fig. 1
Donald Laycock

Donald Laycock has lived a life as an Australian abstract painter. He is duly recognised as a major ‘art historical’ figure in twentieth-century Australian modernism. On the other hand, in more recent years he has largely eschewed from the discourse of contemporary Australian art.1 As respected academic Sasha Grishin outlines in his recent history of Australian art, there can be a disjuncture between the views held by practicing artists regarding their peers and those artists promoted by the ‘art establishment’; see discussion in Sasha Grishin, Australian Art: A History, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2013, pp. 479–80, 486, n. 532. As the artist turns eighty-five, and as one of the last of a generation of Australian painters, it is now timely to review his art and career. To this end, the National Gallery of Victoria and Arts Centre Melbourne are custodians of key examples of Laycock’s work, and when these holdings are considered together, they present a fascinating account of the artist’s output spanning the 1950s to the early 1980s. Nevertheless, these two collections present only a truncated ‘institutional’ history of the artist’s career to a point in time. His artistic practice from the 1980s onwards is less well known, which this article will seek to readdress.

The ebbs and flows of Laycock’s career and reputation illustrate the shifting topography of Australian art from the 1950s to the present. On one level it is a personal story, however, in the broader context it is also a means of examining the representative structures, contested positions and constant state of flux that characterises the art world. The work of the French sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu and his exploration of the field of cultural production provides a theoretical backdrop and underpinning interpretative framework to this analysis.2 See relevant introductions to Pierre Bourdieu’s work in, Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The field of cultural production, or: The economic world reversed’ and ‘The market of symbolic goods’, in Randal Johnson (ed.), The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 29–73, nn. 273–9, 112–41, 288–93.

In addition to locating Laycock’s career within the wider field of Australian art, this article will chart two key phases in his life of artistic creativity. The first recounts Laycock’s role as an innovator at the forefront of local abstraction from the 1950s to the 1970s. The second, from 1980s onwards, is a more methodical and evolutionary phase, in which the artist has continued to explore and test the creative boundaries within his painting, although no longer under the public spotlight that accompanied his early career. Yet, as this article will illustrate, these two phases are not separate and distinct, but rather inextricably entwined, and should be considered in totality so as to provide a richer and more comprehensive explanation of Laycock’s art and career.

In the beginning

Born in 1931, Laycock grew up in and around Melbourne. He initially studied commercial art at Caulfield Technical College during the late 1940s, after which he spent a number of years travelling around Australia. On his return to Melbourne in 1950 he took the first serious steps towards becoming an artist. Laycock attended the prestigious National Gallery School from 1950 to 1953, where he studied under Murray Griffin. John Howley and Lawrence Daws were fellow students and friends. He recalls, ‘I was lucky in having a teacher [in Griffin] who wasn’t interested in forcing a style down my neck … The general tendency amongst sensitive teachers is to let students go their own way … [and] if they want information or someone to discuss something, the teacher’s around.’ This kind of approach suited the often impetuous Laycock, giving him the freedom and confidence to seek his own creative voice.3Donald Laycock, interview with Geoffrey De Groen, 26 Jan. 1976, published as ‘Donald Laycock: painting blind most of the time’, in Geoffrey De Groen, Conversations with Australian Artists, Quartet, Melbourne, 1978, p. 159. Other personal and biographical details are from various correspondence and ‘The evolution of my art: 1–6’, June 2013 – May 2015, unpublished notes supplied to the author.

After graduating, Laycock spent the next few years working odd jobs and painting in his spare time. Then in early 1955 Laycock, with three other former students – Daws, Howley and Clifton Pugh – held their inaugural Group of Four exhibition at the Victorian Artists’ Society. The Group of Four, a name coined by Pugh, suggests a greater coherence than may have been evident in their work, with an eclectic mix of portraits, Cubist-derived compositions, bush subjects and expressionistic abstracts. Nevertheless, they were embraced by Melbourne’s arts establishment, with the art critic Arnold Shore lauding them as ‘four artists of promise’ who were ‘alert to contemporary thought’.4 Arnold Shore, ‘Artists show promise’, Argus, 15 March 1955, p. 10; and Arnold Shore, ‘Four artists of promise’, Argus, 13 March 1956, p. 10. See also Christopher Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution: The Rise of Australian Art 1946–1968, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 89–92, nn. 233–4.

Despite their critical success and growing reputations, the financial situation remained precarious for the artists. As a result, Laycock would often paint over unsold or unrealised works, so there are only a handful of finished paintings from this period still in existence. The few works that have survived provide an indication of a creative tug-of-war taking place between figuration and abstraction within his work of the 1950s.

In the beginning, 1956 (fig. 1), is Laycock’s most significant early painting, and set the trajectory for the rest of his career. In this work all pictorial references have been obliterated by the expressive use of line and colour. The painting had originally depicted a figurative subject, ‘the dancers’, yet, as the artist has recalled: ‘I reworked the imagery to give more rhythm, more momentum to the composition; without me becoming aware of it, there was suddenly no image, just energy … I called the new painting “In the beginning” because it seemed – and still seems to me – my first valid [abstract] work’.5 Donald Laycock, ‘The evolution of my art: 1’, Dec. 2014, unpublished notes supplied to the author; In the beginning was acquired following the second Group of Four exhibition, by Aubrey Gibson, Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1954 to 1973; later donated to the NGV by Jean Gibson in 1982.

