Tag Archives: John Brack

The Artist of Destruction

The blond young man with slicked backed hair told me he was an artist. “Another bullshit artist,” I thought; but then I had been drinking at yet another exhibition opening and when that was over moved on to the nearest bar.

I told him that I was an art critic, well, I write this blog. He claimed a vague familiarity with my work. Was he trying to get on my good side?

The artist, let’s call him that, I don’t think that he ever introduced himself, told me about the 20 years of his art practice and his thesis. Maybe I had underestimated him; he could expound on post-modern philosophy with a familiar distain. Next, I thought, he’ll want me to write about his project.

Instead the artist claimed that he was being persecuted in the popular press but I had been at the beach and hadn’t seen anything in weeks. He told me that his art practice involved destroying drawings by major Australian artists rather than creating more and there were people threatening to kill him. I looked around the bar – nobody appeared to be an art lover about to engage in psychopathic blood frenzy. I ordered another beer.

The artist pointed out the old A5 sheet of paper that he was using as a beer mat. “It is a genuine John Brack’s drawing, valued at $9,000. I’m testing its survivability in contemporary living conditions” I didn’t examine the smudges of graphite on the paper and failed to ask the artist if this was Australian or US dollars. The artist finished his beer and stuffed the now beer stained sheet of paper into his pocket.

The January weather has been capricious, rain was threatening. It was like winter. Next the artist took me into the laneway. We sheltered in a doorway and he pulled out a thin rolled paper artefact that he claimed was “a marijuana joint”. He also claimed that the cardboard “filter” was torn from Ricky Swallow drawing. I don’t know about either but I didn’t get high from smoking it.

The artist appeared to have got very high and was raving about Robert Rauschenberg erasing de Kooning. Quoting from Penny Rimbaud of CRASS on how to destroy art and the Futurists he had somehow got on to the symbolic castration of the father figure. Then he wanted to show me photographs on his cell phone of a Brett Whitely that he had showed up his ass and set on fire for his Masters. I declined, pointing out that I didn’t have my reading glasses with me and the screen was too small to make anything out.

January in Melbourne is full of strange art stories you can’t believe them all. Exhibitions of toddler’s paintings, the Prime Minister’s collection of photocopies of her breasts stolen by members of the opposition party and Dennis Hopper eating Sidney Nolan drawings for breakfast.


John Brack Retrospective

The John Brack retrospective exhibition at the NGV is an opportunity to re-examine the issue of was John Brack (1920 – 1999) a modern Australian artist or a reactionary and what relevance his work has to contemporary art. If he just created popular iconic, albeit slight satirical, images of Melbourne then is he conservative? Or did Brack have a critical view of Australian suburban life and other elements of modern content and design? Progress in modern art, along with the partisan struggle between the progressive modernists versus the ‘passéist’ (the Futurist term for passé art movements), was largely assumed. Although the questions of what direction the progress should take was under debate. Was the future of art primitivist, abstract, machine aesthetics, surreal, realist or what?

The issue of figurative painting versus abstract art loomed large in the early career of Brack. In the modern world artists and critics were reactionary by definition if they opposed progressive art. Does this mean that the John Brack and the Antipodeans were reactionary, figurative painters? The Antipodeans Group staged a single exhibition in August 1959 at the Victorian Artists’ Society. The Victorian Artists’ Society is still in existence and still teaches and promotes conservative painting. The Antipodeans were challenging Clement Greenberg claim of the centrality of abstraction to modern art. Had they recognized it as American propaganda or were they expressing conservative anti-American Australian attitudes? Brack’s apparent conservative and popular position encouraged the NGV to acquire several of his paintings early in his career.

Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (The University of Chicago Press, 1983) provides a very detailed account of American art and Cold War geopolitics. The unique individual (American) abstract artist painting pure art was removed from class struggles or other political discourses. It is worth noting in this history, that that the first pure abstract paintings were not done by an early 20th century avant-garde modern artists but by an English mystic, Georgina Houghton in 1861. Following in this trend was Annie Besent, a theosophist. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian would have seen Annie Besent’s abstract paintings, as both were members of the Theosophical Society. Abstract art might have remained the interest of eccentric artists and mystics were it not for geopolitics.

There are other elements of modernism in Brack’s paintings: his many cityscapes and his interest in the machine aesthetic in his paintings of slicing machines, sewing machines, surgical equipment, modern flat surfaces and shop fittings. However, there is no political nor references to any current events in Brack’s paintings.

The John Brack retrospective exhibition is certainly popular but it is not just for the history or the iconic images. There is much in the art of John Brack that is relevant to contemporary art in Melbourne. Brack’s illustrative narrative style is still popular and is now common in contemporary art. And a visually literate population increasingly understands his references to art history. Brack’s later still life paintings with pencils and pens show elements of post-minimalist sculpture, like Melbourne’s Carl Scrase or Tim Sterling. And his anti-abstract and pro-figurative painting position is similar to Stuckism that has supporters in Melbourne’s street art scene.


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