Past Catalogue | Important Australian & International Art – March 2022 | Date: 31 March, 2022

Lot 29
Pylon I 2006
oil on canvas
75.0 x 110.0 cm

signed lower right: JEFFREY SMART


Australian Galleries, Melbourne
Private collection, Melbourne
Menzies, Sydney, 26 March 2015, lot 41
Company collection, Victoria


Allen, C., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings and Studies 2004-2006, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 2006, p.12 (illus.)


Jeffrey Smart: Paintings and Studies 2004-2006, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 28 September - 8 October 2006; Australian Galleries, Sydney, 17 October - 4 November 2006, cat.22

Hammer Price + BP A$859,090.91

Vasari tells us that when Uccello’s wife called to him to bed, he would mutter: ‘Oh what a sweet thing this perspective is!’ and keep working. One can almost imagine Jeffrey Smart emulating the old Florentine in singing the praises of geometry and perspective, but it’s unlikely he would sit up all night nurturing an obsession. Smart took a more disciplined approach, working regular hours in the studio.

His paintings came together slowly, starting with quick sketches and snapshots, evolving into more finished drawings, then small oil studies. A finished painting might be the result of weeks and months of sustained labour, as pictorial ideas were tried and discarded. The results might appear disarmingly casual – a slice of everyday life hardly worth immortalising on canvas. But spend time with any of Smart’s paintings and their subtleties soon begin to reveal themselves.

Pylon I 2006 is a classic example of a work that looks, at first, like a nondescript scene by a roadside. The uniformity of modern cities and suburbs means the actual setting could be anywhere, from Europe to the United States, from Australia to China or India. It is only the posters glued to a huge concrete pylon that tell us we’re in Italy, the country where the artist lived for more than 40 years. The actual details are generic: a concrete pylon plastered with posters and graffiti, an asphalt road, a pedestrian crossing, a wooden fence, a dump truck, part of a sign, a couple of men engaged in conversation. Neither should we forget the earth and the sky, or the play of shadows.

It is when we examine the picture closely that we start to appreciate the complexity of the composition. The white lines of the pedestrian crossing are found again on the side of the truck. The letters of the sign, partially visible on the left, are echoed by the letters of the advertising posters and the graffiti. Colours such as blue and mustard yellow are repeated at intervals. There are bright tones and half-tones; colours seen in the full light of day, and others, such as the yellow band at the top of the pylon, shrouded in shadow.

I’m not about to start measuring the angles and ratios at play in this painting, but Smart was never arbitrary in his treatment of positive and negative space. A lifelong devotee of the Golden Ratio, his paintings were made with constant recourse to the ruler and the set square. Rather than leave everything to the art historians, Smart’s work would repay analysis by a mathematician.

The grubby white bulk of the pylon dominates the picture, conveying a feeling of mass, set against the infinite expanse of the sky. If we could zoom out, we might find it to be merely one of a long line of pylons supporting a freeway or a bridge. We might also discover what the truncated red sign says, and what lies on the other side of that temporary-looking wooden fence.

As this is not a film, but paint on a flat surface, we are condemned to know nothing more than the artist wishes to reveal. As with so many of Smart’s paintings, Pylon I presents an obstructed view that creates a mild sense of mystery. For all we know there could be an entire fleet of trucks concealed behind the pylon, or a building site behind the wooden fence. It all looks very ordinary but perhaps there is something magical and surprising just around the corner. To me this seems properly metaphysical, as if each humdrum object had a secret potential that transcends appearances.

It is also a kind of gag, a trap set for those who search for hidden symbolism and deep meanings in Smart’s paintings. For instance, I doubt there is much to be gleaned from the words on the posters, which announce a furniture sale and a local carnival – which is not to say there aren’t private jokes. ‘Non! Beppino’ says one scrawl, but who is Beppino?

And then there is the problem of what the viewer is doing. Like a film director, Smart makes frequent use of the Point of View shot, making us feel as if we were a participant in the scene. We might be hiding behind the pylon and spying on the two men across the street. We could be about to join them, via the pedestrian crossing; or we have just left the conversation and have paused for a backwards glance.

By a fusion of artful composition and fragmented narrative, Smart has imbued this seemingly ordinary street scene with a peculiar intimacy. Peculiar, because we may absorb such scenes daily without paying the slightest attention. It is only when the everyday is translated into a painting that it takes on a new significance. Why should this be so? For Smart this was a fertile mystery that never required a solution.

John McDonald
John McDonald is the author of Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  He writes a weekly art column for the Sydney Morning Herald and a weekly film column for the Australian Financial Review