Their second Group of Four exhibition, in March 1956, was similarly well received, although by the end of the year the group had effectively disbanded, as each artist pursued his own path. Pugh held his first sell-out one-man show at the Victorian Artists’ Society in early 1957, while Daws secured an Italian Government travelling scholarship and left for Europe. Nevertheless, in the small, close-knit Melbourne art scene, the four remained friends, with Laycock living at Pugh’s communal bush property Dunmoochin in the late 1950s.

Laycock and Howley joined a small coterie of Melbourne abstractionists, which included the widely respected senior painters Roger Kemp and Leonard French and a circle of young artists surrounding Ian and Dawn Sime, while abstract sculpture was gaining a foothold through the work of Inge King, Clifford Last and Norma Redpath, who were founding members of Centre Five.6 See Christopher Heathcote, ‘Antipodeans aweigh: the rise of a modernist establishment, 1958–60’ and ‘Search for a symbol: the rise of abstraction, 1950–62’, in Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution, pp. 105–123, nn. 235–9, 124–41, 239–40. Laycock symbolically encapsulates this creative vitality of the Melbourne art scene in his painting Wheel of life, 1961 (fig. 2), with its circulating, sculptural-like forms exploding from the canvas. This work is dominated by an intense palette of reds, oranges and yellows; a personal predisposition within visual spectrum, which is one of the defining features of Laycock’s work and underpins his vision as an abstract colourist.7 See Laycock’s admission in Donald Laycock, interview with Hazel de Berg, 14 Aug. 1962, Hazel de Berg Collection DeB 41, National Library of Australia, transcript, p. 1. Wheel of life was purchased by the NGV in 1961, and was the first of Laycock’s paintings to enter a major public collection, thus consecrating his growing reputation within the Australian art world.

The maelstrom of modernism

By the early 1960s Laycock was at the vanguard of abstraction in Australia. The art historian Bernard Smith published his canonical Australian Painting in 1962, and despite his penchant for Antipodean figuration, conceded that Laycock ‘was, if not the first, certainly one of the first among the local artists to develop a coherent personal style from the abstract expressionist mode of invention’.8 Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788–1960, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962, p. 312.

Yet, despite his reputation as a firebrand abstractionist, it was a series of ‘figurative’ works that brought the artist his first commercial success. Inspired by the ancient art of the Assyrians, Babylonians and Sumerians, he included a number of ‘portrait’ drawings, such as Zoaro-Astre – master of the early world, 1961, and Shalmaneser – winged warrior king of Assyria, 1961, alongside abstract works exploring the ‘Processions of Creation’ in his first solo exhibition at South Yarra Gallery in 1961.

South Yarra Gallery was one of a new wave of commercial galleries that helped to redefine the Australian art scene in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was run by the sophisticated art dealer, collector and hostess Violet Dulieu. She was very particular about the presentation of her gallery and employed a young theatre designer John Truscott to assist in hanging a number of early exhibitions. As Laycock recounts, he laboured for hours trying to arrange his first solo show, then when he finally handed the task over Truscott, in twenty minutes it was perfect. This experience left a lasting impression on both artist and designer, which would eventually lead to Laycock’s most significant public art commission for the Victorian Arts Centre, two decades later in the early 1980s.9 Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, June 2013. See mention in Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution, p. 162.

Other notable commercial galleries that opened around this time included Tam and Anne Purves’s Australian Galleries in 1956, Max Hutchinson and Clement Meadmore’s avant-garde venture Gallery A in 1959, the Rudy Komon Gallery in Sydney in 1959, and Bonython Art Gallery in Adelaide in 1961. In addition, a new base of wealthy patrons, such as Douglas and Margaret Carnegie, entered the art market as collectors, which helped fuel a boom in modern Australian art during the 1960s.10 For a detailed account, see Christopher Heathcote, ‘An artist’s lot: the art market develops, 1956–63’, in Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution, pp. 156–71, nn. 243–5. See also Michael Shannon, ‘The art collectors 4 – Margaret Carnegie’, Art and Australia, vol. 4, no. 2, Sep. 1956, pp. 146–54; and Paintings from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Douglas Carnegie, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1966.

The success of his first solo show led to Laycock’s invitation to participate in the prestigious Helena Rubenstein Travelling Art Scholarship in 1962. His contribution was a series of monumental Ancient Heads, including The oracle of the Sphinx, 1962, originally purchased by the Carnegies, and Elektra Akhenaton Clytemnestra, 1962, now in the Art Collection of Arts Centre Melbourne. These paintings have a sculptural quality, like an ancient bas-relief, in which the artist tried to convey ‘a greater sense of human dignity … [a] feeling of timelessness or eternity, of something which is transcendental to the moment, something which is beyond what is Now’.11 Laycock, interview with de Berg, p. 3; and Donald Laycock, ‘The evolution of my art: 2’, Dec. 2014, unpublished notes supplied to the author.

