Don’t fence me in: artists and suburbia in the 1960s, 1994

The idea of a book on Australian suburbia came from Chris Healy. Supported by a small grant, we plowed ahead. At some stage, the idea of contributions on art came up. I mused about some works by Dale Hickey and Ian Burn that I’d seen. Why don’t you write about them?, my colleagues asked. Which is how I came to spend the next few years working on the idea of art and suburbia.

‘The clichéd character of the images was important.’ Ian Burn 1

‘I think people have just got to examine why they put one thing above another.’ Dale Hickey2

Dale Hickey watches contractor Jim Emmins construct a fence at the Pinacotheca gallery, St Kilda, October 1969.

Dale Hickey watches contractor Jim Emmins construct a fence at the Pinacotheca gallery, St Kilda, October 1969.

In its simplest form, art history is a matter of establishing boundaries; order is brought to artistic practice with the establishment of style, chronology and geographical locality. The terrain is mapped, its subdivisions marked, the addresses of individual artists noted. An artist’s reputation is linked to this process; some occupy more important sites, some live on the margins. Australian artists have frequently suffered under this system of aesthetic cartography; on a global scale they are seen as geographically and culturally marginal. The system of interpretation through stylistic affiliation exacerbates the problem: if artists follow an international trend, their work is regarded as derivative; if they develop a regional style, they condemn themselves to a provincial existence.

In the 1960s, the question of the interaction of regional and international art was endlessly debated in Australia but always seemed to return to the same rigid boundaries. One was either Australian or international, a patriot or an expatriate; no half-measures were allowed, no nuanced interpretations were attempted. Certain artists, however, found this situation intolerable. Artists such as Dale Hickey, Ian Burn and Robert Rooney recognised that the opposition between margin and centre, metropolis and province, would not be resolved by declaring an allegiance to one side or the other. They sought a practice whose substance was built out of the very problematic of the regional and the international. ‘Snobs … like Robin Boyd’, Hickey argued, belittle the suburb in the name of traditional cultural hierarchies. 3 But if, as the jeremiads of the day would have it, Australian art played the suburb to New York’s metropolis, his would be a brazenly suburban art which made a virtue of its marginality and developed a critical regionalism.

To achieve this end, the three artists had to grapple not only with the material aspects of art-making but also with ideas about what Australian art ought to be. The prevailing ideas about the nature of Australian art often focused on artists’ attempts to position themselves relative to local and international tendencies. The general belief that the artist’s task was to show Australians who they were dominated, but it was also hoped that they would show the rest of the world who we were, gaining respect and admiration on the international stage. The defining quality of Australian art was to be Australianness, and this was never to be sacrificed in the quest for international recognition. Ideally, Australian artists would work their way up the ladder because of where they were from, not in spite of it. These demands sat awkwardly with the apparently unresolvable tension between innovation and tradition in the visual arts. Within Australia, the discourse of vanguardism demanded that artists develop innovative, original statements, furthering the progress of the arts and overcoming the cultural cringe. At the same time, however, it was preferred that such innovations be developed out of the European tradition and accepted by Europeans as legitimate. In the 1950s, for example, it was possible to argue that artists such as Boyd, Nolan and Perceval had found the right balance—their work combined figurative regional imagery and sensibility with the European romantic tradition, and was well received internationally (at least in London).

By the 1960s these already equivocal demands placed on Australian artists were further confused by the post-war shift in cultural power from Europe to the USA. If vanguard status could be attained only by entering the international mainstream, then Australian artists would have to turn their attention to New York. Here the dominant style was a non-objective painting, championed by the American critic Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg, the task of the artists was to locate and display the qualities unique to their particular medium. Thus painting eschewed any reference to external factors, concentrating on the modulation of its own formal properties—colour, gesture, scale, two-dimensionality. 4

Young Australian artists were in a dilemma. They were impelled to engage with formalist abstraction if they were to overcome the cultural cringe and move beyond what they thought were the Old World allegiances of successful London-based artists such as Nolan. But if they did, any possibility of a specifically regional expression would be denied them; after all, the formal properties of painting were more or less the same the world over. Worse, given the so-called tyranny of distance, Australian versions of the New York style would only ever be pale, outdated imitations of the metropolitan centre. A sense of locality would be sacrificed in achieving what could only be a second-hand—and second-rate—vanguardism.

In the context of this extreme self-consciousness of the tensions between the figurative and the abstract, the regional and international, the genuine and the imitative, Hickey, Burn and Rooney began to incorporate suburban motifs into their work. They looked to suburbia because it allowed them to make these conflicts the basis of their practice, without seeking to resolve them. In this way they forged a practice that was premised on a critical consciousness of culture as a mobile and discursive field, rather than as a more stable entity of which a picture could readily be made, if only the artist were good enough.

On the surface their work takes up the styles of minimalism, colour-field abstraction and conceptual art, thus affiliating them with New York and apparently eliminating locality as part of their art. At the same time, their incorporation of regional motifs within these international idioms devalued their vanguard credentials. Because their work was neither wholly regional nor wholly international, it broke the rules on both sides. As such it embodies a particular kind of transgression: rather than aligning whole-heartedly with one particular pole of a binary opposition, they hover in the middle, at the very point where the opposing ideologies are at the most confused and fragile pitch.

By developing a hybrid form combining the apparently neutral styles of international modernism with loaded regionalist signifiers, these artists were able to refuse both the hegemonic claims of internationalism and the limited vision of a nationalist regional­ism. Effectively, they produced works which allowed the regional-international nexus to become a field of practice in itself, rather a barrier separating practices.

A crucial tactic in this operation was the introduction of the suburb as a site that was both maligned as the epitome of banality and recognised as the site of a substantial regional culture. As a result, the works these artists produced around 1968–70 mark two important shifts in Australian culture. First, Australian artists developed a practice out of a ‘dialectic’ between margin and centre rather than opting for one side of the equation. Second, Australian artists recognised, and contributed to, the rehabilitation of the suburb as a site of genuine experience (or at least of an experience of some relevance to art). In this respect the artists reflected a broader trend in cultural commentary at the time; the shift from the denigration of the suburbs to fascination with the ‘minor languages’ of suburbia. In its turn this trend, because it no longer limited cultural value to the activities of a cultural elite, is indicative of the decay of cultural hierarchies in the face of the relativism of the 1960s.

Dale Hickey’s paintings began to attract attention in the late 1960s. His large-scale non-objective paintings, built on repetitive structures of near flat, geometric forms, were highly regarded by critics who adhered to the canon of international abstraction and formalist criticism. Here was an Australian artist making something substantial out of the most recent developments in European and American art; here was an artist who would have no truck with antipodean figuration. Discussing Hickey’s Untitled (1967-68) in a pamphlet entitled Australian abstract art, Patrick McCaughey—the most prominent Australian convert to formalism—presented the work as a veritable triumph. Discussed at the conclusion of McCaughey’s text, the painting seemed to have attained the Olympian heights of the New York scene:

The painting becomes a thing in itself … It transmits no secret message or symbols; it does not seek to comment on the universe or the world around it. The painting communicates no message but itself: an implacable, paradoxical presence whose garish drabness is both amusing and menacing. 5

This is the radicalism of the painting for the formalist critic. Context is denied; the painting withdraws into its own world, rejecting the regionalism of Australian art and entering the international arena.

There is, however, a good deal more to Hickey’s paintings than this formalist vision allows. His abstract paintings of 1967–68 incorporated a formalist vocabulary but they were also part of a determined effort to explore the artist’s relationship with the material world and his ability to make something powerful of it. Prompted by Aldous Huxley’s book The doors of perception, Hickey believed that the measure of an artist lay in his/her ability to find a powerful combination of pictorial substance and metaphysical worth in any circumstances, not just within the conceptual frame of the visual arts. Merely to make a painting whose quality was measured by its conformity to an existing set of critical criteria was not sufficient: the real challenge lay in finding inspiration and value in the everyday. Hickey argued that

what Huxley was saying was, that in a state of heightened perception, and this is supposedly what an artist had … anything, provided the sensitivity is sufficiently developed, is capable of engendering this feeling thing that I was on about. One could paint a lump of shit or do a Christo landscape thing … or anything, and it wouldn’t matter, but the thing that mattered was this feeling thing, which was supposedly involved or embodied in whatever it was that the particular artist did. 6

In seeking to do this Hickey questioned hierarchies of value within the visual arts. What results is a questioning of both formalism and antipodeanism, internationalism and regionalism—a position between the poles is negotiated.

On one level, the paintings Hickey made in 1967 and early 1968 followed formalist principles. They are non-objective works whose structure is derived from the format of the canvas, and whose visual and intellectual appeal derives from their exploration of spatial flux of colour on a flat plane. But the images were in fact rooted in a material world beyond the canvas; their patterns were based on common domestic artefacts such as quilts, upholstered furniture, bricks, panelling, and fences. Once Hickey manipulated them, reprocessing the colour and playing spatial games with tone, these sources were distanced, yet they are never completely left behind. The works, then, were not strictly non-objective but abstract, even representational in a loose sense. On the contrary, for Hickey, the impact of the canvas lay in the knowledge that its formal integrity was distilled from something found in the mundane world.

