Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor is one of Australia’s most important living painters. His expressionist compositions speak of an extraordinary intensity and energy maintained over a long and prolific oeuvre. Aged in his eighties and busy as ever, Taylor is continually branching out in bold new directions without compromising his vision.

Born in Sydney in 1933, Michael Taylor is five years younger than John Olsen and, in many ways, they belong to the same generation. Although not a recluse, Taylor has never been a media show pony and, unlike Olsen, he has followed a quieter and more consistent trajectory in his art. However, there are many parallels: both artists are committed to oil painting, watercolours and etchings, both explore abstracted landscapes, both possess a gentle sense of humour and both have developed a very personal style of art-making. As with an Olsen, you can tell a Taylor at twenty paces.

Like many Sydney artists of his generation, Taylor studied at East Sydney Technical College with Ralph Balson and Godfrey Miller and then travelled abroad – in Taylor’s case, this was on a New South Wales Travelling Scholarship in 1960, and he stayed in Europe for three years. He looked at Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in London and Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya and Antoni Tàpies in Madrid. On his return to Australia, Taylor experienced a period of spectacular prominence in the 1960s, when forms of Abstract Expressionism were in vogue in the Sydney art scene. However, this did not translate into a lasting high profile in the art market and he became increasingly known as an ‘artist’s artist’.

A reason for Taylor’s public neglect may lie with where he has chosen to live. To succeed in Australian art, especially in the pre-digital era, you had to be well established in either Sydney or Melbourne and, to be nationally successful, you had to be established in both. Ian Fairweather was the notable exception, whose legendary status and the annual shows at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries kept his reputation alive. However, almost all others who lived outside the big smoke developed a somewhat low-profile existence and many faded from view. Taylor moved to the Canberra region in the early 1970s, living in Bredbo and Michelago and, since 1995, in Cooma.

Taylor’s early paintings, such as Caryatid (1963), have a limited palette and a great intensity, like the compression of a tightened spring. The painting, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, is based on the form of a woman, as is apparent in a drawing for the painting in the same collection. The caryatid, a sculptured female that supported an entablature on her head, was known to Taylor from a famous example from the Athens Acropolis displayed in the British Museum. It was the universal female form that bore the weight of the burden of the world, which Taylor converted into this powerful, concentrated image of human-size proportions.

Expressionist painters tend to burn out at an early age. Expressionism is generally based on a philosophy of art which demands a freshness, a personal creative response, a spontaneity and a sense of visual excitement. Many expressionist painters, on attaining the age of thirty, have said much of what they intend to say in their art and stop painting, or endlessly repeat their juvenile fascinations with a hollow intellect. Michael Taylor belongs to the relatively small number of painters who mature in their artistic vision and, without producing endless refinements to their earlier marks, branch out in a new and bold direction without abandoning the essential orientation of their art.

Taylor’s paintings of the 1960s are distinguished through their chromatic brilliance, diversity and fecundity of ideas. The bush and the sea have been a rich hunting ground for his art and brought back memories of his childhood at Woolwich on the Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers. Taylor was the youngest of four siblings and remembers his father as a Sunday painter ‘who exhibited all of the time’ and gave me my first ‘oil paints at the age of seven or eight’. Bluey in the bush (1965), at first glance is quite a minimal canvas realised in oils, acrylic and enamel, where out of a richly textured surface appear a few brilliant patches of blue. Although the palette is restricted and the pictorial inventions are spare, early in his career Taylor mastered a strategy where underpainting in a high key colour is almost totally submerged by later layers of paint, but allowed to emerge in small specks, creating the illusion of the painting breathing.

Some of the paintings from the 1960s are of monumental proportions, including the impressive Diptych (1969), which measures almost three metres across, and the intensely beautiful Ocean front (1965), in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. In the 1970s, when Taylor was teaching in Canberra, his work sold well and, he says, he ‘got enough to get out of teaching’.

The landscapes of the Monaro in the 1970s are generally lighter in tone and freer in their articulation than Taylor’s work in the 1960s. Monaro landscape (1973) and Landscape (1975), two vertical canvases in the collection of the National Gallery in Canberra, both have a breathing ease, vibrancy and gestural vigour. The colouristic complexities of these canvases and boldness in paint application make these some of the most adventurous Australian landscapes of their time. James Mollison, the inaugural director of the National Gallery, viewed Taylor as one of Australia’s most important living artists and lay the foundations to a collection of more than a hundred works by the artist.

The figurative element is almost invariably present in Taylor’s paintings as in the majestic Night piece with flying clouds/Moon Rise (1976–77), a diptych more than three metres wide and painted while the artist was living in Bredbo. The ghostly moon appears in a patch of sky surrounded by turbulent dark clouds. Touches of pink, blue and yellow give vibrancy to the composition. His majestic September ’74 (1974) at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, measuring almost two metres by over five metres, is a great cosmic summary with grids, mixed textures and an array of different methods of oil and enamel paint application. Through its sheer scale, the painting envelops you, making you both witness and participant.

Taylor has not only been a very prolific artist, but also a very consistent one and in the past decade, working out of his studio in rural Cooma, this artist, aged in his eighties, has lost none of his intensity, focus or boldness. Major pieces, including The Dock (2015), Through the night (2016), The Aviary (2017) and Tathra (2017), remain as vital and confronting in their presence as his earliest work.

In some ways, they are a mature artist’s work with colour reflexes intuitive, linear articulation bold and a preparedness to exploit the dribbles and splashes of paint. The lightness of the underpainting, frequently left exposed in largish areas, gives many of these canvases an extraordinary depth with suspended floating colour masses. His lyrical and romantic temperament remains unabated with nature and its forms, moods and changing patterns of light a source of endless fascination.

Michael Taylor’s art shows a distilled maturity and a highly developed sense of visual intelligence, but also a great freshness and preparedness to embrace new challenges and to work with unconventional colour combinations.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018

Michael Taylor: Landscapes
12 September – 4 October 2020
Nancy Sever Gallery, Canberra

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