Remounting the show that opened the gallery 50 years ago reveals how the NGV has made good on its early aspirations, curator Beckett Rozentals tells Maxim Boon.
On the morning of August 21, 1968, the new St Kilda Road premises of the National Gallery of Victoria opened its doors to the public for the first time. The imposing, brutalist construction, a bluestone monolith in the heart of Melbourne’s Southbank, had taken six years – and $14 million – to complete, and was now the largest art gallery in the country.
But despite these impressive credentials, the inaugural show in the NGV’s new temporary exhibitions hall seemed, at first glance, to shirk this grandeur. A blockbusting showcase of a megastar or a survey of true blue Australiana might have been a more obvious curtain-raiser. But instead, curators John Stringer and Brian Finemore elected to champion 40 emerging Australian artists working in bold, contemporary practices, largely influenced by the hard-edged, post-painterly movements thriving in America at the time. The contentious show was titled The Field.
“Many of the artists, nearly half of them, were under 30; Robert Hunter was the youngest at 21. And very few of them had ever had solo exhibitions, let alone had their work hung at a national institution,” explains Beckett Rozentals, curator of contemporary Australian painting, sculpture and decorative arts at the NGV. “The exhibition was quite divisive and its reception was very varied. Not that the artwork itself was at all controversial; people had been exposed to geometric colour-field works prior to this. But for many, it seemed bizarre to open the gallery’s new premises with a narrowly focused exhibition that didn’t seem to communicate much about Australian art, at least not in any broad or inclusive sense.”
The Field was fiercely debated by art critics. Some attacked the work for its childlike simplicity, while others waxed lyrical about its defiant rejection of predictable potboilers. Ironically, it’s precisely this friction, and the ensuing generations of artists inspired by it, that has proven The Field to be a watershed event when Australian art cemented its place on a world stage.
Five decades on, as the NGV’s St Kilda home celebrates its half-century, 21st-century art lovers will be able to experience this landmark show first hand. But bringing The Field back to the gallery after 50 years has been no easy task. As the remount’s co-curator, working alongside NGV director Tony Ellwood, Rozentals has had to channel her inner detective to discover the fate of the 74 artworks first exhibited in 1968. “We began by looking at our own collection first – we had three. So it was three down, 71 to go. We’ve found them as close as St Kilda Road, right next door to the NGV, and as far away as Perth. It’s taken four years of searching, but the importance of this exhibition really can’t be overstated.”
Finding the original works has been fraught with unexpected challenges. Several pieces, considered juvenilia by their creators, were dismantled, repurposed, or even incinerated decades ago. More than half of the artists from the show are now deceased, some as recently as last year. The NGV even made an appeal to the public, in case any of The Field’s lost masterpieces had found their way into a dusty attic. At the time of publication, 14 pieces remain unaccounted for, although some will have authorised reproductions made, Rozentals says. “Finally seeing these huge, bold, monumental works in situ will be an exciting and, I think, a very moving experience.”
First published 9 Feb 2018, for Time Out Melbourne.