After this ‘pictorial’ diversion, Laycock ‘began to feel the need to open up, to paint more freely’, so he reverted back to brushes and canvas, and his ‘first abstract expressionist works began to flow. There was no intention as to imagery or theme, just moving paint around until imagery or movement of some kind emerged and pushing it to the point of “coherence”.’12 Laycock, ‘The evolution of my art: 2’. The materials metamorphose into myths in paintings such as Sunken treasure, 1963 (whereabouts unknown, fig. 3), and The dragon that swallowed the sun, 1963, now in the Castlemaine Art Gallery.

Laycock’s gestural exuberance reaches a high point in Sagittarius, 1965 (fig. 4), the centrepiece of his solo exhibition at South Yarra Gallery in 1965, which was later donated by Violet Dulieu to Arts Centre Melbourne. The heavy impasto surface encompasses spontaneous gestures, deliberate mark-making and Laycock’s personal iconography. The title, Sagittarius, alludes to one of the consistent threads in Laycock’s oeuvre in its references to the stars, the astrological and ‘certain celestial beings’. Similarly, paintings such as The stars are on fire, 1965, now in the University of Melbourne Art Collection, and Star garden, 1973, in the NGV collection, provide poetic allusions to the cosmos.

Regarding his titles, Laycock recently recalled that ‘most often they were fleeting associations with something from memory or evoked … often a little humorous and hopefully lyrical. But there was no set plan … just things that came to mind.’13Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, Oct. 2014. Nevertheless, in the history of twentieth-century abstract painting, there is an implicit tension between the primacy placed on the ‘visual’ in the formalist rhetoric of late modernism, and the supplementary role played by titles in signifying the ‘content’ of a work.14 See discussion of painting titles from Abstract Expressionism to late modernism, in John C. Welchman, Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997, pp. 265–321, nn. 406–13. Yet Laycock’s titles, with their multiplicity of meanings, seem to expand rather than constrain the potential interpretations. In Sagittarius, for example, the myriad motifs become Cartesian coordinates on the canvas, allowing the viewer to create their own pictorial constellations.

This fascination with the cosmos led to Laycock’s first major mural project in 1966, when he was approached by architect Robin Boyd to produce a monumental work for the Australia pavilion for the World Expo to be held in Montreal in 1967. The focus of the Australia pavilion was science and technology, and with the space race between the American and Soviet superpowers at its height, Laycock’s outlook towards the stars was fortuitously timely. The outcome was a huge, oval-shaped mural entitled Night sky (of the Southern Hemisphere), which was prominently positioned in the upper level of main pavilion as a telescopic lens to the heavens and the future.15 For a broad discussion of the Australia pavilion, see Carolyn Barnes and Simon Jackson, ‘“A significant mirror of progress”: Modernist design and Australian participation at Expo ’67 and Expo ’70’, in Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan & Elizabeth Willis (eds), Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 20.1–20.19.

Laycock completed his Night sky mural on the eve of his first trip abroad. London was the destination for a cohort of Australian writers, playwrights, actors and visual artists during the 1960s, including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman, as well as the next generation painters, Brett Whiteley and Lawrence Daws.16 See Simon Pierse, Australian Art and Artists in London, 1950–1965: An Antipodean Summer, Ashgate, Farnham, United Kingdom, 2012. Laycock embarked upon this well-trodden path in 1966. Leaving on a ship for London, his journey took him through the Mediterranean, docking in Cairo, Egypt, along the way. This port of call presented the artist with a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the pilgrimage to the archaeological sites that had captured his imagination back in Melbourne and inspired his celebrated series Ancient Heads.

After a couple of weeks in London, Laycock travelled to Paris, then south to the Côte d’Azur, and finally to southern Spain, as respite from the Northern European winter. He returned to London in the spring, and moved into a flat in Hampstead Heath, near compatriots Lawrence Daws and Arthur Boyd. He completed only a handful of small paintings during his overseas sojourn, and returned to Australia in late 1967 on a French liner through the Pacific, with fellow passengers artist Jan Senbergs and his family on board.

The flight of Icarus

Laycock’s arrival back in Melbourne filled him with a sense of ‘liberation’, as he settled into an apartment in the glamorous 1930s Hollywood-style Beverly Hills Towers in South Yarra. As he sat at the kitchen table one day, it was a simple bowl of fruit – a banana, a plum and apple, the staple diet of still-life painting through the centuries – which captivated his attention. The outcome was a series of multi-referential ‘fruit’ paintings of both sumptuous beauty and extreme absurdity, such as a revealing Rocket flower, 1967, and the phallic Banana army, 1968. Surreal stone fruit became ‘floating fertility signs’ that transcended the divide between ‘high’ art and the counter-culture of the Swinging Sixties.17 See comments in Daniel Thomas, Outlines of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection, 2nd edn, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1980 (1973), p. 61, illus. cat. 141.

He exhibited his ‘fruit’ series at South Yarra Gallery in late 1968. The young, flamboyant ‘formalist’ art critic Patrick McCaughey responded positively to the show as the ‘truest, most authentic exhibition’ he had seen that year. McCaughey felt few could match Laycock’s sheer painterly gifts, and he was left in no doubt that he would emerge as ‘one of Australia’s best painters’.18 Patrick McCaughey, ‘Laycock could emerge at top’, Age, 25 Sep. 1968, p. 6. McCaughey’s ‘inspired’ readings of Laycock’s paintings over the next decade would provide significant theoretical and art historical validity to the artist’s practice, illustrating the importance of the solidarity between artists and critics within the art world.

Indicative of the show’s impact, two paintings, Riot, 1968, and Plum, 1968, were acquired for the national collection, now the National Gallery of Australia, while the NGV subsequently purchased the citreous Plum flower, 1968. Other paintings were destined for various state, regional and university art collections. Shortly afterwards Laycock was selected, alongside Michael Johnson, Alun Leach-Jones and Guy Stuart, to represent Australia at the prestigious 10th Bienal de São Paolo in Brazil in 1969. Johnson and Leach-Jones were leaders of hard-edge abstraction in Sydney, while Laycock and Stuart provided the Melbourne contingent. It was a vindication of Laycock’s local standing, although as the art critic and curator Elwyn Lynn observed, there were few other international artists interested in ‘colour-field investigations’, so ‘what looked fashionable or acceptable in Australia looked quite odd [and ‘provincial’] at the Bienal’.19 Elwyn Lynn, ‘Sao Paulo Bienal’, Art and Australia, vol. 7 no. 4, March 1970, pp. 342–56.

Laycock’s career began to soar when he won the inaugural Travelodge Art Prize in 1970, with a metamorphic painting entitled Wings. He received a prize purse of $7500, which was the largest monetary award in Australia at the time. Art critic Alan McCulloch was swayed, like the prize judges, by a ‘joyous sense of exaltation’ in ‘a picture redolent with veiled mystery, the mystery of love, birth and time’.20 Alan McCulloch, ‘Letter from Australia’, Art International, vol. 14 no. 10, Dec. 1970, pp. 44–5.

Two years later Laycock added to his tally by taking out the John McCaughey Memorial Prize at the National Gallery of Victoria with Star cycle, 1972 (fig. 5). It is a tour de force of painterly virtuosity and a manifestation of the artist’s exploration of cosmic themes in the pursuit of a universal and transcendental sublime.21 See Patrick McCaughey, ‘Laycock near his best in award winner’, Age, 21 Oct. 1972, p. 2. See also David Hurlston & Barbara Kane, The John McCaughey Memorial Prize: 50 Years, Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2008. From out of the majestically modulated atmospheric blue explodes a gaseous stellar formation, a radiant yellow sun. Across this luminous surface ‘float’ astral forms, planets or stars at various stages in their evolutionary cycles, their size and intensity of radiance diminishing over time. The painting’s title may therefore provide potent metaphor for the trajectory of Laycock’s career.

Throughout the 1960s Laycock’s star shone brightly, as he was celebrated for distilling Abstract Expressionism into the Australian context, while in the 1970s his paintings, such as Vulcan, 1973 (National Gallery of Australia), were considered on par with those of the leading contemporary American colour painters. These so-called ‘lyrical abstractionists’, such as Natvar Bhavsar, Milton Resnick and John Seery, exhibited in Australia during the early 1970s and were actively acquired for the ‘international’ collections of Australia’s major public galleries.

At the time McCaughey summed up Laycock’s reputation as a ‘painter whose work has mirrored many of the central arguments and discoveries in Australian painting over the last twenty years … one of the first painters to accept the stylistic challenge of post-war American painting … He is a paradigmatic figure in this regard.’22 Patrick McCaughey, ‘Foreword’, in Donald Laycock: A Retrospective Exhibition, Fine Arts Department – University Art Gallery, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1972, n. p. It is not surprising that when McCaughey was tasked with selecting a group of artists for a government-sponsored international touring exhibition during 1974 to 1975, Laycock was among the anointed. The Ten Australians were David Aspden, Sydney Ball, Fred Cress, John Firth-Smith, George Haynes, Roger Kemp, Donald Laycock, Ron Robertson-Swann (the only sculptor), Michael Taylor and Fred Williams; although not stylistically linked, they represented a who’s who of the Australian art scene. McCaughey then persuasively argued that they showed what it meant to make art relevant in and to Australia by embodying ‘an authentic Australian experience’.23 Patrick McCaughey, ‘The Australian experience’, in Ten Australians: Europe 1974/1975, Visual Arts Board of the Australian Council of the Arts, Sydney, 1975, n. p.