What he produced, then, was not an autonomous formalist canvas but one apparently contaminated by the very thing formalism sought to evade: the everyday world of mass production and kitsch. Rather than blindly accepting the dogma of formalism as it filtered in to Australia, Hickey incorporated it into his own conception of artistic practice, critically reorienting it rather than passively reiterating it. On stylistic grounds the paintings are in facts hybrids; the artist incorporated both the American colour-field technique (crisp areas of flat, bright colour) and European Op art (a shimmering spatial motion generated optically through the subtle manipulation of colour and tone). By overtly loading different styles into the paintings in a contradictory manner, I think Hickey suggested that while there is no escaping international styles, a regional artist could still manipulate them, even parody them.

It is no coincidence that Hickey’s introduction of the ‘non-art’ banality of suburban motifs into formalist abstraction occurred at the very moment when formalist discourse was beginning to look shaky. American artists and critics had begun to argue against Greenberg’s view of modernism. The alternatives they proposed were readily available to Australian artists in magazines such as Artforum, Arts Magazine and Studio International. Greenberg’s visit to Australia in 1968 left many disillusioned: he singled out figurative artists for praise, demonstrated an idiosyncratic, even conservative, taste, and seemed to offer little more than the dogmatic reiteration of his views. 7 But it is wrong to suggest that in subtly questioning formalist certitudes Hickey was merely jumping on the next international bandwagon. Given the obsession with suburbia among Australian cultural commentators of the 1960s, his use of suburban motifs as his means of attack gave his work a specifically regional flavor.

By late 1968 Hickey’s suburban motifs were no longer veiled by abstract patterning but overtly displayed. Untitled (1968) is a life-size depiction of two overlapping paling fences. The work breaks two of the cardinal rules of the formalist canon. First, it is an illusionistic representation of an object. In representing the fence, a formalist critic would argue, Hickey tries to make the canvas and the paint into something other than what it is. Second, because the two illusionistic fences stand one before the other in the image, the artist has attempted to introduce space into the image, denying what Greenberg referred to as the ineluctable flatness of the canvas. Ironically, it could also be argued that a paling fence could be the basis of a legitimate abstract painting. The repeated vertical stripes of the palings, all aligned frontally across the canvas, all perfectly parallel to the edge of the canvas, are reminiscent of the monochrome stripe paintings of the American Frank Stella, then regarded as the epitome of minimalist abstraction. The association is not accidental. Hickey, his peers and his audience, were all aware of Stella’s work and could not fail to make the connection. Under such circumstances, this painting could be read as a Stella that had been deliberately botched by the introduction of illusionism. More significantly, that illusionism came in the form of the suburbs, then regarded as the antithesis of high culture and the enemy of art.

This is the game that Hickey plays: the work might be a good non-objective painting or it might not; it might be a thoughtful engagement with formalism or it might not be art at all. The painting, after all, is not perfectly illusionistic (it is too schematic) nor utterly devoid of abstract qualities (the space is very shallow and frontal, with no hope of seeing over the fence). What is important is that Hickey made the friction of opposing cultures (high and low, metropolitan and suburban, international and regional) the motive force of the canvas. By tabling the struggle of high and low culture, Hickey produced a painting whose subject is not painting as such, or the fence as such, but hierarchies of value within and between cultures. The old provincialist positions—vilification of the suburb as a cultural wasteland, slavish emulation of international styles or xenophobic retreat into regionalism—have been left behind, as has the formalist rejection of mass culture and everyday life. A painting of a suburban fence in Melbourne embodies the worst fears of both camps, but Hickey used the motif to attest to the sophistication of regional culture, not its banality. He demonstrated that Australian artists were willing both to re-evaluate their own cultural discourses and to engage critically with the cultural discourses of the major international powers. Most importantly, he recognised that the two processes are inseparable, that they must be fused together into a critical regionalism

In October 1969 Hickey took his engagement with suburbia one step further; he had three paling fences constructed in an art gallery by a professional contractor. The rejection of formalist aesthetics was complete at this stage. Detecting traces of illusionism in a painting, a formalist would demand that they be eliminated; recognising it in his own work, Hickey moved in the opposite direction: ‘In the past, I have been mainly creating illusions … About three years ago I did a 12 ft. by 6 ft. painting of a fence. But if you’re going to paint it, why not build it?’ 8

With this project, Hickey attempted to reorient radically the nature of artistic practice with an eye on hierarchies of value and recent developments in international art. A suburban fence, he stated, could be an art work in itself, without any intervention or modification by an artist. While he affirmed that paling fences had a certain abstract appeal—‘repetitive, basic geometric shapes’—their significance for him lay in their everyday nature. They were ‘neither meaningful nor meaningless’; they were art works ‘but not necessarily works of art’. Two fundamental components of culturally elite discourses are questioned here: first, the assumption that the everyday is not of sufficient substance to be admitted to the realm of serious art; second, that any activity by an artist must immediately be elevated to the status of ‘work of art’.

Once more, Hickey attempted to avoid the ready division of culture into opposing camps. He did not want to make the fences into art, nor did he want to turn the art gallery into a suburban plot; instead, he wanted to stage a situation where the mutability of such readings is apparent. He was careful to avoid attributing any dramatic significance to the fences. Their meaningfulness (or lack of it) and their aesthetic merit are not at issue; they are simply part of his life and as such are worthy of attention. The artist’s task was to set up a situation in which the potential for a fence to mean something more than what it literally is could be explored.

What Hickey did is conditioned not only by his conception of the metaphorical—even metaphysical—role of art but also by his status as a resident of suburban Melbourne, and certainly not by his ability to divorce himself from that context. Indeed, Hickey seems to identify himself as a commuter as much as an artist.

While Hickey’s Untitled (1967–68) exploited distaste of the suburbs for its effect (the suburb corrupts abstraction and allowed the artist to destabilise the hegemony of international styles), the installation of 1969 valorised the suburb. Cultural positions were relativised; the fence was as good as a painting, a fencing contractor was as significant as an artist, the provinces were keeping up with the metropolis. Hickey’s fence installation developed out of the strategies of the international conceptual art movement; it questioned the relevance of authorship, the art object, and the gallery system. But it was avowedly local in its construction; the vernacular of the suburban fence, spoken within a society which reviled the suburb as the antithesis of genuine culture, gave conceptual art a regional accent.

Hickey thus negotiated a balance between the conservative demand for regionalism and the internationalism of the avant-garde. Conceptual art tactics allowed him to meld conservative regionalism and vanguard internationalism into a practice whose materials were not simply fence palings but the local discursive context itself. The peculiar position of the suburb in Australian consciousness was exploited to the full; its connotations of locality undercut the internationalist ‘neutrality’ of conceptual art, but this sense of locality was signalled without recourse to the parochial emblems of nationalist iconography.

In each of the works I have discussed, Hickey was driven by a desire to eliminate hierarchies of cultural value. Initially this was manifested in the belief that the mark of an artist is his/her ability to find substance in any motif, no matter how banal or repetitive. Logically, according to this belief, the everyday artefacts of suburbia ought to form the basis of images as significant as those premised on more legitimate genres such as landscape or abstraction. The analogy that Hickey used in articulating this conviction is telling. In remarking that an artist ought to find shit a worthy subject for art he implies that he recognised the equation of the suburbs with shit. In the 1967-68 works, the ambivalent status of the suburb allowed Hickey to voice his dissatisfaction with accepted art styles. By 1969, however, he has recognised that the suburb had been maligned in the interests of preserving the hegemony of particular tastes, classes and ideologies. For Hickey, the suburb was more than equal to high art; indeed, in demanding a reconception of what art is, the suburb offered the best chance of forging a genuine aesthetic consciousness in a provincial culture.

Meanwhile, in New York, another Australian artist was incorporating images of suburbia into a practice based on conceptual art attitudes. Driven by the social and epistemological upheavals of the 1960s, Ian Burn, like many of his peers, was intent on developing a critique of the accepted conventions of art. His three works entitled Systematically altered photograph—the suburbs, the kitchen, and kangaroos (1968)—were produced as part of an attack on formalism, representation and nationalism. In earlier works using mirrors and reflective painted surfaces, Burn had launched an attack on the ‘opticality’ of formalism; overemphasising the visuality of the work to the point of collapse, rebounding the viewer’s gaze back from the art work on to the context in which it was viewed. Intrigued by the fetish for unique and immensely valuable art objects in a culture dominated by the mass production of imagery, Burn then turned his attention to the loss of the aura of the image in the age of mechanical reproduction, using photography and photocopies to investigate the effects of repetition. For conceptual artists, these two media were particularly appealing since they seemed to produce the inverse of the fine art object: the images were multiple, relatively worthless as material objects, and betrayed little of the artist’s hand.

In the case of each Systematically altered photograph, Burn took reproductions from Australian panorama, an Australian News and Information Bureau pamphlet, photocopied them, then successively photocopied the photocopies, until only a foggy trace of the original remained. The original and its reprocessed echo were framed together, presenting the viewer with an ideal image of the Australian suburbs, along with its deconstruction into dots and blurs. The works demonstrated a profound suspicion of images, fed by the counter-cultural critique of the media. The naturalness of the photographic image, its apparently transparent truthfulness, is undermined by the very process that allows it to circulate as propaganda, mechanical reproduction. In comparing the original and the trace, Burn expected that viewers would ask themselves what it is that makes a photograph so plausible, so powerful. In doing so, they might recognise the pictorial codes that underwrite visual propaganda and move on to develop a critical consciousness of the politics of the mass media.

In linking the demystification of the image with the development of political consciousness, Burn’s work is typical of the radical vanguard of the New York art scene at this time. But, as is the case with Hickey, it is striking that the critique of ‘the Establishment’ (in the art world and society as a whole) is somehow tied to suburbia. I suspect that Australian panorama caught Burn’s eye not simply because it was a fine example of the mass media none too subtly turned to political ends. As propaganda for the official version of the Australian way of life, which was circulated abroad, the photographs might have struck him as analogous to the relation of Australian art to the rest of the world. The kind of Australian art that succeeded in London in the 1960s (where Burn had lived before moving to New York) might be seen as the equivalent of the brochure: images of Down Under by artists such as Nolan and Boyd, constantly reiterating the Australian Legend. It was an international success built on a refusal to engage with recent international developments in art, and Burn, having left Australia to escape the provincialism of its art scene, must have seen the pamphlet as a reminder of how parochial his home country could be. But the images do not only display Australia for foreign consumption, they also show Australia as it is represented to itself—the gardens and façades of the suburban houses on show for the neighbours, the tourists photographing kangaroos as surrogates for the bush experience that was held to be quintessentially Australian. So the images embody the hegemonic function of art and the media alike in cementing Australian provincialism, directly and indirectly reminding Burn of the narrow, inward-looking mythologies of Australian identity.

In Burn’s practice, then, unlike Hickey’s, the suburbs are not redeemed. It is as if he needed the suburbs to be banal in order to facilitate the flattening out of the authority of photography. The social power of the photograph is registered, yet it is immediately deflated by the sheer mundanity of the image. Burn’s photocopies merely complete the process of desiccation. (It has to be said that the magazine invites such a reading. The utter banality of the photographs is amplified by captions such as ‘Suburban Sunday’.) More than that, it is as if Burn could not regard the suburbs with any generosity, since they epitomised (metaphorically, at least) the complacency and provincialism he left behind in migrating to the international culture of conceptual art. While Burn managed to inject a regionalist flavour into conceptual art, the suburb remained the Other of both genuine culture and critical consciousness. In this respect his attitude to the suburb is similar to that of another expatriate critic, Barry Humphries. 9

The work of Hickey and Burn indicates the ways in which the suburb enabled Australian artists to address issues of national and cultural identity in the 1960s. This was possible not simply because images of the suburbs were images of Australia. The suburb allowed artists to introduce discourses of national iden­tity, colonial status and cultural value into their work. Furthermore, it allowed artists to engage critically with regional and international culture at a time when the interaction of the two was a central debate within the art scene. 10 Suburbia allowed artists to take positions within the provincial/metropolitan debate without this being reduced to mere stylistic affiliation. In Hickey’s paintings of 1967–68 the style categories of art were corrupted by the suburbs’ lack of style. It was not a matter of whether one was a figurative, formalist, or conceptual artist but of where one stood with regard to regional culture. While the artists that I have discussed ultimately appear to regard the suburbs in quite opposite ways, they both premise their practice on developing a critical regionalism, a practice that sees the relationship of centre and margin as a dialectical rather than strictly hierarchical one.

Burn and Hickey were not alone in this respect. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Australian commentators were more willing to find cultural complexity, if not cultural value, in the suburbs—yet this sentiment was articulated uncertainly. In The lucky country, Donald Horne berated those writers who belittle suburbia as the antithesis of genuine (rural) Australia, or genuine European culture: ‘Almost all Australian writers—whatever their politics—are reactionaries whose attitude to the massive diversities of suburban life is to ignore it or condemn it rather than discover what it is’. In spite of this, Horne’s own book is hardly a paean to the suburb, frequently dwelling on the complacency, ‘triumphant mediocrity and sheer dullness’ of life in the suburbs. 11 Likewise, Craig McGregor was uncertain in his assessment of the suburb. He, too, struck a positive note when he argued that ‘those who dismiss suburban life as dull and characterless miss some of its underlying strength’. Yet, like Horne, he accompanied this plea for tolerance with the concession that ‘the dullness, the conformity, the lack of excitement or challenge’ that the critics of suburbia catalogue, really do exist. 12

In the history of Australia’s love-hate relationship with suburbia, the period from the late 1960s into the early 1970s was a transitional one, as the differences between Burn and Hickey suggest. While Burn recognised that the suburb figured prominently in discourses of Australian identity, he still regarded it (or at least images of it) with some disdain. If Hickey saw the suburbs as being worthy of his attention, he still maintained an ironic distance. What is important is that the artists found a way in which they could begin to reconfigure white Australian consciousness at precisely that site where the lowest common denominator of such a consciousness had previously been located; identity was to be found in the demographic and discursive present of their culture, rather than in its mythic pasts and futures.

The results of this transition can be seen in the work of a third artist, Robert Rooney. In the late 1960s he used the suburbs as a means of parodying the pretensions of colour-field abstraction in a series of abstract works based on knitting patterns and toys cut out from cereal packets; the paintings look the part, but their titles—Superknit, Canine capers, Cereal bird beaks—deflated their formal pretensions. Here the suburbs were proposed as the antithesis of good taste, deployed as a means of contesting the authority of internationalist abstraction. In his photographic works of the early 1970s, Rooney’s attitude to the suburbs seems to change. While works such as Holden park 1 & 2 May 1970 (1970) seem to parody the po-faced empiricism of conceptual art, there is also an indication that Rooney was beginning to recognise that the rituals of suburban life had a richness and a value of their own. The repetitive quality of the images does not drain the significance from them but seems to encourage the speculative generation of meaning; what errands are being run, what memories might these snapshots evoke?

By the early 1980s, Rooney is fully converted to the joys of suburban existence. His neo-Pop paintings splash vivid memories of suburbia across the canvas. In these paintings, and those of artists such as Howard Arkley, Maria Kozic and Jenny Watson, Australian artists showed that it was possible, at last, to explore suburban identity not as the Other but as the Self. The suburbs were no longer pictured as the stultifying antithesis of art but as rich, complex and inviting symbolic form—the very stuff of art. The artists seemed to understand themselves not as mythic Australians, nor as citizens of the world, but rather, to use a suburban term, as locals.

Original publication: Sarah Ferber, Chris Healy and Chris McAuliffe (eds), Beasts of suburbia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1994, pp 94–110.

  1. ‘Statement’ (1988) in Art Gallery of Western Australia, Ian Burn: minimal and conceptual work, Perth, 1991, p 84.
  2. Hazel de Berg, ‘Interview with Dale Hickey, Melbourne, 20 November 1969’, typescript, Oral History Section, National Library of Australia, Canberra, n.p.
  3. de Berg, ‘Interview with Dale Hickey’.
  4. For a discussion of the debates on the Australianness of Australian art see Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether and Ann Stephen, The necessity of Australian art, Power Publications, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1988. In the 1960s one of the key issues for debate lay in the conflict between antipodean art (a determinedly local art of the kind produced by Nolan, Boyd, Brack and others) and international abstraction (epitomised by the work displayed in the Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968).
  5. Australian abstract art, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1969, p 30.
  6. de Berg, ‘Interview with Dale Hickey’.
  7. Burn et al., The necessity of Australian art, pp 94–98.
  8. Hickey quoted in John Larkin, ‘A fence is a fence is a fence, or was it?’, The Age, 23 October 1969, p 2.
  9. Michiel Dolk notes that Burn made this connection retrospectively, at least: Art Gallery of Western Australia, Ian Burn, p 43, n 54.
  10. See, for example, Patrick McCaughey, ‘Notes on the centre: New York’, Quadrant, July–August 1970, pp 76–80; Terry Smith, ‘Provincialism in art’, Quadrant, March–April 1970, pp 67–68.
  11. Donald Horne, The lucky country, Penguin, Ringwood, 1964,pp 30,24.Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, pp 30,24.
  12. Craig McGregor, Profile of Australia,Penguin, Harmondsworth,1968, pp 130,129.

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One Response to Don’t fence me in: artists and suburbia in the 1960s, 1994

  1. Gerry Bell June 30, 2014 at 1:00 am #

    I disagree on a number of points here, from the point of view of art history and as an artist, although welcome such essays being made freely available. This is just what the issues and their audience need. Whether or not you plan to return to the topic, since it involves very basic issues, it’s worth urging a conversation here. I respectfully submit my response in this spirit.

    There are really three issues, on careful re-reading. There is firstly the framework concerning artistic influence, flowing from international fashions to local variants. Secondly there is the interpretation of works by Hickey, Rooney and Burn. I have no problem with recognising their contributions to Australian Art, but whether this strictly relates to a theme of suburbia is less certain. And thirdly there is the theme of suburbia itself which could do with a little unpacking.

    On the first point, you say ‘if artists follow an international trend, their work is regarded as derivative; if they develop a regional style, they condemn themselves to a provincial existence.’ I maintain that a regional style is quite simply following an international trend with some distinction or ‘originality’ – to use a dangerously loaded term. There is no way to develop a regional style without appealing to some precedent, and for a colonial country this automatically flows back to colonisers and their support. To follow an international style without finding some compelling personal distinction, is rightly condemned as derivative. But this is only to fault an artist’s ingenuity or ambition, and applies equally to artists who take their inspiration locally. On my view, a regional identity just is what local artists successfully adapt to their circumstances. And again, by successful, I mean finding something unexpected in the model or models, applying it to other themes, colour schemes, techniques, sentiments or attitudes, amongst many other aspects. For an internationalist or cosmopolitan these things are satisfying in as much as they confirm the reach of a given style, but at most announce its exhaustion or assimilation. More important for them is the next break or the next big move from a centre, hence the pejorative sense to ‘provincial’ or ‘regional’. But who would be without their regions?

    Conflict between the regional and international arises on exactly the same basis as between traditional and progressive ranks. It is often a generational squabble over the extent of the family name. A younger generation are eager to inject fresh blood, an older generation anxious to preserve their own, hard won accomplishments. One looks further afield for inspiration; the other insists that there is much to be exploited on their own doorstep. A regional or national identity is not much more than a family name in this respect and quickly reflects the current holders. The so-called Australian Impressionist generation would hardly have found a Heysen or Namajira any more Australian for dealing in more remote locations, if anything, less. That 30s generation in turn would hardly have found a Dobell, Drysdale or Nolan far more Australian for dealing in absurd and grotesque isolation and caricature. Not that I think that at any point the artists were overly concerned with projecting an Australian identity. They were interested in finding their own artistic identity first, set against whatever was at hand. But an Australian identity is undeniably deepened for their successive efforts, becomes more complex, supple and sophisticated. Nor need it be limited to figurative styles – the efforts of a Balson, Passmore or Fairweather attest to an interest in post-war abstraction long before the sixties and The New York School’s dominance. But equally, a younger generation of Australian abstractionists are anxious to assert allegiances elsewhere, if only to counter an overbearing inheritance.

    So I’m disputing that regional identity necessarily resists international influences and I’m asserting that abstraction can have a valid local or regional identity. New York didn’t invent abstraction after all, and their supposed formulae for declaring purely intrinsic properties for painting never quite tallied between their various exponents nor with European counterparts and precursors. But the temptation to see the flow of influence on single, linear terms also seems simplistic. To say that the dominant style of the late sixties was Minimalism or geometric abstraction, for example is to ignore Pop Art and Photo-Realism amongst other figurative developments in New York and elsewhere overseas. I maintain – here as an artist, especially – that it is never clear-cut what constitutes a ‘dominant’ style or indeed ‘tradition’ for the regional or international artist in any given present. There are endless variants and versions, factions and feuds. No one has that Olympian perspective. There is nowhere far back enough to stand to see it on those terms – even from Australia. In hindsight it may look quite monolithic and deterministic but I say it never is or was. Other styles may not have had the institutional heft of Greenberg’s preferences (and it’s worth remembering Greenberg was also stridently Pro-Vietnam War – that’s how deeply he drank the Kool Aid in order to wield that kind of power) but there were other avenues, other publications available.

    On a related point, you say: ‘Ideally, Australian artists would work their way up the ladder (of an overseas centre for art) because of where they were from, not in spite of it’. But this seems to put the cart before the horse. I think it more likely that it would be a matter of how the work sat with influential critics, curators and collectors in a given centre, their respective preferences and agendas – and from this might flow some acknowledgement of the artist’s Australian roots. But to say some work would be recognised firstly because it was Australian begs the question of the value of Australia in a global or international scheme and the answer there has to be, given our location, population, political and economic power – rather slight. If this seems like a cringe it is only to prick some dangerously inflated egos, nursed in wilful isolation. I’m not saying Australian artists are inferior in training or ambition, I’m just stating the obvious; that when one goes to a centre one has to be prepared to compete on other artistic terms. That’s as true of Durer as Raphael as Rubens as Watteau as Courbet as Picasso as Pollock or Warhol. The provinces don’t hold one back, but they won’t take one to a centre either.

    Moving to the second issue, obviously I see the 60s work of Hickey, Burn and Rooney quite differently. I don’t see that they balance international influence and regional variation any more adroitly or that they ‘broke the rules on both sides’. Nor can I see it as a ‘particular kind of transgression: rather than aligning whole-heartedly with one particular pole of a binary opposition, they hover in the middle, at the very point where the opposing ideologies are at the most confused and fragile pitch’. In my view this ‘transgression’ is no more than routine negotiation of the conflicting demands of fashion and tradition, the personal and collective. There is no pure regional or Australian identity to betray or uphold – merely a series of onion skins for successive generations. On the other hand, nor is there an international trend so extreme or unfamiliar that an Australian artist cannot feel in some way curious about, for a time. We were never that isolated, never that united.

    I agree Hickey’s use of paling fences cleverly exploits certain traits of Minimalism – its modularity in sculpture (pacing Judd and Andre) its conspicuous symmetry in painting (pacing Stella and Noland or Davis) but commercial and industrial applications of these aspects had also been highlighted by Pop artists, commencing with Peter Blake’s works such as The First Real Target (1961), mocking Johns’ private labours on the motif, followed by all kinds of design and packaging stripes that he introduces into his painting (see ‘The Fine Art Bit’ 1959) and encourages in the work of the Royal College painters, like Peter Phillips, Derek Boshier, even Allan Jones. The self-referential purity of hard-edge stripes or even shaped canvases is part of what British Pop rejects. It’s sort of what British Pop actually is. Something similar arises in the early work of Sigmar Polke, in works like ‘Carl Andre in Delft’ where he mocks Andre’s industrial modules in serial assembly as bathroom tiles. In this respect Hickey is perfectly in step, not just with Minimalism, but the scepticism or cynicism of Pop. On this point I’m arguing for a wider set of influences for Hickey. And it’s surely significant that in later work he adopts something like Patrick Caulfield’s heavy black illustrational outlines.

    But even where paling fences offer suitably mundane modules for the modest Minimalist, I’m not convinced that paling fences necessarily spell suburbia and that suburbia necessarily spells Melbourne, or even Victoria. I’m more inclined to see paling fences, suitably presented, as symbols of private ownership, possibly domestic use. But plainly, suburbs are not unique to Australia, nor are paling fences. Moreover, paling fences are not unique to suburbia and suburbia not necessarily a subject of shame and neglect in the arts. This is not to deny the impact or importance of Hickey’s early work however. The fences along with Australian hard edge abstraction of the 60s offer more restrained and oblique reference, allow ‘Australian-ness’ a measure of detachment and calculation. It is of course a far cry from the wilderness and alienation of pioneers, their immediate myths and history, but that is rather the point. There is more to Australia by then. All three artists invest the familiar or quotidian with some other, more metaphoric reading. The literal is not necessarily to be taken literally.

    In this sense, suburban life is certainly included or implied in the content, but often the details of household or domestic life in works also point to cheap and vulgar tastes, and while this will be true of a great deal of suburbia everywhere, whether it is always and only true of suburbia in Melbourne is another matter. This is to move to my third and last point. I suspect the interest in suburbia is rather more specialised. Melbourne suburbs range from Toorak, to Kew, Brighton, Collingwood, Coburg, Werribee, Frankston, Ringwood and Donvale amongst many others and not only sprawl across a dauntingly large area but the entire social, historical and economic spectrum, even when confined to domestic residences. To look for work that addresses suburbia is to beg the question of which aspect? To argue for a suburban lifestyle is only to choose amongst options from the bleak to the sleek, from grim deprivation and intimidation to luxury in elite company. Is there any point in attempting to level society on the basis of civic planning? As an index of Australian culture, I think the concept of suburbia needs a lot more work.

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