Tribute: Tony McGillick

In Issue 45 Paul McGillick reflects on the colourful life of his brother; the late Tony's McGillick, whose passionate and expressive paintings celebrated the jouissance of painting and the emotion of colour.

A recent retrospective at the Macquarie University Art Gallery, ‘A Field of Colour, Tony McGillick’ – the first major survey of his work since 1978 – was a powerful reminder of the originality and brilliance of Tony McGillick’s legacy.

I use the word ‘legacy’ advisedly because, insofar as he is still remembered, Tony’s painting is largely known only through a small number of early works. This was true even when he was alive since, in his entire career, he held only three solo shows, including his ‘Survey 6 Tony McGillick’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 1978. He did appear in numerous group shows, but he had a passionate commitment to the integrity of painting as a vocation which made him intensely wary of art as a commodity and the exhibition treadmill which served as its wrapping paper.

As he wrote in the NGV catalogue, ‘Painting pictures is a separate and different activity to displaying them, which is an anomaly I have never comfortably resolved. However, I am convinced that painting, as the priority activity, deserves to be presented in sympathy with its initial premises and not, as is so often the case, as a commodity, a teaching aid or interior decoration.’

In fact, Tony would not sell a painting unless he had a guarantee that it would not be onsold to the secondary market. Unsurprisingly, most of his few sales were to institutions, meaning that he needed to support himself and his family by continuing to work in advertising. While advertising made some intriguing contributions to his fine art, it also increasingly became a constraint.

It was a sad irony that he had made the decision to quit advertising to work full-time as a painter, preparing for a solo show at Sherman Galleries, when he died prematurely at the age of fifty-one in November 1992. A small survey curated by William Wright at Sherman Galleries in March 1993 gave some insight into the ‘unknown Tony McGillick’ as did another one at Annandale Galleries in November 2000, curated by Tom Langlands.

In fact, there was – and still is – a lot that is unknown about Tony McGillick, especially the work itself. The stunning late work (1978-92) has had virtually no exposure. However, the great achievement of the Macquarie retrospective was to bring together a lifetime’s work and reveal his single-mindedness and his scorn for fashion. In particular, it demonstrated that far from being (as some in the 1960s thought) a ‘hard-edge’ technician, Tony was an emotional and expressive painter whose work was always, to a greater or lesser extent, gestural and textural – a celebration of the act of painting and of colour.

Also unknown to all but his intimates was Tony’s binary character. He was simultaneously public and private, an activist and a quietist. Publicly he was best known as the driver behind Sydney’s Central Street Gallery (1966-70), a gallery seen by many at the time to be promoting the latest international fashion for colour-field painting.

Tony’s real agenda was to illustrate various propositions about painting itself and to generate an informed debate about the nature and purpose of art. In so doing he helped launch the careers of many painters while supporting the careers of other more established but unfashionable painters. To support this agenda Tony imported shows with a didactic purpose – the cut-out lithographs of Matisse, Josef Albers’ Interaction of Colour, American Pop Art and the extraordinary artificial landscapes of American painter James Doolin. Near the end of Central Street’s brief life, Tony made a point by moving away from painting altogether with a landmark conceptual show and a study of Coca-Cola as a cultural icon.

He was generous with his time, skills and money. He visited the studios of young artists and showed their work in the latter period of Central Street Gallery. When the space became the Institute of Contemporary Art (1974-78, and even later a private space) Tony and his Central Street Gallery co-founders, John White and Harald Noritis, provided space, materials and promotional support to artists whose work he may not have always liked but thought worthy of exposure.

The didactic was for a time an important aspect of his own work. The earliest of his mature work – for example, Primary (1965) – shows a strong debt to Jasper Johns in its expressive use of encaustic and Times Roman type. Although he quickly worked through the stylistic influence of Johns, he retained the core idea – present, he argued, in the great tradition of Western painting and exemplified by Piero della Francesca – that the true subject of painting was not pictorial representation but the meaning generated by aesthetic experience. The subject was a given. For Johns it might be the map of the United States, for Tony it was first the locally famous Jimmy Sharman Boxing Troupe and then the cover of Time magazine, in the 1960s much more expressively designed than it is today.

This didactic preoccupation persisted with the ‘flat’ paintings of the 1960s, either orthogonal stretched canvases or constructed modular paintings using standard geometric forms assembled into different configurations. All-over paintings they may have been, but Spraygun Virus (1969) uses a spraygun to achieve a modulated colour field, hinting at depth and underlying emotional force.

Key paintings which reveal that he was never a truly cool, geometric abstractionist are Jasper’s Gesture (1966) and Republic (1966-70). The former, its recurring cut-out corner square shape derived from Titian’s Portrait of a Man, has three panels flatly painted in primary colours, but the fourth is a scumbled encaustic off-white. Republic was painted for the didactic ‘Black and White Show’ at Central Street in 1966. Then in 1970 he painted over it in a textured deep green, ‘taking it out of the schoolroom’ as he later put it, flagging a decisive shift to a more direct and gestural way of working.

The shift is announced by the set of five unstretched canvases such as Imogen’s Ensign (1973) made from the same shaped canvas segments as the modular paintings but left hanging from the wall like an entropic endgame signalling the end of something, but not yet the beginning of something else.

That beginning is superbly announced by Manoeuvre (1978) and Tabby’s Tantrum (1978). Previously employed elements are still there, but they are now set free, albeit within a tight all-over unity. The surface is worked (rather than copying directly from his notebook sketches as before) and there is a new delight in the act of painting.

Times Roman reappears in Tom’s Toybox (1986-92) and in Quattro (1989) – its name code for the Quattrocento, Piero and the source of the principles of painting. This new gestural celebration of colour and the act of painting reaches its apotheosis with the splendidly expressive late paintings (1989-92) in acrylic on canvas and paper.

Reviewing the Sherman Galleries show in March 1993, Elwyn Lynn in The Australian Weekend Review described these paintings as ‘masterpieces’, epitomised for me by the predominantly green Untitled (1990-91) in the IBM Collection. This embodies the unrestrained jouissance of Tony’s late work with its underlying forms linking back to some of his earliest work. In this way Tony McGillick’s work shows the consistency of concern and clarity of values which always marks out the best in painting.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2018

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