A lot was happening in the art world in 1968. Andy Warhol had spent the decade blurring art and consumerism while the Beatles had torn up and rebuilt pop music. That year Stanley Kubrick brought an arty sensibility to science fiction with 2001: A Space Odyssey. And at home something was happening to shake up the Australian art world in ways people still talk about today.
The Field was a landmark show for the NGV. It served as an opening event for the new building on St Kilda Road and signaled a full-hearted embrace of contemporary art. The emerging forms of colour field painting and abstract sculpture, adopted mostly by twenty-somethings, must have been startling for visitors used to landscapes and old masters. Critics went wild. That is, they hated it. But now that art show is firmly established as a groundbreaking moment in Australian art. And now, the NGV has launched The Field Revisited, a loving recreation of the original show, 50 years on.
In 2018 seeing this exhibition is like stepping into a time capsule. The walls are coated with silver, which crinkles like kitchen foil. Time has been kind to the art: amid flat plains of colour, bold geometric lines jut out unexpectedly and strikingly. The canvasses pop from the silver walls. Much of it still feels contemporary.
At the time, neither the artists or the gallery were concerned with longevity or legacy. This was of-the-moment stuff, to be experienced in the gallery or not at all. The show was only photographed in black and white, which seems bizarre given the show’s focus on colour. Also, many of the works were destroyed or lost after the show. Works by Nigel Lendon and Emanuel Raft were destroyed in two separate house fires. Normana Wight threw hers in an incinerator. Where possible, lost works have been recreated by the original artist. Some of the originals are damaged but battling on. Gunter Christmann’s Rubezahl was cut up by the artist and the canvas was reused. It’s still here, damaged almost beyond recognition. The clean lines of Michael Johnson’s Chomp have been diminished by chips, scrapes and scuffs.
Those that can’t be found and can’t be recreated are represented by full-sized greyscale images. This isn’t entirely successful because it’s not always immediately evident what’s an artwork and what’s a picture of an artwork. But in another sense, the whole show is a snapshot, a remake.
Curator Beckett Rozentals is very particular about how closely The Field Revisited reproduces the original show. Though the space is different (the original gallery space no longer exists), the original relationships between the works are recreated as much as possible. “Recreations are very tricky,” says Rozentals. “You can add extra works, leave works out, fix mistakes. But we decided to be strict. Our purpose is to fully recreate the creators’ intent.
“From some angles I feel like I’m standing in the original photographs.”
It’s an act of time travel full of contradictions.
And it’s complicated; this is 2018, and all your favourites are problematic. The recreation also includes the dodgy politics of 1968. Of the 40 artists on show, the ratio of three women to 37 men is particularly galling given the NGV has already been critisised for its poor record on representation. Rozentals says the NGV will use this show as an opportunity to discuss the shortcomings of the male-focused curation, rather than correcting it. So a show exhibiting the work of women from the same era will open shortly.
In 1968, The Field was a statement that Australia could hold its own among the big players, and that we had ‘arrived’ on the international scene. But The Field Revisited isn’t – and can’t be – as striking an announcement of the future as it was 50 years ago. Now it’s retro; a look back at a key cultural moment, the equivalent of a vinyl re-pressing with a foil-embossed cover and a bonus disc of outtakes. But it still has a residual buzz of something radical.
The Field is at NGV Federation Square until August 26
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