Menzies Art Brands



Roger Kemp was painting at full tempo when he devised this mid 1970s composition on universal order and balance.1  In stylistic terms it has the rhythmic looseness typical of his best late work, geometry being used in an elated and jaunty manner.  Kemp employs here the innovative method of contemporary abstract painting he had recently introduced to Australia after two years spent working overseas.  He would unfurl and fix wide rolls of French art paper across his studio wall, draw on a sketchy compositional structure in cont crayon, then take up a brush and intently set to work using a spicy palette of American acrylics.

As with Kemps very best compositions of this period it takes a sensitive eye to distinguish the innate logic to this host of small coloured shapes in warm browns, orange, red, and cooler purples and blue.  Pausing to look, we see implicit rhythms to the rectangular and circular sub-units in this major piece.  Of course, three curved white verticals descend to the fore, behind which we make out broad tan oblongs, and a large ovoid in purple is evident further back again. 

There is a serious point to these overlapping configurations.  The artist wished to suggest the perceptions of physicists like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, who revealed those hidden geometric and mathematical systems that govern our seemingly random, haphazard universe.  The artist preferred to paint while playing music loudly on his studio radiohe liked symphonic music with a strong melody linefor he liked to let the music carry him along as he built complex interlocking rhythmic patterns.  However, this appears as one of several pieces laboured over while he listened to ABC Radios The Science Show and tried to translate into artistic terms the scientific views under discussion.2  Kemps big theme in this work is the scientific order evident behind the restless chaos of the physical world we inhabit.

Much is conveyed by that centre white band down which Kemp positions several red roundels, some with a central stumpy brushstroke of pungent blue.  But look again.  Two of these shapes are circles, two are squares, with another smaller two still to take form.  These are elemental shapes Roger Kemp relentlessly used in symbolic abstractions of this period; and they are placed prominently in the central band to refer to the geometry underpinning both great art and theoretical science.  In conversation he would explain his intention was to allude to the celebrated image of Vitruvian man at full stretch between circle and square.

Mind you, the artist was careful not to lapse into the literalism of an academic diagram.  No rulers, compasses or numbered ratios for him.  Working loosely with broad brushes, order and pattern are implied in a semi-improvised painting that owes much to a tradition founded by European masters like Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Paul Klee (1879-1940) as well as more recent American abstract expressionists.  The astute viewer will also see at points how Kemp has edited himself and clarified the image by painting over a section in a different shade, setting warm against cool, or else breaking a large form into smaller blunt units.3 This causes a distinct layering effect, where stumpy rectangles cluster on a spatial plane; and which animates the deliberately skewed composition with a joyous sense of restless activity.  There is no mistaking Kemps exultation as he concluded what was a complex visual taskthis is a mighty painting by a mature artist at the peak of his creative powers.


1. The present painting was made together with two major abstractions illustrated on pp.222-3 and 228-9 of the monograph, A Quest for Enlightenment: The Art of Roger Kemp (Macmillan, South Yarra, 2007)

2. Kemp would always listen to the program in his studio on Saturday afternoons, and sometimes when it was repeated in the evenings during the week.  He would also tape some sessions of scientists explaining their discoveries, then keep replaying the cassettes as he fretted over large paintings, trying to translate science into visual terms

3. Kemp is shown doing this while painting a related piece in the candid studio photograph on p.147 of A Quest for Enlightenment. op.cit.

Dr Christopher Heathcote


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