Despite McCaughey’s unabashed promotion of modernist painting, there was a growing chorus of dissent. The young emerging curator Bernice Murphy voiced her concerns that Ten Australians presented a ‘canon of critical taste (formalist / abstract / big / gestural / expressionist / painterly [/ and male])’, which propagated ‘some extraordinary misconceptions’ about Australian art by failing to reflect the plurality of contemporary practice.24 Bernice Murphy ‘Australian art abroad’, Art and Australia, vol. 3 no. 4, April–June 1976, pp. 331–2. Murphy’s comments reflect the struggles within the field that led to a paradigm shift in the art world of the 1970s, whereby painting was displaced from its art historical mantel and had to jostle for critical attention with plethora of ‘alternative’ art practices, including conceptualism and ‘post-object’ art, photography, video and performance art.25 See Paul Taylor (ed.), Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970–1980, Art and Text, Melbourne, 1984; and Charles Green, Peripheral Vision: Contemporary Australian Art 1970–1994, Craftsman House in association with G+B International, Sydney, 1995.

Sensing this seismic change, a somewhat dejected Laycock admitted in an interview in 1976 that he was ‘doubtful whether [painting] will have the same significance as it has in the past’.26 Laycock in De Groen, p. 160. He was not alone, as a similar fate beset many of his contemporaries, such as David Aspden, Asher Bilu, Michael Taylor and Dick Watkins, whose status as ‘established’ artists was firstly challenged and then supplanted by the next generation of multi-disciplinary ‘avant-garde’ post-object practitioners. Even McCaughey, one of the staunchest advocates of modernism, lamented that abstract painting was no longer the ‘object’ of interest, rhetorically asking whether it could survive the 1970s.27 Patrick McCaughey ‘Surviving the seventies in Australia’, Artscribe, no. 23, June 1980, pp. 22–9.

From the heady days of the early 1970s, like the legendary Icarus, Laycock’s career fell rapidly back to earth, while his personal life became increasingly tumultuous during the remainder of the decade, a situation that manifested in ‘unusual’ historical and figurative forays in his work. Following Ten Australians the tide of critical acclaim turned, with the artist holding his final solo show at South Yarra Gallery in late 1977. Laycock’s itinerant lifestyle during the 1970s was punctuated by a stint as artist-in-residence at University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, during 1976 to 1977. This residency offered him a temporary respite from emotional and financial pressures in order to focus again on painting. He found the residency incredibly rewarding and it convinced him that ‘a university such as New England, because of its comparative isolation, is in much greater need of resident artists, writers, etc., than the larger city universities’.28 Donald Laycock, ‘An appraisal of the position artist-in-residence’, c. 1977, UNE Art Collection Archives, supplied to the author Oct. 2014.

Landscapes of memory

The experience of working in a regional centre provided the impetus for the next significant chapter in Laycock’s career, when in early 1980 he relocated to the country town of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, to take up a teaching post in the creative arts faculty at the Riverina College of Advanced Education. Despite the town’s distance from the metropolitan art capitals, the small arts faculty was a hive of activity, headed by post-object performance artist Arthur Wicks. On arriving, Laycock used his art world connections to instigate a vibrant visiting artists program, which involved Roger Kemp and Guy Stuart among others, while John Olsen was also a local resident during 1980 and 1981.

In 1981 Laycock received a short one-page letter from ‘a voice from the past’ – the now internationally-renowned Academy Award winning stage designer John Truscott, who had hung his first show at South Yarra Gallery in 1961 and was now working on designs for the Victorian Arts Centre (now Arts Centre Melbourne). Truscott is the visionary behind the lavish interiors and foyers encompassing the Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall) and the Theatres Building, which were realised during the final years of construction between 1979 and 1984. He had returned from abroad to undertake this monumental task, and his design aesthetic encompassed everything from the striated rock finish of the auditorium in Hamer Hall to the furniture in the foyers.

Works of art were integral to Truscott’s conception of a secular cathedral to the Arts, and he is credited with instigating the commission of major works of art from some of Australia’s most celebrated twentieth-century artists. Truscott had written to Laycock to enquire whether he would be interested in painting a series of new works for Hamer Hall. His intention was to devote one level to Laycock, another to Sidney Nolan, a third to Fred Williams, with the fourth artist ‘yet to be determined’ at the time of writing.29 John Truscott, letter to Donald Laycock, 29 Sep. 1981, Arts Centre Melbourne, Art Collection Archives. In relation to Truscott’s initial intent: Sidney Nolan’s Paradise garden, 1968–70, was gifted by the artist in 1982 and installed in the lower stalls foyer; four painted reliefs by Asher Bilu were commissioned for the stalls foyer mezzanine; and, unfortunately, his hope to commission Fred Williams did not proceed as the artist was gravely ill and passed away in April 1982. It was Truscott’s persuasive skills and personal contacts within the art world that helped secure major series by Arthur Boyd, Roger Kemp, Donald Laycock, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart, along with a ground-breaking selection of early Western Desert paintings. Arts Centre Melbourne’s Art Collection is therefore today one of the most significant public art collections outside the major state galleries.30 For detailed accounts, see Steven Tonkin, Janine Barrand, et al., Show Time: The Art Collection of Arts Centre Melbourne, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 2014; Vicki Fairfax, ‘Nothing short of a miracle’, in A Place Across the River: They Aspired to Create the Victorian Arts Centre, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 171–205; and Robert Lindsay & Jacqueline Taylor (eds), The Art Collections of the Victorian Arts Centre, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 1992.

