Fred Williams knows Australia. He is not an artist who would disdain a gum tree. He is not a foreigner seeking to impose a natural paradise on some strange exotic land.
He is, however, a romantic artist and his approach to landscape is narrative. His images may at first seem abstract, but they in fact describe actual times and places: a marked grave on a dot of uninhabited island, burnt and foliate gum trees, bushfires and storms of dust, topsy-turvy hills, bays whose aspect alters with each move …1
William S. Lieberman, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator, first noted Williams’ work in 1967, and then on visiting Australia in 1975 saw Williams’ exhibition at Rudy Komon Art Gallery in Sydney, and subsequently visited Williams’ studio. The Fred Williams exhibition Landscapes of a Continent was confirmed by these visits and when unveiled in March 1977, it appeared to the American public an unseen vision of Australia and the first exhibition by an Australian artist at MoMA.
Upwey Landscape No. 1 1970 was one of forty works on paper that made up this exhibition. It gave Americans their first sight of Fred Williams’ painting and the reviews by local critics were enthusiastic and positive. Robert Hughes, the Australian Time magazine critic, was in attendance and made a short film of the exhibition. Subsequently Landscapes of a Continent travelled to Florida, Nebraska and Texas, giving Williams greater exposure.
What is clear from this survey of paintings on paper is that Williams was an artist who saw the landscape in naturalistic terms, but in painting it, Williams gave free reign to experimentation and innovation. The discussion further settles on observation; the machinery of Williams’ technique, where he adapts to light and place, and within a register of responses, is present to each moment.
Upwey Landscape No. 1 very much fits to the period of the late sixties when Williams’ Australian Landscape paintings explored minimal abstraction. Williams wanted reduction and in taking out elements he revealed the bare bones of the landscape. Upwey Landscape No. 1 is much less than is seen and more than would appear; the two horizontal skeins to the centre of the image and the colour dashes, are the equivalent of markers pinned to a map. Absence is beautifully balanced by the many colour notes that are both above and within the taupe ground of the painting.
Gouache on paper was a medium well suited to Williams’ needs. He used it with an immediacy, applying washes of colour and adding gouache from the tube, often with acrylic to add opacity. The dot-dashes are superbly mixed, but the variation in colour and surface of each mark, draws the eye to tree forms and hillocks around which light has removed shadow and scrub.
Fred Williams’ colours are those of the continent itself - dull brick, ocher [sic], russet, pale green, vivid blue … rock, bush and desert are observed level with the ground as well as from above and also at different times of day. On single or successive sheets of paper, one changing view is described in horizontal registers.2
Upwey Landscape No. 1 is part of a fascinating history and the exhibition Landscapes of a Continent that gave Fred Williams international recognition. That the present work was a bequest to MoMA and is here repatriated to Australia for sale at auction is indeed a great honour. To be offering Upwey Landscape No. 1 in this context adds weight to the tradition of Australian painting and to the understanding of Fred Williams’ art.
1. Lieberman, W., Landscapes of a Continent [exhibition catalogue], The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, n.p.
2. Ibid, n.p.