Considered in terms of Williams’s stylistic progression, the present painting Hillside II of 1968 may be justifiably considered as the culmination of an important five-year long aesthetic development.
Hillside II 1968 is an aesthetic companion to Hillside I of 1965. The latter was in the private collection of Ann Lewis, the founding Director of Sydney’s famous Gallery A in Paddington from 1964 and founding member of the Australia Council Visual Arts Board from 1973.1 Ann acquired it as a 10th Wedding Anniversary gift from her husband.
The year 1968 came at the end of a crucial period in Williams’s artistic progression. It was one that Patrick McCaughey (the former inimitable Director of the National Gallery of Victoria) in the fifth chapter of his scholarly study aptly calls Williams’s “mature” phase. In speaking of Williams’s Hillside and Hummock series of paintings, encompassing the years 1964 to 1968, he elaborates upon this observation:
Hillside I and Hillside II epitomise the series and are its finest products. Williams attached particular significance to them, etching both versions and doing detailed gouaches of both. The effect of spontaneity in both pictures is carefully managed and constructed. The progress from Hillside I to Hillside II is from opacity to transparency, from the closed painterly surfaces of Hillside I to openness and sparseness of Hillside II – quite different from the usual progress from cool to warm versions found in earlier paintings.2
Experts agree that the Melbourne artist Fred Williams is one of the most respected names in Australian art history. His paintings hang in every State gallery and most regional galleries in Australia, as well as prominent private and institutional collections. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art each hold one of Williams’s paintings; Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria holds seven, and fourteen are held in the Tate Gallery in London. His work was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition (Fred Williams, Infinite Horizons, 12 August - 6 November 2011) at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. He has held numerous solo exhibitions and his 1977 exhibition entitled Fred Williams – Landscapes of a Continent at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which toured to Florida, Nebraska and Texas, successfully introduced his paintings to a wider international public.
In 1968, the year Hillside II was created, the National Gallery of Victoria held its inaugural exhibition at its new location in St. Kilda Road, Southbank. The impressive new gallery, designed by the leading Melbourne architect Roy Grounds (1905-1981), was opened by Sir Henry Bolte (1908-1990) the Premier of Victoria, on the evening of Tuesday 20 August 1968. Norman Reid, the Director of London’s Tate Gallery from 1964 to 1979, launched the much anticipated and heavily advertised first exhibition to the public on the following evening. The exhibition was entitled The Field - it was an exhibition of seventy-four works by forty young Australian artists.
Alarmingly, not one artist of Williams’s generation was included in the NGV’s first exhibition and the perceived rebuff sent a deep shudder through Melbourne’s art world. The then twenty-five year old McCaughey, the newly appointed art critic for Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, made matters worse by writing an enthusiastic review that rashly dismissed all earlier modernist aspiration in Australia as somehow inept. A lively artistic controversy arose and probably did something for the NGV’s attendance figures – an amazingly high total of 100,000 viewers turned up on the following weekend, some no doubt to take in the spanking new building, while others came to see what all the media fuss was about.
The exhibition was an important and pivotal event. Dr Christopher Heathcote, an art historian and former art critic of The Age newspaper, in the conclusion of his scholarly book A Quiet Revolution, The Rise of Australian Art 1946-1968 of 1995, cogently claims that this exhibition changed Australian art forever in that it institutionalised modern art and made it a product of a mandarin culture – importantly, he states that ‘imagination and inventiveness had been reconfigured’.3 Heathcote is right – art had changed. The art of Fred Williams changed as well and the new move toward simplified abstraction quickened what he was already achieving.
Williams’s Hillside II of 1968 is an outstanding example of his progression toward pictorial abstraction. One can more clearly witness this progression by comparing Williams’s Hillside II of 1968 with two other paintings that precede it. For example, Williams’s justly admired painting entitled Hillside of 1964 presents a macrocosmic sweep of a hillside that falls to the left. It was painted with washes of grey and umber colours, which are overlaid with multi-coloured calligraphic daubs that suggest pictorial depth and isolate the visual characteristics of certain types of scrubby Victorian landscapes. The formal composition of this painting is found further simplified in Williams’s painting Hillside I of 1965, where the composition is severely inclined, as though seen from a veering aeroplane, and the landscape is less representational and lacks visual depth, though certainly it heralds a greater reductive composition in Williams’s paintings.
Avant-garde painting in the forefront in the mid to late sixties stressed surface flatness and disengagement from the world of appearances and things. Most artists, including Williams, at this time became much more fully engaged with the making of a work of art with simple and stripped down visual essentials while paying closer attention to the actual physical surface of the paintings. They adopted a non-recessional, non-illusionistic approach and saw contemporary painting as essentially being a flat picture plane, which did not pretend to present a view, express anything or offer up a mirror image of the world. For these artists the common opinion was that contemporary painting was in essence about form as a planar-based arrangement of shapes, patterns and colours – nothing more.
These fundamental changes in painting may be traced back to the aesthetic theories of the highly respected and very influential American writer and critic Clement Greenberg who argued for a “purer” form of painting that was unburdened by the aesthetic attributes, “effects” he calls them, of other art practices. In 1961, in his important essay ‘American Painting’ he wrote the following defining words:
It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of the medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure”, and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as its independence. “Purity” meant self-definition.4
The author, as a knobbly-kneed neophyte, clearly remembers the hushed ambience of the packed Public Lecture Theatre at Melbourne University when Greenberg, the magus of Manhattan, delivered his spell-binding Power Lecture in 1968 – the year of the present painting. It was quite clear that the “who’s who” were being told “what’s what”. The brilliant though brash lecture introduced a new Modernist mantra: “painting had to be about painting”. It was now to be seen as being self-referential and no longer concerned with anything other than its own innate qualities and special attributes. In this new schema, painting had to concern itself with only that which belonged to painting – that which arose from the medium of oil paint and did that which only oil paint could do. Subsequently, narrative and story-telling disappeared from painting (it was seen to properly belong to literature); suggestions of space went (they belonged to sculpture); line went (it was the province of drawing and calligraphy); gesture and expression were jettisoned (they belonged to theatre) and naturalism was dropped as it belonged to photography. Thus, what slowly emerged was a reductive and minimalist art that rested upon restrained composition, washes of colour, flat fields of paint, stained canvasses, patterning and geometric grids – all of these attributes coalesce and variously exist in the visually elegant paintings of Fred Williams. Williams heard Greenberg’s mantra, but there is much to suggest that his work had already preordained it.
