down. I can’t get out of my system the idea that these are great paintings that engage one on a number of levels. I suppose one of my favourite artists would have to be Vermeer. I love the stillness of Vermeer’s work, I love the precision. I still don’t understand how he’s actually painted them. When I look at Vermeer I think of words like ‘exquisite’ and I think it’s not a bad word to use about any painter. Another painter I’ve particularly admired over the years is Piero della Francesca, who in a way is the first great modernist with his use of colour – the simplification of his compositions and the monumentality of his figures. I’ve always admired that and I think it will stay with me forever. In a sense I would love to have some of those qualities in my own work.

Particular forms in your work – the checkerboard, for example – make an appearance then you’ll put them aside for a time. Where does the impulse to work with this form rather than that one, come from?
That’s actually a good question. I think one of the problems with contemporary art is we move through so many ideas quickly that good ideas are often not given an opportunity to be dealt with seriously. So in going back to some of the old images in the studio, one picks up on things that maybe one didn’t have the time to look at before. So I think in reworking them they simply become more resolved as images and reinvented so as to become part of the language of one’s personal novel.

Is that the fruit of decades of work?
Yes, absolutely. I think it’s one of the things I respect about artists who pursue ideas seriously. Like a novelist, one has a greater number of words at one’s disposal, one can say more things more subtly and better. And don’t forget that visual imagery comes in and out of one’s life depending on one’s experiences. It’s experiences that bring those images back, and new images in and so forth.

Panel Discussion
Non-Objective Portraiture in Australia
Friday 8 September 2017

3.00 – 4.00 pm
Sydney Contemporary 2017
Carriageworks, Mezzanine, Bay 17

Courtesy the artist and Kings Street Gallery, Sydney.