It was a confluence of circumstances when Truscott approached Laycock. At the time the artist was exploring multi-sensory visual-musical synaesthesia – the idea that certain musical notes or sounds could induce the visualisation of particular colours, and vice-versa, which can be traced back to the foundations of abstract art in the early twentieth century.31 See Judith Zilczer, ‘Music for the eyes: abstract painting and light art’, in Kerry Brougher, Jeremy Strick, Ari Wiseman, et al., Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, Thames and Hudson, New York and London, 2005, pp. 24–82. See also Steven Tonkin, Sight and Sound: Music and Abstraction in Australian Art, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 2010. For his architectural commission for Hamer Hall, Laycock was inspired by a church choir to frame a sequence of new paintings in terms of the Latin Mass. Laycock submitted a couple of preliminary studies, including Hyperno, 1982 (fig. 6), for consideration by Truscott, who was ‘delighted with the idea’.32 Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, Dec. 2009 – April 2010.

The final outcome was a suite of transfigurative abstract ‘murals’, comprising three large-scale triptychs – Kyrie, 1982; Gloria, 1982 (fig. 7); and Credo, 1982 – followed by two smaller single canvases, Agnes Dei, 1982, and Sanctus, 1982. The three triptychs originally spanned the entire Circle Foyer level, with the two smaller works located in the vestibules upon entering the auditorium. In Gloria the central motifs sing with colour, while in Credo vertical bands tear from the top or bottom edge of the canvas, or otherwise pierce the colour fields from within. These paintings are visually and materially saturated with pigment and emanate radiant symbolism. In retrospect, this commission can be seen as a fulcrum between two phases in the artist’s career.

Despite the unveiling of this major commission in the heart of Melbourne’s arts precinct, Laycock recalls a consequence of living in Wagga Wagga was that he gradually fell ‘out of the scene’. Exacerbating this situation was that after the closure of South Yarra Gallery in 1977, the artist did not have a regular commercial gallery in either Sydney or Melbourne.33 In the 1960s art dealer Rudy Komon pursued Laycock to join his stable of artists, which included Fred Williams, Leonard French and John Olsen. The offer remained, although it was never taken up, until Komon’s untimely death in 1982; Donald Laycock, in discussion with the author, November 2014. In addition, the demands of full-time teaching and growing family commitments curtailed his personal output. This overall effect of his personal situation was magnified by broader shifts in the Australian art world.

In 1988 Laycock finally relinquished his teaching post and turned his attention to abstracted ‘landscapes’. These compositions are divided into ‘a bottom passage, which could be assumed as either sea or land; an active middle passage of densely pigmented points of colour … and the top passage which was obviously the sky’. Although not pictorial depictions of the Australian landscape, when completed they elicited vivid memories of the artist’s youthful travels around the country, so that he attributed titles such as Port Augusta, Pilbara, Arafura [Sea] and Carpentaria. These paintings are nevertheless not geographic records of actual locations but rather abstracted landscapes of memory.34 Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, July 2013.

This series was exhibited in Melbourne and Brisbane in 1989, and then in Donald Laycock: The Wagga Years, held at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in 1992. Yet the reception and ‘critical’ readings of these paintings were not what the artist had anticipated. Whereas Laycock’s more poetic cosmic titles had allowed and encouraged multiple readings, the specific landscape references invariably became ‘representational’ geographic signifiers. In retrospect, despite the artist’s abstract intent, these ‘landscapes’ occupy an awkward position in relation to the trajectory of concurrent explorations of the landscape in Australian art in 1980s, especially if compared to the work of Fred Williams, who was being widely lauded as the most significant non-Indigenous, twentieth-century Australian landscape painter.35 For example, one reviewer suggested that Laycock’s use of painted dots showed an ‘affinity’ with Western Desert art; see Max Staples, ‘Donald Laycock, the Wagga years’, Daily Advertiser, Sep. 1992. The artist has stated that this was not his intent (Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, July 2013). See Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams, rev. edn, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987 (1980); James Mollison, Fred Williams: A Retrospective, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1987 (this exhibition travelled to all major state galleries during 1987–89). Artists who have achieved major reputations since Williams have pursued very different pictorial approaches to the landscape, such as Bea Maddock, Rosalie Gascoigne, William Robinson and John Wolseley; see Grishin, pp. 430–43.

Whereas in the 1960s and early 1970s Laycock had been closely aligned with the major movements in Australian art, in the late 1980s he faced a very different critical environment, in which his personal interests had digressed from the driving concerns of contemporary practice. Laycock’s situation can perhaps be compared with that of Leonard French, who from being at the top of the Australian art world in the 1960s, saw his reputation wane through the 1980s as he retreated from the art world and his creative output veered away from current trends.36 See discussion in Grishin, pp. 400–03, nn. 528. In Laycock’s case, after exhibiting the ‘landscapes’, he did not show again for well over a decade.

Solace and soliloquy

In the early 2000s, following his seventieth birthday, Laycock moved from Wagga Wagga to the remote township of Khancoban, at the headwaters of the Murray River and in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. At the height of the artist’s fame in the early 1970s, he had chanced upon the township and spontaneously purchased a small workers’ cottage and studio. Far removed from the art world, Khancoban has provided a place of solitude where the artist has been able to single-mindedly pursue the creative ideas that have nourished him through the decades; the infinite and infinitesimal, the ‘galaxies’, ‘microcosms’ and ‘worlds within worlds’. In each new series he has explored, refined and redefined a specific facet of his painting, presenting a rich pictorial narrative of evolutionary discovery. The pigmented dots that had populated the ‘horizon line’ in the ‘landscapes’ came to saturate the entire picture surface in small-scale, intensely coloured ‘collapsed galaxies’. These small works on board allowed the artist to build up impasto surfaces of pure colour over a geometric armature to create a dynamic tension between order and chaos.

Then as the decade unfolded, his ambition increased to work again on a larger scale. In these paintings the artist returned to and reworked the gradated painted surfaces seen in some of his classic abstractions of the 1960s, with elliptical forms, multitudes of various sized and coloured dots and spots, rings and spirals; a mass of visual cues that capture the overwhelming grandeur of the night sky awash with the Milky Way, as in Cantata galaxy (Khancoban), 2002, and Cavalcade of galaxies, 2003. These new paintings were shown in Donald Laycock: Carnival of Galaxies at Charles Nodrum Gallery in Melbourne in 2006, the artist’s first solo show for nearly two decades, although neither of these significant late paintings has yet to enter a public collection.

Donald Laycock continues to live and work in Khancoban today, and is now an elder statesman of Australian art. Over the course of his career, he has gone from being a ‘young genius’ to an ‘old master’ in the life cycle of artistic creativity. In the beginning he made a decisive pictorial breakthrough in the world of abstraction, and his contribution to modern Australian art is materially evidenced in the early works held in the NGV, through to his major public commission for Arts Centre Melbourne in 1982. Over the last decades, despite personal adversity, he has continued to persevere in his pursuit of abstraction. In surveying Laycock’s entire career there is an undeniable creative synergy across seven decades of painting. The past has informed the present, while the present reframes the past, to provide a more comprehensive view of Donald Laycock’s lifetime contribution to Australian art.

Dr Steven Tonkin, Curator (Contemporary and Live Art), Arts Centre Melbourne (in 2016)

Notes

1

As respected academic Sasha Grishin outlines in his recent history of Australian art, there can be a disjuncture between the views held by practicing artists regarding their peers and those artists promoted by the ‘art establishment’; see discussion in Sasha Grishin, Australian Art: A History, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2013, pp. 479–80, 486, n. 532.

2

See relevant introductions to Pierre Bourdieu’s work in, Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The field of cultural production, or: The economic world reversed’ and ‘The market of symbolic goods’, in Randal Johnson (ed.), The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 29–73, nn. 273–9, 112–41, 288–93.

3

Donald Laycock, interview with Geoffrey De Groen, 26 Jan. 1976, published as ‘Donald Laycock: painting blind most of the time’, in Geoffrey De Groen, Conversations with Australian Artists, Quartet, Melbourne, 1978, p. 159. Other personal and biographical details are from various correspondence and ‘The evolution of my art: 1–6’, June 2013 – May 2015, unpublished notes supplied to the author.

4

Arnold Shore, ‘Artists show promise’, Argus, 15 March 1955, p. 10; and Arnold Shore, ‘Four artists of promise’, Argus, 13 March 1956, p. 10. See also Christopher Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution: The Rise of Australian Art 1946–1968, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 89–92, nn. 233–4.

5

Donald Laycock, ‘The evolution of my art: 1’, Dec. 2014, unpublished notes supplied to the author; In the beginning was acquired following the second Group of Four exhibition, by Aubrey Gibson, Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1954 to 1973; later donated to the NGV by Jean Gibson in 1982.

6

See Christopher Heathcote, ‘Antipodeans aweigh: the rise of a modernist establishment, 1958–60’ and ‘Search for a symbol: the rise of abstraction, 1950–62’, in Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution, pp. 105–123, nn. 235–9, 124–41, 239–40.

7

See Laycock’s admission in Donald Laycock, interview with Hazel de Berg, 14 Aug. 1962, Hazel de Berg Collection DeB 41, National Library of Australia, transcript, p. 1.

8

Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788–1960, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962, p. 312.

9

Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, June 2013. See mention in Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution, p. 162.

10

For a detailed account, see Christopher Heathcote, ‘An artist’s lot: the art market develops, 1956–63’, in Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution, pp. 156–71, nn. 243–5. See also Michael Shannon, ‘The art collectors 4 – Margaret Carnegie’, Art and Australia, vol. 4, no. 2, Sep. 1956, pp. 146–54; and Paintings from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Douglas Carnegie, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1966.

