Present Tense is a big beige book thick as a house brick but not as heavy. The subtitle, Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary art describe the contents, text and photographs, accurately. Anna Schwartz Gallery is amongst Melbourne’s most influential commercial art galleries. Since 1986 it has represented some of Melbourne’s best contemporary artists, including Mike Parr, Emily Floyd, Callum Morton and Shaun Gladwell, and visiting international artists. The author, Doug Hall, is the former director of Queensland Art Gallery and now a Melbourne resident.
The beige cover suggests the excitement level of the long, rambling story that the author has bleached of colour. Even some theory and art-speak would be a welcome relief from the narrative, but Hall avoids both. It seems like Hall had almost a deliberate strategy to hide anything that might attract your interest in the middle of chapters. I could not get into it; the writing was that dull. All it got from me was skim reading, dipping into it, reading for research and not pleasure.
At first, I was hoping to find details that I could use in blog posts about some of the artists that Anna Schwartz Gallery represents. Unfortunately, I found nothing in it worth citing. Even the chapter on public sculpture was remarkably unedifying. Apart from a single photograph of Emily Floyd’s Public Art Strategy, the reader is told nothing about the artists that Anna Schwartz represents doing public art. Instead of information, the reader is treated to Hall’s opinions on why it is better not to be involved in public art commissions.
This is not the first time that I’ve read a rambling book about an Australian art dealer. Adrian Newstead’s The Dealer is the Devil – an insider’s history of the Aboriginal Art trade, (Brandl and Schlesinger, 2014) is almost as long and nearly as dull. Still, at least, Newstead can tell stories.
As I persevered through its pages, I wondered if this book was ever intended to be read and I considered the other reason to have a book. Books have a symbolic value both as objects on shelves and as unread ideas, documented in various lists. Many books are not intended to be read all the way through coffee table books, books as art objects, along with phone books and other reference books.
There is an art to being influential. The symbolic value of this big book, almost regardless of its contents, cannot be under-estimated. For its existence is a kind of proof of the influential reputation of Anna Schwartz Gallery. A book about Anna Schwartz Gallery deserves to be written. It is just the writer and editor that were unfortunate choices.
Doug Hall Present Tense – Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary art (Black Inc.,2019)