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While Tim Maguires practice is mostly identified with the still-life genre, he claims no particular allegiance to it, crossing with equal ease to representations of landscape and abstraction. These apparently disparate bodies of work are in fact related both conceptually and aesthetically, engaged in an ongoing exchange. But the historical still-life genre prevails from its first full-blown appearance in Maguires paintings in 1989, after he returned home to the Blue Mountains and his son was born.1  

A formative postgraduate year at Dsseldorfs venerable Kunstakademie in 1985, with his further travelling and exhibiting in Europe and America, had earlier shaped Maguires thinking with a new vision of what painting could be, highlighting the way formal processes and values can be used objectively to reimagine ordinary subject matter, and how it was not the image but what you do with it, that counted.

Maguire was initially attracted to the metaphorical and symbolic features of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings, and their allusion to transience and mortality. The objective, cool gaze that characterised this genre, its quiet exhalation of life embalmed, appealed to him. The reductive process of cropping a detail from a photographic reproduction of an original painting, whether from his own photograph, a magazine or a postcard of putting it through a wash cycle2 reflected his intent to detach from subject matter to better engage with the material concerns of his painting process. He wanted his contemporary paintings to be as devoid of personality as the historical still-life model. As his practice and working process developed, he observed that if there was any meaning in the flower paintings it was to do with the way they were made.3 He came to realise they worked better enlarged, because the gestures seem out of scale, as if he had not made them.4 Dragging a large brush across the painted surface and pushing the painterly gestures further away was an approach he characterised as an effacement, as if he were making marks and partially erasing them at the same time.5

By the late 1980s, he was also printing lithographs and monotypes at the Victorian (now Australian) Print Workshop in Melbourne, which had expanded his understanding of colour separation, leading to his use of colour glazes rather than opaque paint and a growing interest in the paintings surface.

There was another reason for Maguires exploration of the possibilities of the still-life genre he was tired of making paintings whose representation of light derived from an observed straight line, as in his Tank series of 1986-90.6 Maguires flower paintings of the 1990s developed around the same time as a series of Canal paintings that he had begun in London in 1988, and where later versions were exhibited at Chisenhale Gallery in 1992. This series marked another step in Maguires progression towards an abstraction still grounded in representation: their origin was in his experience of walking along Londons Grand Union Canal, seeing the natural light through its nineteenth-century bridge structures. Large and luminous, pierced by vertical shafts of light, the paintings also allude to the minimalist flatness of the zip paintings of American artist Barnett Newman (1905-1970), just as his earlier Bridge and Column paintings of 1989 had paid homage to the modernist square paintings of Josef Albers (1888-1978) and Mark Rothkos (1903-1970) floating colour blocks.

These various series of abstract representations advanced Maguires exploration of colour, light and space. While he was drawn to the reductive aesthetics of minimalism, he realised that the tension in his paintings between the three-dimensional natural phenomena and the contrived rigidity of such abstraction, meant he could only go so far.7 And, to make the point not without some irony that his flower paintings were not about flowers, he worked on a series of abstract Slit paintings (1994-97) that alluded to Lucio Fontanas incised paintings with trompe loeil horizontal or vertical slits across the picture plane, which playfully implicated his abstracting of illusionist historical still-life paintings.8

This large diptych Untitled 95.03 of 1995 can be considered a mature example of the early years of Maguires still-life flower paintings: its slightly flattened and smoother surface draws on the refined abstractions of his concurrent series with all their formal developments. It embodies Maguires assured command of content, medium and process. Its imposing scale, often described as cinematic, immerses the viewer in the lush flow of its content, dominated by the effulgent white blossom sliding effortlessly from the dark background into the viewers space. With its reduced palette of red, white and blue; seamless visual presence; subtle surface activation through painterly flourishes; and translucent layers of colour washes; it anticipates Maguires progression towards another kind of abstracted illusionism. In the same year, Maguire was engaging with his rigorously abstract Splash paintings (199599), which developed out of the process of making flower paintings. Both bodies of work, however, enact Maguires view that a painting is both an object and a record of an event where every intervention by the artist is evident.9



1. An early version of the still-life motif (i.e., a single vegetable) began in New York for Maguires exhibition Et in Arcadia Ego, at Philip Dash Gallery, New York, in 1987. See Maguire, T., Godfrey, T. & Watkins, J., Tim Maguire, Piper Press, Sydney, 2018, pp.49-50
2. Op cit. Maguire, T., Godfrey, T. & Watkins, J., p.74

3. Ibid., p.100
4. Ibid., p.72
5. Ibid., p.75
6. Tim Maguire interviewed by Maria Stoljar, Talking with Painters [podcast], episode 92, 2020 [accessed February 2023]: https://talkingwithp flatness,
7. Tim Maguire, quoted in op cit. Maguire, T., Godfrey, T. & Watkins, J., p. 51
Ibid., p.100: I conceived the Slit paintings to frame more effectively the proposition I was making, the play between the illusionism and the materiality of the painted surface.
9. Op. cit. Tim Maguire interviewed by Maria Stoljar


Jenepher Duncan
Jenepher Duncan is an independent art consultant.  She was previously Curator of Contemporary Australian Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth and Director of the Monash University Museum of Art and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. 





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