Paul Partos | The Journey of a Painter

I first met Paul Partos, Robert Jacks and Gareth Sansom when I entered the second year painting class at RMIT in 1961. One floor above were the senior students George Baldessin, Lesley Dumbrell and Wendy Stavrianos. At a lower level was Peter Corlett studying sculpture. The explanation for this gathering of young talent was that RMIT was the only school where you could complete a Diploma of Art at that time. Paul at that stage was thoughtful, very gifted and intense.

In those days works of art, as we understood them, were all made by hand; drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture with no mediation of technology at all. To become an artist you had to find yourself and form your own artistic identity. It seemed to us that to become a painter was something wonderful.

This brief essay is on my friend Paul Partos, who was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1943. My selection of illustrations is based on works that show his diversity at various stages of his career. His story and the times he passed through is complex, however I will cover significant developments in his early career and his commitment to abstraction which became his life’s work.
Paul’s work developed rapidly in the years after art school. The painting ‘Figure in Torment 1’, 1964, is the unique expression of the 21-year-old artist, living in St Kilda and teaching part-time at a psychiatric hospital, of necessity. This work is an improvisation that as a painting can never be repeated. It combines an energetic incoherence with a figurative reading of a facial profile and torso. I find this rough painting something of a masterpiece. It was part of his first solo exhibition at Gallery A, Melbourne in 1965. At that time James Mollison was managing the gallery and was Paul’s enthusiastic supporter. In the same year another successful exhibition took place in Gallery A, Sydney.

Importantly, Paul also met his future wife Merrilyn at this time. They travelled to Europe and England where they encountered the influence of post-war American art for the first time.

In ‘Vesta II’, 1968, there are only three years separating this work and ‘Figure in Torment 1’. A large work 2.3 metres high, it is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. A powerfully abstract object, paint applied with a spray gun, its concerns are formal. Its structure juxtaposes the substantial border with the empty interior and introduces, for the first time, the theme of a rectangle within a rectangle. This became a recurring theme throughout Paul’s career.

The painting was inspired by the new American painting, called by the influential critic Clement Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction” which is an accurate description of this painting. ‘Vesta II’ was included in The Field exhibition, which in 1968 opened the relocated National Gallery of Victoria with a new generation of Australian painters and sculptors, all working in an international context. Later Paul sent this work to the Sydney dealer Rudy Komon. Rudy was perplexed when it arrived and contacted Paul with the memorable comment “you have sent the frame but not the picture”. Rudy was right of course, there was no picture.

A year after The Field, Paul had another exhibition at Gallery A Melbourne, titled Unspecified Lengths. At this time he was experimenting with the alchemy of painting on gauze as a way to dematerialise paint itself. The many small paintings were presented as objects placed regularly on the floor and they filled the gallery in a grid which could be walked through, with care. On reflection now, it seems to me that Paul, as he installed the exhibition on the floor, also found a method that he could apply to composing paintings in the future.

In 1974 Paul moved from one memorable gallery to another, Bruce Pollard’s Pinacotheca in Richmond. In this beautiful, large, monastic space Paul had four exhibitions, where he again took possession of painting itself. This was his work at its most minimal. An early exhibition was a series of large almost square canvases, with a central passage of paint, top to bottom placed symmetrically with a border left and right, united with a horizontal elastic line as a division. What were they about? They were arrangements in space where Paul discovered how to introduce painterly elements into formal compositions.

His ‘Untitled’, 1984, and ‘Beyond the Border’, 1986, paintings find the artist in midcareer. These etchings were part of a group exhibited at Realities Gallery, Melbourne and Gary Anderson Gallery, Sydney. These works show Paul thinking graphically and they appeal to me because they are so experimental. They present the interior and exterior space again in a casual and informal way. There is a balance between improvisatory scrawl, unexpected compositions and the careful laying of marks on top of each other that is so like the process of painting itself.

Paul wrote in Notes by the Artist for these exhibitions, “Perhaps the most interesting thing about etching is that there is always the element of surprise. It is possible to force an image out of the plate and be surprised by something that would normally fail, and on another occasion be spare and casual on the plate and yet retain an urgency and directness of image.”

In the two paintings ‘Study (After Morandi)’, 1991, and ‘The Fifer (After Manet)’, 1987, Paul is paying tribute to artists he admired. Georgio Morandi (1890-1964) was a lifelong resident of Bologna, known for his simply stated, unassuming still-lifes and less well known etchings. His art was a moral counter to the bombast and pretension at the high end of the art world. In Paul’s painting he arranged a series of objects on three shelves or divisions in the painting, using the reduced tertiary colour range of Morandi’s paintings.

In the painting, ‘The Fifer (After Manet)’ Paul is paying tribute to a truly great painter. In his version Paul put down the image directly against the wonderful coloured ground. It is a demonstration of his gift with paint, of putting things down on the canvas with confident ease. In Manet’s original, which was rejected by the jurors in the 1866 Salon in Paris, Emile Zola wrote, “I do not think it is possible to achieve a more forceful effect with such uncomplicated means.”

The fairly small painting, ‘Window View’, 1997, uses again a familiar format, however it shows in the central passage of impasto oil paint a range of effects where paint goes down wet on wet and overlaid onto this is a final cobweb of lines, linking the central painting together. Only Paul had the fluent assurance to pull off such a painting.

Throughout his career Paul regularly made larger paintings as a form of public statement of where he was at, as a painter. His high reputation as an artist was based on paintings of this scale. In ‘No Title’, 1993, we have a painting with a real physical presence. To paint a picture of such thickness it is necessary that the paint goes down layer upon layer. There were probably other compositions that were overpainted before Paul decided it was a complete and finished painting, however he shows us the stages of his process in this work.

‘No Title’ is enclosed in a fine dark border and I believe this idea began with the installation of the Unspecified Lengths exhibition, which referenced the walls of the gallery as a border, and corresponded to the edges of the canvas. Within this rectangle anything can happen. The top horizontal passage of paint remains as a schematic drawing similar to Unspecified Lengths. The lower section, almost square, is overpainted with wonderful dancing colours and a pulsing, gentle, subliminal painterly grid. Then in a surprise move, Paul overlaid the pale cream passages containing the linear drawings. This is a most accomplished and personal artistic statement, from a wonderful painter.

Paul Partos died in Melbourne in 2002, days short of his 60th birthday.

The estate of Paul Partos is managed by Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne