John Nixon: White Paintings | The Saturday newspaper

In police station John Nixon: White Paintings, Sue Cramer, with the help of the artist’s daughter Emma Nixon, has assembled a group of works that reveal the depth and scope of Nixon’s engagement with the color white. Beginning in the late 1970s, Nixon approached his painting practice as an Experimental Painting Workshop (EPW), exploring the possibilities of making a painting at the intersection of color, form, material, technique and texture.

To demonstrate the scope of artistic invention within strict limits, Nixon dedicated two subsets of the EPW to a single color. He started EPW: Orange and EPW: silver in 1995, choosing both colors for their optimistic character and tendency to radiate light. There has never been an EPW formally devoted to white, but the organization of works in Nixon’s field after his death in 2020 made Cramer aware of its importance in his practice.

Nixon organized an exhibition titled White paints at the Gertrude Contemporary Art Space in 2012 which included five paintings by himself, Gunter Christmann, Robert Hunter, David Thomas and Karl Wiebke. He saw non-objective art as a permanent collective enterprise based on the experimentation of successive generations of artists. In the exhibition catalog, Nixon wrote about the history of white abstract painting internationally and in Australia. He noted how the all-black works of Ad Reinhardt and the all-white works of Robert Hunter – as seen in two major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, Two Decades of American Painting (1967) and Field (1968) – alerted him to the power of aesthetic economy and monochrome.

However, the first influence he names on his use of white was that of Kazimir Malevich. white on white (1918). Much of Nixon’s sense of the potential of non-objective art came from studying the development of the Russian avant-garde of the idea of ​​laboratory art. Malevich experimented with purpose, dispensing with complex, colorful forms over a three-year period to better evoke a realm of pure ideas transmitted from the future in vestigial form, painting barely distinguishable white shapes on a white background. .

In John Nixon: White Paintings, Cramer shows how many elements of Nixon’s practice were present in its early days and grew in scope and significance over its five decades. The most recent work is Untitled (White Monochrome) (2020), a simple composition formed by two rectangular monochrome canvases. Both are executed in white enamel paint, but the upper rectangle is standard canvas, while the paint is applied to burlap in the lower rectangle. The work exemplifies Nixon’s interest in the phenomenology of materials: the complex of sensations and meanings that materials produce through their physical presence. His use of white allows for a singular convergence of color and materiality.

The first paintings in the exhibition are four small works from 1968, when Nixon was a 19-year-old art student. It was a year of lively debate about the place of modernism in Australian art. Field The exhibition – held for the opening of the St Kilda Road premises of the National Gallery of Victoria – included a variety of contemporary Australian abstraction, although the catalog largely frames it in terms championed by the influential art critic American Clement Greenberg. Greenberg argued that to secure the independence of painting as a counter to the banality of mass culture, artists needed to focus on what was integral to the medium – primarily flatness, two-dimensionality, and opticality.

By 1968, however, Greenbergian modernism had been subverted by Minimalism’s exploration of non-artistic aesthetics and objectivity. The serial geometric objects of Minimalism refuted aesthetic decision-making, positing an art of simple facts stripped of aspirations to self-expression or metaphysical insight. In a further break with art history, the minimalist works challenge artists’ reverence for manual skills and, as they are made from industrial materials in engineering workshops, the conventions of the medium.

Developed as a sequence of variations on the construction of the painted canvas, Nixon’s early white paintings have a stake in these debates. However, for Nixon, a work of art was never simply the physical residue of an artistic proposition. He has invested heavily in the physical production of his work, especially since the emergent nature of the act of doing has led to the development of his practice.

The EPW has exploited the analytical potential of non-objectivity from many starting points. Nixon was just as interested in the constructed sculpture proposal of the Russian avant-garde, which took advantage of real space and non-artistic materials, as he was in Malevich’s investigation of the metaphysical significance of combinations of composition, color and texture. For Nixon, the color white represented the possibility of making something out of nothing.

In John Nixon: White Paintings, Cramer shows how his withdrawal from color emphasizes the properties of objects and materials, and the dynamics of composition. He sourced many of the components for his works from hardware stores, thrift stores, scrap heaps, and his immediate surroundings. Colors, objects, and materials entered Nixon’s work with a generative quality that was activated throughout the manufacturing process. A main product of the EPW is a taxonomy of ways of working with the three, revealing how they understand a diffuse system of affects and meanings that constitute our everyday world, with an agency that acts upon us.

The absence of other color in white paints makes the paint’s tactile qualities more apparent, emphasizing its behavior due to its thinness or viscosity and the character of the brush strokes used to apply the paint. The simultaneous presence of many tones of white and types of paint interacting with different surfaces – canvas, denim, burlap, masonite, onion sack or rough wooden planks – suggests the contingency of perceptual experience and an approach to the medium itself as a field of meaning.

Whiteness in relation to the formal arrangement of elements accentuates the analytical imperative in modern art. In works that incorporate real space, Nixon’s use of whiteness emphasizes the relationship of the artworks to the white walls of the gallery. Nixon viewed works of art as grounded in their immediate social and temporal context – they are a manifestation of the artist’s situation.

In many works, the unreality of white is disturbed by ordinary objects: bottle caps, ceramic tiles, grains of rice, a plastic ruler, an enamel plate, a spoon. Above all, the exhibition shows, in the most nuanced way, that by exploring the qualities of colors, compositions and materials in association with objects, Nixon has created a rich medium for encountering the poetry of forms and materials.

John Nixon: White Paintings is on display at the Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until September 17.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 under the headline “White Goods”.

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