In 1966 two extraordinary events occurred in Robert Jacks’s life. The young artist’s debut solo show sold out at a gallery in Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria purchased one of the larger works in the exhibition – an abstract but lyrical painting called Timbrel and harp soothe, for its permanent collection.

As current NGV curator Beckett Rozentals points out, not only is it, “Rare for work to be acquired by a state institution from an artist’s first show, it is equally rare for an artist's debut exhibition to sell-out.” Those events marked the beginning of a long and prolific career for Jacks, who passed away in August only a few months before his life and work will be celebrated in a major retrospective, Order and Variation, at the Ian Potter Centre starting this month.

“Robert was at the forefront of abstraction, having been at the centre of it all when he was in New York in the 1960s,” says Tony Ellwood, the director of the NGV. “He associated with many of the key figures of the period and brought back to Australia a sophisticated knowledge and network within this field.”

But even before his move to the US, Jacks had already begun to explore a more minimalist, pared-back aesthetic. When the NGV put on its seminal exhibition on colour-field painting and abstract sculpture in 1968, called The Field, it featured Jacks’s Red painting – a piece consisting of five vertical red rectangles divided by what Rozentals describes as, “borders of gridding ribboning that modulate through different hues”. These static “sequences” manage to give the appearance of a glowing, pixilated border.

It was a work that, “Made a resounding statement about new abstraction in Australia,” says Kirsty Grant, who curated Order and Variation. And for Jacks the work marked a departure from the more lyrical forms that appeared in his earlier work; now symmetry, angles and geometric illusions came to the fore.

Between 1968 and 1978 Jacks lived in New York where he spent time with icons of the abstract expressionist movement such as Barnett Newman and minimalist superstars such as Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. During these years the “grid” became his focus. He produced modular, reductive works that experimented with permutation and repetition – a practice that continued, albeit in different forms, when he returned to Australia.

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The large-scale, techni-coloured canvases Jacks produced in the 1980s are starkly different in appearance to the minimalist and often colour-muted works he made overseas, but as the title of the retrospective reminds us, they rely on systems and language he honed in earlier decades. Abstracted guitars Jacks painted in the 1990s hark back to the Picasso-esque forms he explored in his teens at art school and again in the late 1950s. And the grid is ever-present.

“I draw up a formal grid and then I destroy it with a palette knife,” Jacks told Art World magazine in 2008. “I push the shapes and colours around until they become lush. If I think they’re too elaborate I pare it down again, then build once more. It’s backwards and forwards.”

Order and Variation is showing at the Ian Potter Centre from October 3, 2014 to February 15, 2015.