11

Laycock, interview with de Berg, p. 3; and Donald Laycock, ‘The evolution of my art: 2’, Dec. 2014, unpublished notes supplied to the author.

12

Laycock, ‘The evolution of my art: 2’.

13

Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, Oct. 2014.

14

See discussion of painting titles from Abstract Expressionism to late modernism, in John C. Welchman, Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997, pp. 265–321, nn. 406–13.

15

For a broad discussion of the Australia pavilion, see Carolyn Barnes and Simon Jackson, ‘“A significant mirror of progress”: Modernist design and Australian participation at Expo ’67 and Expo ’70’, in Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan & Elizabeth Willis (eds), Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 20.1–20.19.

16

See Simon Pierse, Australian Art and Artists in London, 1950–1965: An Antipodean Summer, Ashgate, Farnham, United Kingdom, 2012.

17

See comments in Daniel Thomas, Outlines of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection, 2nd edn, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1980 (1973), p. 61, illus. cat. 141.

18

Patrick McCaughey, ‘Laycock could emerge at top’, Age, 25 Sep. 1968, p. 6.

19

Elwyn Lynn, ‘Sao Paulo Bienal’, Art and Australia, vol. 7 no. 4, March 1970, pp. 342–56.

20

Alan McCulloch, ‘Letter from Australia’, Art International, vol. 14 no. 10, Dec. 1970, pp. 44–5.

21

See Patrick McCaughey, ‘Laycock near his best in award winner’, Age, 21 Oct. 1972, p. 2. See also David Hurlston & Barbara Kane, The John McCaughey Memorial Prize: 50 Years, Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2008.

22

Patrick McCaughey, ‘Foreword’, in Donald Laycock: A Retrospective Exhibition, Fine Arts Department – University Art Gallery, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1972, n. p.

23

Patrick McCaughey, ‘The Australian experience’, in Ten Australians: Europe 1974/1975, Visual Arts Board of the Australian Council of the Arts, Sydney, 1975, n. p.

24

Bernice Murphy ‘Australian art abroad’, Art and Australia, vol. 3 no. 4, April–June 1976, pp. 331–2.

25

See Paul Taylor (ed.), Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970–1980, Art and Text, Melbourne, 1984; and Charles Green, Peripheral Vision: Contemporary Australian Art 1970–1994, Craftsman House in association with G+B International, Sydney, 1995.

26

Laycock in De Groen, p. 160.

27

Patrick McCaughey ‘Surviving the seventies in Australia’, Artscribe, no. 23, June 1980, pp. 22–9.

28

Donald Laycock, ‘An appraisal of the position artist-in-residence’, c. 1977, UNE Art Collection Archives, supplied to the author Oct. 2014.

29

John Truscott, letter to Donald Laycock, 29 Sep. 1981, Arts Centre Melbourne, Art Collection Archives. In relation to Truscott’s initial intent: Sidney Nolan’s Paradise garden, 1968–70, was gifted by the artist in 1982 and installed in the lower stalls foyer; four painted reliefs by Asher Bilu were commissioned for the stalls foyer mezzanine; and, unfortunately, his hope to commission Fred Williams did not proceed as the artist was gravely ill and passed away in April 1982.

30

For detailed accounts, see Steven Tonkin, Janine Barrand, et al., Show Time: The Art Collection of Arts Centre Melbourne, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 2014; Vicki Fairfax, ‘Nothing short of a miracle’, in A Place Across the River: They Aspired to Create the Victorian Arts Centre, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 171–205; and Robert Lindsay & Jacqueline Taylor (eds), The Art Collections of the Victorian Arts Centre, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 1992.

31

See Judith Zilczer, ‘Music for the eyes: abstract painting and light art’, in Kerry Brougher, Jeremy Strick, Ari Wiseman, et al., Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, Thames and Hudson, New York and London, 2005, pp. 24–82. See also Steven Tonkin, Sight and Sound: Music and Abstraction in Australian Art, Victorian Arts Centre Trust, Melbourne, 2010.

32

Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, Dec. 2009 – April 2010.

33

In the 1960s art dealer Rudy Komon pursued Laycock to join his stable of artists, which included Fred Williams, Leonard French and John Olsen. The offer remained, although it was never taken up, until Komon’s untimely death in 1982; Donald Laycock, in discussion with the author, November 2014.

34

Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, July 2013.

35

For example, one reviewer suggested that Laycock’s use of painted dots showed an ‘affinity’ with Western Desert art; see Max Staples, ‘Donald Laycock, the Wagga years’, Daily Advertiser, Sep. 1992. The artist has stated that this was not his intent (Donald Laycock, correspondence with the author, July 2013). See Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams, rev. edn, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987 (1980); James Mollison, Fred Williams: A Retrospective, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1987 (this exhibition travelled to all major state galleries during 1987–89). Artists who have achieved major reputations since Williams have pursued very different pictorial approaches to the landscape, such as Bea Maddock, Rosalie Gascoigne, William Robinson and John Wolseley; see Grishin, pp. 430–43.

36

See discussion in Grishin, pp. 400–03, nn. 528.