The National Gallery of Victoria wants to re-stage a seminal exhibition from the 1960s. But it needs to track down the art first.
In 1968 the NGV opened its new St Kilda Road building with a show called The Field. It was a radical departure from the gallery’s traditional program; it showed 74 abstract, colour-field artworks, half of which were by artists under the age of 30. The collection of hard-edge, geometric pieces ruffled feathers in the establishment but was a hit with the public.
“There was before The Field and after The Field,” says artist Janet Dawson, now 82. She was there. Two of her works appeared in the show.
“It was exuberant,” she says. “There was abstraction in Australia, but only in small galleries. This was the first time the public really got a look at it.”
In 2018 it’ll be 50 years since The Field opened, and the NGV is marking the anniversary by recreating the show. Easy, right? Not quite.
For such a groundbreaking show, record keeping after the exhibition was a little lax. The NGV only owned three of the works. The rest were returned to artists or collectors, and so scattered across the country.
The plan to recreate The Field has already involved a lot of detective work. The fates of 60 pieces have been determined. Some were sold to private collectors and others to galleries. Some were just put in artists’ sheds. The NGV has found missing works all around Australia, from Melbourne to Perth to Canberra.
Eleven were destroyed. Some were damaged by fire and by careless removalists. One artist destroyed her painting in an incinerator in Prahran. Another swapped his work for a second-hand car. Some artists, short of materials, cut their canvas up to re-use the other side.
The National Gallery of Australia asked Dawson to remake one of her Field works from more durable materials, and she subsequently destroyed the original. “We had a good party,” she says. “Everyone started kicking it and tearing at it. It was quite amusing.”
Fourteen works are still missing, including sculpture by Clement Meadmore and paintings by Peter Booth and Sydney Ball. Adding to the loss, the NGV only has black-and-white reference photos of these vivid, colourful works, and only a few that show how the exhibition was installed.
But curator Beckett Rozentals is hopeful they’ll find the rest and recreate the show as accurately as possible.
“We don’t believe the rest have been destroyed,” she says. “They might be in private collections. Someone might have a five-metre-long Vernon Treweeke somewhere, and not know what it is.”
The works could be anywhere. And the NGV needs your help to find them.
Do you know the whereabouts of the missing works? Or were you connected with the original The Field exhibition? If so, contact the NGV with any information at firstname.lastname@example.org. A full list of sought works can be viewed here.