Alongside the ripple effect of The Field exhibition and the quickly adopted ideas of Greenberg was a contemporaneous local phenomenon. In the Australia of the early to mid-Sixties there arose a substantial artistic interest in depicting “abstracted landscapes” and Williams was always considered to be the most gifted and admired artist of this new wave of interest. The artists, such as Leonard Crawford, Leonard French, George Johnson, Graham King, Roger Kemp, James Meldrum, Lawrence Daws and Robert Juniper who rode this new wave produced paintings that were vastly different in style, yet their paintings share some common broadbrush attributes. For instance, they all tended to unite landscape or bush imagery with semi-abstract or simplified forms and they used non-recessional space that did not present a “view picture” with illusionistic space. In addition, as a way of distancing themselves from past traditions they were not wedded to nationalistic, rural or pastoral themes, nor were they prompted by questions of national identity. All these aesthetic attributes and determining factors are present in the paintings of Fred Williams.
The point of these closer contemporaneous details is to place Williams and his late sixties work into the appropriate aesthetic and historical context.
The general compositional trend towards a stripping away form of artistic minimalism was not lost upon Williams and there is no doubt that he was fully aware of its aesthetic significance. Certainly, Williams was highly visually aware of the implications of the NGV’s The Field exhibition. However, as hinted at above, a move to greater simplification and abstraction was already evident in his own paintings, especially from the visual evidence presented by his justly famous You Yangs and Lysterfield series of 1965. This is also quite evident in the large and highly accomplished oil painting Triptych Landscape, also known as Lysterfield Triptych, of 1967-68 in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. This large, over four-metre triptych, presents a horizontal expanse of what can barely be read as a landscape. The background of this expanse is almost unmodulated in tone and exists as a flat plane for the placement of variegated and almost calligraphic streaks and daubs of paint that stand up from the surface of the canvas.
Looking at all these paintings it becomes clear that Williams’s aesthetic direction was shifting away from the sophisticated techniques, colouristic effects, translucent ground and the late Cubist compositional structures of the magisterial Upwey series of 1965 and toward the pared down quality, opaque grounds and optical sparseness of his Australian Landscapes series of 1969 to 1970.
Williams’s painting Hillside II of 1968 is one of the finest of that watershed year and it points toward the accomplishment of his Triptych Landscape of 1968 in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
At the time Williams was of the opinion that somehow one could winkle out the essence of all Australian landscapes and create emblematic works that embodied the distinctiveness of the land. What emerged were macroscopic paintings characterised by harshly simplified vistas with a sense of frame-defying largeness that related to the immensity of the Australian landscape. Fred Williams’s painting Hillside II of 1968 is a highly refined and pictorially restrained work, with a fine provenance, which shows the forty-one year old artist at this conceptual and lyrical best, fourteen years before his very much lamented and untimely death.
The present painting represents Fred Williams at his most iconic and most accomplished stage. His good friend the famous artist John Brack, with typical elegance and simplicity, summed up Williams’s notable aesthetic achievements in his eulogy in 1982:
It is not the prerogative of contemporaries to assign historical places to artists – that is for posterity. What we do know is that Fred brought us a new vision of Australia’s landscape at least as valid and impressive as any of the two or three major illuminations which went before it. He changed the way we see our country: an achievement which will live on and linger after all of us are gone.5
1. Williams’s major painting Hillside I of 1965 was offered at auction by Moss Green Auctions (The Estate of Ann Lewis AO, Sydney, Monday 7 November, lot 85, p.90-93, illus. p.92. The painting was included in the retrospective exhibition Fred Williams, Infinite Horizons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 12 August - 6 November 2011
2. McCaughey, P., Fred Williams 1927-1982, Murdoch Books, Millers Point, Sydney, 2008, p.182 (both Hillside I and Hillside II are illus. p.183, pl. 92; 93)
3. Heathcote, C., A Quiet Revolution, The Rise of Australian Art 1946-1968, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1995, p.208
4. Greenberg, C., “American Painting”, in O’Brien, J., (Ed.), Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, Vol. 4, p.86
5. Cited in: McCaughey, P., Fred Williams 1927-1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1980, p. 347
Brack, J., “Obituary: Fred Williams - Appreciation”, Art and Australia, 20, 2, Summer, 1982
Fred Williams Retrospective, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 31 October 1987-31 January 1988, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 17 February-3 April 1988, Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 18 April-22 May 1988
Greenberg, C., “American Painting”, in O’Brien, J., (Ed.), Clement Greenberg: the Collected Essays and Criticism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993
Hannan, B., “Williams’s Landscapes”, The Bulletin, Sydney, 18 April, 1964
Heathcote, C., A Quiet Revolution, The Rise of Australian Art 1946-1968, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1995
Lindsay, R.; Zdanowicz, I., Fred Williams: Works in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1980
McCaughey, P., Fred Williams 1927-1982, Murdoch Books, Millers Point, Sydney, 2008
Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Canberra, Australian National Gallery, 1989
Smith, B.; Smith, T., Australian Painting 1788-1990, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1991
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne