fig. 1

THE FIRST LETTER

In May 1971 Roger Cutforth, a British-born, New York-based conceptualist artist, wrote to Robert Rooney in Melbourne. THE FIRST LETTER, as Rooney inscribed on the envelope (fig. 2) before it was filed within his personal archive, marked the beginning of a seven-year period of written dialogue between Cutforth in the United States and England, and Rooney in Melbourne, during which they never met in person. Their correspondence demonstrates a complex information exchange based on a shared interest in conceptualism and photography.1Rooney also wrote and received letters during this period from a range of other artists (such as Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden, Mel Bochner, Ed Ruscha, Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt and Dale Hickey), but it was the letters from Roger Cutforth which formed the most sustained, significant and influential correspondence. While the association between Rooney and Cutforth has been acknowledged before, this article will present a fuller account of their international dialogue2 See Charles Green, The Third Hand: Artist Collaborations from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press, 2001; Ann Stephen, On Looking at Looking: The Art and Politics of Ian Burn, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006. with particular focus on its early years, between 1971 and 1974, the most intense period of communication, coinciding with each artist’s concentrated engagement with first-wave conceptualism.

The dialogue is a private, but significant, history within the larger story of conceptual art. Both artists were committed to sharing information, and their practices and ideas at the time were informed by local content framed within the context of international conceptualist art. Rooney, in particular, accords with Terry Smith’s proposition that a number of Australian and New Zealand artists working from the late 1960s into the 1970s were focused on, and influenced by, international events and actions: ‘international in form’, but ‘local in content’.3 Terry Smith, ‘Peripheries in motion: conceptualism and conceptual art in Australia and New Zealand’, in Jane Farver (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999, pp. 87, 89. Rooney and Cutforth’s dialogue was ultimately about creating a shared understanding of contemporary art practice. As Cutforth has said, it was ‘to do with having some sort of consensus about what was going on in the art world’.4 Cutforth, response to questionnaire written by Maggie Finch and David Homewood, 16 June 2012.

There are several key contemporary actions and strands of dialogue to be considered in relation to the artists’ correspondence: the recent dissolution of the working association between Cutforth, Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden as the Society for Theoretical Art and Analyses; the discussion and organisation of curatorial projects (Rooney showed at Brighton Polytechnic, England; Cutforth showed at Pinacotheca, Australia); and general conversation about the exchange of works of art, art production and information pertaining to each other’s art scenes and art seen.

Understanding the details of this exchange has been made possible by the donation to the National Gallery of Victoria of the majority of conceptualist works from Rooney’s personal collection, which formed the basis for the 2010 exhibition Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art, and of the related correspondence and ephemeral materials sent to, and collected by Rooney during the period.5Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art, curated by Maggie Finch and Cathy Leahy, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 12 Nov. 2010 – 27 March 2011. In particular, this article draws from the holdings of written correspondence that Rooney received from Cutforth, some sixty letters, postcards and parcels. It should be acknowledged that there is a natural bias towards Cutforth’s voice, as only his letters have survived (the letters he received from Rooney were lost in a fire at Cutforth’s Texas studio in 1986). Rooney’s voice, however, is evident throughout Cutforth’s writing; as the distant prompter of information and as the constant point of response.

Australian connections and the ‘disenchantment’ of the Society

Cutforth concludes his first letter to Rooney with mention of a dispute with the artists alongside whom he had first gained a reputation in New York’s contemporary art scene:

You must have heard something about the disenchantment between Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden and myself that occurred sometime ago, our ideas of ‘conceptual-art’ became, and still are as far as I know, incompatible on various levels.6 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, May 1971 (undated).

It is important to briefly trace the association of these three artists, as it explains Cutforth’s Melbourne network and sets the scene for the dialogue between Cutforth and Rooney.

Cutforth’s connections to Australia originated through his friendship with Mel Ramsden, who introduced him to Melbourne-born Ian Burn when the three young artists were living in New York in 1968.7 For detailed information on this partnership, see Green; Stephen. By the summer of that year the expatriates were ‘loosely associated through the exchange of art ideas [and] practices’, and in the early months of 1969 their friendship evolved into a more concrete partnership as the Society for Theoretical Art and Analyses (referred hereafter as the Society), a framework for distributing work and mutual ideas.8 Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. In 1968 Cutforth produced his first purely conceptual work, entitled ABC of painting. Consisting of three large photostat panels, it reduced the idea of painting to an enquiry into the nature of art, and explored the relationship between visual references and the objects themselves through the presentation of a sequence of ideas and referents. Burn and Ramsden were independently, and simultaneously, engaged in the investigation of increasingly dematerialised and theoretical new art and language. Melbourne audiences had also been exposed to Burn and Ramsden’s works in The Field exhibition held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968. It was through Burn that Cutforth came into contact with Bruce Pollard, the pioneering director of Pinacotheca gallery in Melbourne. Burn wrote to Pollard in January 1969 with a proposal for an ‘exhibition of ideas’ which could be shipped from New York to Australia by mail.9 Ian Burn, letter to Bruce Pollard, 29 January 1969, Pinacotheca archive. Following Pollard’s positive response, Burn proposed the inclusion of work by Cutforth, specifically his major photo-work Noon time-piece (April), 1969 (fig. 3).10 Burn, letter to Pollard, 12 March 1969, Pinacotheca archive. Cutforth’s photo-work Noon time-piece (April), 1969, was shown for the first time in this Pinacotheca exhibition; a second version was then included in Kynaston McShine’s influential exhibition Information at MoMA, New York, in 1970; Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, New York Cultural Centre, New York, 1970; and Prospect 71: Projection, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, 1971. This composition consists of thirty colour photographs of the sky at noon, taken at the same location and on each successive day of the month (April). The photographs are displayed sequentially in a row, alongside a calendar and a text piece containing the geographic coordinates of the location. Place and time are made equivalent, and Cutforth described the work as a combination of ‘various conditions which amount to correspondence within its particular system and which affect it as a whole’.11 Roger Cutforth, ‘Artist statement’, Burn Cutforth Ramsden, Pinacotheca, Melbourne, 1969.

The 1969 exhibition Burn Cutforth Ramsden, with its display of xerox books, serial photographs and printed texts, is recognised as the first exhibition of conceptual art in Australia. Critical responses were varied, provoking what Ann Stephen has described as ‘interest and confusion’ in Melbourne.12 Stephen, p. 127. The exhibition also became known internationally via the three artists’ networks and through reviews.13 Allan McCulloch, for example, discussed the exhibition at some length. He described the contemporary interest in international art trends, and the ‘arrival of dematerialised anti-art’ as heavily diffused in Australia. Critical of a lack of originality, McCulloch wrote that ‘the show might have been inspired by a genuinely-held scepticism about traditional attitudes (are there any left?), or alternatively by ambitions to initiate a three-man agency whereby the somewhat aesthetically retarded city of Melbourne might be brought into direct, non-aesthetic contact with the more sophisticated climate of New York’. Alan McCulloch, ‘Letter from Australia’, Art International, Nov. 1969, p. 46. For the local Melbourne artists, particularly those directly associated with Pinacotheca, including Rooney, Dale Hickey and Simon Klose, the exhibition provided firsthand insight into contemporary conceptual practice in New York and affirmed the shift away from national and provincial concerns towards a more international and global approach. Viewing Cutforth’s photo-works at Pinacotheca had a great influence on Rooney. Moving away from the hard-edge, abstract acrylic paintings for which he had become renowned in the mid 1960s, Rooney’s practice became more conceptualist and process-based, involving the use of a Kodak Instamatic point-and-shoot camera to create works structured around ideas of routine, duration, repetition and seriality.14 An important transitional work from Rooney’s hard-edge paintings to the conceptualist use of photography was Second landscape for instruments (Slippery seal), 1968. This graphic score incorporates shapes taken from Kellogg’s cereal packets, which musicians ‘read’ and interpret differently in each performance. The idea of this type of ‘event’ score, leaving open the formal elements of controlled chance, and the move towards a temporal and less physical work of art was developed further in Rooney’s conceptualist photographs of the 1970s. Every artist born in 1937 so far located 1970–, 1970, is another key work from this moment. This work consists of neatly filed index cards (arranged alphabetically by surname), within a small black filing box, each one containing handwritten information sourced by Rooney – generally an artist’s name, year of birth (1937, that of Rooney) and city and/or country of birth. Rooney imposes a sense of equivalence that gently levels the information to a serial, archival structure. The first photographic work was War savings streets, 1970, which with characteristic wit reveals the evolution of Rooney’s interest in cereal packets to serial structures.

Burn, Cutforth and Ramsden’s early work together as the Society had been espoused by Joseph Kosuth as being in the ‘purer’ category of conceptual art, constituting an ‘inquiry into the foundations of the concept “art”’.15 Joseph Kosuth, ‘Art after philosophy part II: “conceptual art” and recent art’, Studio International, vol. 178, no. 916, Nov. 1969, pp. 160–1.  They produced July 1969 (published by Art Press, New York, 1969), exhibited in several shows (Art in the Mind, Allen Art Museum, Ohio; Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, New York Cultural Centre, curated by Kosuth and Burn) and published in the journal Art-Language. However, by the time Kynaston McShine’s Information exhibition opened the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, in July 1970, the group was dissolving. Burn and Ramsden presented a joint work in the show, while Cutforth exhibited alone. Burn and Ramsden subsequently merged formally with Art & Language; Cutforth focused instead on investigations into photographic conceptualism, returning from New York to England in mid 1971.

From Cutforth’s perspective, the dissolution of the group was based on a visual/non-visual divide and began during the installation of Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects. His disagreement was with Burn and Ramsden’s

approach and restricted idea of ‘art’ … I disagree with them that ‘art’ is [too] restricted an idea in application – and think that to consider it solely as a linguistic and/or syntactical problem is an over simplification.16 See Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 30 Aug. 1971. As Cutforth has recently recounted, ‘I had always had an interest in visual work, and it was while mounting this show that this put me in contention with Ian [Burn] and Mel [Ramsden], both of whom wanted to present an ultra radical form of conceptualism, totally non-visual, consisting only of written documents. I think I may have wanted to put some of my photo-works in the show? We split up pretty much from that point on’. Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood.

Cutforth also responded to what he perceived as Burn’s ‘relegation’ of his practice to the status of a ‘process artist’, in which the camera is used as a ‘kind of “dumb” documentation device’, as described in Burn’s 1970 Art and Australia article, ‘Conceptual art as art’:

one could separate the analytic or strict Conceptual art from the work which is of a Conceptual appearance by stating that the intention of the former is to devise a functional change in art, whereas the latter is concerned with changes within the appearance of art.17 Ian Burn, ‘Conceptual art as art’, Art and Australia, vol. 8, no. 2, Sept. 1970, p. 170.

Burn categorised his and Ramsden’s work in the former strand, and Cutforth’s in the latter. Cutforth prepared a public response to Burn’s article, which he sent to Art and Australia – describing his ‘meaningful criticism’ to Rooney:

‘Re your article “Conceptual art as Art” (sic). Fair go mate, [who’s] kidding who?’ They found this unsuitable for publication?, and invited me to write a more ‘constructive & instructive’ letter.18 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 18 Oct. 1971.

Rooney’s own views on the separation of the Society are made explicit in his work Words and phrases in inverted commas from the collected works of IBMR, 1972. Consisting of a typed and printed list organised alphabetically, it compiles the use of inverted commas in the writings of Burn and Ramsden, pointing out, irreverently, their predilection for linguistic devices. While a parody of the administrative seriousness of Burn, Ramsden and Art & Language, it nonetheless followed Rooney’s formal strategies used in his photo-works and earlier hard-edge paintings, in which almost mechanical and ‘dumb’ breakdown and repetition of information was used to emphasise the ordinary, common- sense relations between elements. Cutforth found this work ‘very amusing’, writing that it highlighted their mutual perception of the ‘incomprehensibility’ of analytic conceptualism.19 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

Curatorial exchanges: Rooney at Brighton Polytechnic

In November 1971, Rooney and Cutforth started to correspond about possible curatorial exchanges. Cutforth had taken up a teaching position at Brighton Polytechnic on the invitation of the progressive British conceptualists Ted Hawke and John Hilliard, who were teachers at the institution.20 In Hilliard’s early works, photographs functioned as information, representing the material of the camera itself. As Richard Cork wrote, Hilliard found it ‘impossible to ignore the logical invitation which comes from accepting the central status of pictures supposedly intended as information sources alone’. Richard Cork, ‘From sculpture to photography’, Studio International, July–Aug. 1975, p. 62. Hilliard and Cutforth had exhibited their photo-works together earlier in 1971 at the Lisson Warehouse in London. Hilliard recalled: ‘I had the basement and Roger had the ground floor’. John Hilliard, email to Maggie Finch, 22 June 2012. Hilliard has described how Brighton Polytechnic was one of the

first Fine Art departments in the UK to establish a distinct area of study for ‘media’ work. All the staff and students in Experimental Studies … had subsequently begun to work with text, photography, film, video or performance.21 Hilliard, email to Finch, 22 June 2012. In the same email, Hilliard wrote: ‘There was also a lively visitors’ program over the next few years [at Brighton Polytechnic] (Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, Jeff Wall, John Stezaker, Victor Burgin, were among many artists who came to talk about their work)’.

Cutforth was specifically involved in the Polytechnic’s ‘Experimental Studies’ course, a ‘studio space’, in his words:

for all the students who … wanted to experiment, with photo, film,  and video, mainly. Nothing was taught in a formal sense, it was mainly dis-cussion and consideration of ideas current in the various art movements of the time.

He further elaborated that the course was ‘based on conversation’.22 Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood.

One of Cutforth’s influential actions while at Brighton was the instigation of a series of small but significant exhibitions he described as ‘displays of “information” on artists’ work’, which included shows of works of art, archival documents and facsimiles of the work of notable contemporary practitioners (predominantly international) mounted in the foyer spaces of the Polytechnic.23 Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. Cutforth has described the exhibitions as ‘a kind of guerilla art activity on my part, attempting to undermine the established order’. The shows existed outside of the formal range of activities and programs, and as such were not listed on the calendar of events and exhibitions staged at Brighton Polytechnic in the 1971–72 period. Cutforth invited Rooney to participate in November 1971:

I wonder if you would be interested in sending something over? If you had any photo-work that is easily transportable a display of ‘actual’ work might be possible … Recently had one on the work of Dan Graham and hope to get a few more people interested.24 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 18 Nov. 1971.

Cutforth and Dan Graham had become friends in New York, and Cutforth remembers receiving encouragement from him for these displays, as well as ‘suggestions of NY artists who would be positive and send work or information’.25 Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. The Graham display occurred in November 1971 and included information related to his recent practices in the format of facsimiles and photocopies of images and text, printed in panels and pinned to freestanding boards (fig. 4). These works had been posted to Cutforth ‘through the mail & I then arranged & installed it on partition walls’.26 Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. The documentation of several key works by Dan Graham can be identified, including Binocular zoom, 1969–70; Two correlated rotations, 1969; Lax/Relax, 1969; and Roll, 1970. Graham and Cindy Hanant, email to Finch, 27 Sept. 2012. Cutforth sent Rooney an installation photograph of Graham’s show to explain the display format.

At a time when such works were not widely distributed beyond their immediate exhibition and reproduction in catalogues with small print runs, the display of work by a leading contemporary artist such as Graham was an extraordinary opportunity to view key international practices. The notion of displaying ‘information’ also demonstrated Cutforth’s understanding of the desire among conceptualists at that time to participate in, and facilitate, a rapid exchange of ideas, to create a dialogue, and to communicate information through networks which, thanks to the largely dematerialised nature of the works, could be both local and international.27 See Alexander Alberro, ‘At the threshold of art as information’, in Alexander Alberro & Patricia Norvell (eds), Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner by Patricia Norvell, University of California Press, Berkely & London, 2001, pp. 1–15. The concept of ‘information’ displays were presumably also inspired by the 1970 Information exhibition at MoMA, and by the ‘mezzanine’ exhibitions at the highly progressive Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, which featured shows by a range of local and international artists, mainly of a conceptual nature and which could be transported by post. An exhibition of works by Cutforth, Transpositions of Place Situation Duration Direction Relation Circumstance was displayed there in Oct. 1971. See Garry Neill Kennedy, The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968–78, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2012, p. 121.

Following Rooney’s positive response, Cutforth went on to discuss logistics:

I imagine I could display the work end of Jan beginning of Feb. The best thing might be for you to send the work over as its [sic] ready – and I will work out the display for it in the space available … When I have all the work together it’s just a question of putting it up at the earliest convenient time, and making a poster of biographical and other information.28 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

In January 1972 Rooney mailed seven recent photo-works, along with two printed works, to Cutforth, all of which were displayed, except for Miami Street, Dec 1971, 1971 (‘photos #10 & 11 missing and two #15’s, so I haven’t mounted it’).29 The photo-works sent by Rooney included Scorched almonds, Jul – Aug 1970, 1970; Anzacs, Jul 1971, 1971; Meals, Jul – Aug 1970, 1970; 10.8 miles in 44 minutes, May 1971, 1971; Holden Park 1, 1970; Variety, 1971; and Miami Street, Dec 1971, 1971. The printed works were War savings streets, 1970, and Words and phrases in inverted commas in the collected works of IBMR, 1972. On receipt of the missing works a few weeks later, Cutforth wrote to Rooney of displaying Miami Street, Dec 1971 as part of the Brighton Polytechnic exhibition, although the work is not visible in photographs of the installation. See Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 14 Feb. 1972. The installation negatives sent to Rooney a few weeks later show the neat display of the works, wrapping around the partition stands, with an introductory ‘didactic’ text containing biographical details about Rooney (fig. 5a-c).30 Cutforth also described the specific installation method used: ‘Your photo-work at Brighton; I mounted it with photo-mounting corners onto sheets of cardboard. Then covered these with thin clear plastic sheets, turned over at the edges, and cellotaped to the back of the card. It gives quite a good temporary (or semi-permanent) presentation’. Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 13 March 1972.

John Hilliard has recalled that Cutforth’s ‘cutting-edge exhibitions’ were ‘indeed appreciated by the students there, and Robert Rooney in particular would have been a discovery. I knew of him, but had never seen a collection of works before’.31 Hilliard, email to Finch, 21 June 2012. Rooney had not sought international exposure; however, it is evident from the exhibition at Brighton Polytechnic that his work received a significant audience and formed part of an influential suite of displays of contemporary, predominantly conceptualist work featuring artists including the aforementioned Graham, as well as Robert Smithson and Mel Bochner, and a display of facsimiles of the cartoon works of the recently deceased abstract painter Ad Reinhardt. Keith Arnatt had been in discussion with Cutforth about a display, but this did not eventuate.32 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971. The exhibitions, while not documented officially, were recalled to the author by Cutforth, Hilliard and Dave Cubby. This Brighton exhibition was also, importantly, the first solo exhibition of Rooney’s photo-works, preceding the 1975 Australian exhibitions Selected Works 1970–75 at Pinacotheca and Project 8: Robert Rooney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.33 Dave Cubby, a student who was heavily involved in the ‘Experimental Studies’ course from 1969 to 1972 and studied under Ted Hawke, Cutforth and Hilliard, has also recalled the significance of these exhibitions. For example, Cubby described the display of facsimiles of Ad Reinhardt cartoons that ‘went the length of the corridor between the first floor studios and the library at Brighton Polytechnic’. The importance of seeing this and other displays was vital: Cubby recalled that the Reinhardt exhibition was perceived as ‘revolutionary’ in terms of its structure as a ‘proto-mail art/photocopy piece. As with all of the mobile exhibitions [organised by Cutforth at Brighton Polytechnic] they were radical and direct models of mediated art’. Cubby, email to Finch and Homewood, 22 July 2012. See also Charlie Hooker, ‘Experimental studies and The Fab Shitts’, in P. Lyon & J. Woodham, Art and Design at Brighton: 1859–2009, University of Brighton, Brighton, 2009, p. 273. A small group of students from the early ‘Experimental Studies’ course, including Mick Duckworth, Kevin Atherton and Charlie Hooker went on to become heavily involved in the 2B Butler’s Wharf space in London in 1975 which focused on time-based media and events.

Curatorial exchanges: Cutforth at Pinacotheca

At the same time as discussing Rooney’s display at Brighton Polytechnic, Cutforth and Rooney were corresponding about an upcoming exhibition of Cutforth’s works at Pinacotheca, which opened in July 1972 and was similarly organised entirely by mail. Cutforth wrote on 21 December 1971 that he would send works representative of his fascination at that time with ‘how photographs represented extensions of personal experience of space and time’.34 Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. See also Cutforth, letter to Bruce Pollard, 19 Jan. 1972 (this letter forms part of Rooney’s archive, as details the organisation of the Cutforth exhibition). Cutforth wrote of sending the following works: ‘3 cards 16” x 20” on the “Non-Art Project”. Possibly 2 mounted “Location Pieces” 8” x 16” and a work titled “Photographic Surfaces” 20” x 3”’. In addition to the works described, Cutforth also included three original Underground posters (8” x 11”). There is discussion of creating of a customised Location piece for Pinacotheca using an aerial photo, which Cutforth asked Rooney for assistance in sourcing, as well as ‘a survey map giving [latitudinal] and [longitudinal] readings’.35 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971. Cutforth had created a Location piece, with assistance from Ramsden, in 1969 for the Pinacotheca exhibition Burn Cutforth Ramsden; and another on the site of Lisson Gallery in London in 1971, when he exhibited there with Hilliard. On 13 May 1972 Cutforth confirmed receipt of the photograph: ‘Will make it into a work and send it over’. A letter sent later that week reveals the continued dependency on information from Rooney: ‘I have made up a mailer for the show and await your notification about the date to put on it, “May” as originally suggested seems inappropriate? Would “June” or “July” be suitable?’36 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 20 May 1972. On 8 July 1972 Cutforth wrote that he had sent the custom-made Pinacotheca location piece: ‘I hope I’ve got the right building as I’ve also used this on the card!’ (fig. 6).

The Cutforth exhibition at Pinacotheca ran concurrently with a Ti Parks exhibition, from 20 July to 6 August 1972: Parks in the large room; Cutforth in the small room. Patrick McCaughey’s review of the exhibition focused on Cutforth’s combination of visual and text-based elements, and labelled Cutforth ‘the least constipated of Conceptual artists’, with his:

precise and polished folio of photographs and schemes called the Non-Art Project, so pursuing the perennial theme of Conceptual art, that art is not simply objects and not all objects are art.37 Patrick McCaughey, ‘Sculptor parks under review’, The Age, 2 Aug. 1972.

Authorial displacement: N.E.W.S.

Prior to, and during, the curatorial exchanges, Rooney and Cutforth also discussed making work based on mailed instructions. Specifically, Cutforth expressed interest in creating a work based on a concept described to him by Rooney: ‘Also would be interested to do a London version of the “interior/exterior” piece for you. Can you send me precise and exact details of what this involves’.38 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 18 Nov. 1971. The ‘interior/exterior’ piece mentioned is a photo-work conceived by Rooney and otherwise known as N.E.W.S. (fig. 7). Cutforth’s subsequent letter sent on 21 December 1971 contains more information:

I will do the Interior/Exterior piece from this address [in London] and send you the negs. I will also take some 3 ½ squ (?) prints from them to display at Brighton. Is the date and address all the information that goes with them, or are the photo’s [sic] labled [sic] N.E.W.S.?39 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

On 31 January 1972 Cutforth wrote: ‘I have the negs for your N.E.W.S. taken at a [friend’s] address and am including the work in the [Brighton] show, will send them with installation shots’.40 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 31 Jan. 1972. Although it is not clear whether Cutforth did in fact include the London version of N.E.W.S. in Rooney’s exhibition at Brighton Polytechnic, the process of mailing instructions to Cutforth is demonstrative of a type of authorial displacement in which Rooney provided the concept and parameters for the work, allowing Cutforth to execute it remotely. In this way, N.E.W.S. followed the process of Rooney’s earlier graphic scores, such as Second landscape for instruments (Slippery seal), 1968, which incorporated elements of controlled chance and encouraged other artists or performers to interpret and execute the abstracted scores (fig. 8).

Interestingly, at the same time as corresponding with Cutforth about a London N.E.W.S., Rooney included a version of the work in a joint exhibition in Melbourne with Simon Klose. The exhibition Robert Rooney/Simon Klose opened at Pinacotheca in 1972 and involved the concealment of individual identities and authorship, the parameters of which have been analysed in detail by David Homewood.41 David Homewood, ‘RR/SK: public exhibition’, Discipline, no. 2, autumn 2012, pp. 97–105. Cutforth’s interest in the show and its blurring of identities – which he described as being analogous to ‘Jekyll & Hyde identity problems’ – as well as his involvement in creating a London version of N.E.W.S., reveal him to be both a passive listener and an active participant in the conversation, and extends the reach of Rooney and Klose’s ‘information management’ of the project beyond Melbourne to London.42 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 31 July 1972. See also Homewood, ‘RR/SK: Public Exhibition’, p. 98. The letters show that this reduction of the parameters of work to a set of instructions or characteristics, executed with a camera as a basic recorder of information, was an intentional construct of the artists. Peter Kennedy, artist and co-founder of Inhibodress Gallery in Sydney, commented negatively on this approach in an interview in June 1971, stating his reason for giving up the use of the camera was that ‘photographs have become a cliché in new art – they are making artists look the same. Like Close [sic], Hickey, Cutforth, Rooney, looked very similar’. Peter Kennedy, ’Interview’, in The Situation Now: Object or Post-Object Art?, Contemporary Art Society of Australia, Sydney, 1971, p. 19. Kennedy’s perception of the ‘sameness’ of the photographs of the four artists associated with Pinacotheca is an accurate insight into their conceptualist concerns at that time: to conceal identity or an individualistic ‘touch’, to use the camera as an automation system.

Art exchange: art scenes and art seen

Rooney and Cutforth discussed realised and unrealised projects and new directions in their practice, and exchanged works of art and art materials, including catalogues, articles and invitations. In two key examples, Rooney sent a copy of his work War savings streets, 1970, to Cutforth, and Cutforth retained Rooney’s Holden Park 1, 1970, after its display at Brighton Polytechnic. In December 1972 Cutforth wrote to Rooney of the display of this work at his New York home:

on the wall mounted in a Perspex frame … [the] reason for telling you [this] is that they stimulate quite a bit of comment from everyone who visits. Australians are overcome with nostalgia, Americans & English are intrigued by the car and the landscape.43 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 1 Dec. 1972. Rooney later sent Holden Park II, 1970, to complete the work already in Cutforth’s possession.

In July 1972, getting re-established in New York, Cutforth described his excitement about the development of new work: ‘[I’ve] come up with some surprising new photo work which I’m really pleased with and I will send you some photos as soon as [available]’.44 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 31 July 1972. By December Rooney had received a parcel containing documentary images, along with written descriptions entitled Personal spaces, 1972. Cutforth included information about the concept and construction, which developed out of the idea for Noon time-piece (April):

the photos in ‘Personal Spaces’ go from 3” (smallest) to 40” (largest). In the near distance one they are life-size and go from 8”–40”. The measurement under each picture is the distance to the figure.45 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 1 Dec. 1972.

By this time, Rooney had also nearly completed his own large-scale photo-work Garments, 3 Dec 1972 – 19 March 1973, 1972–73, comprising 107 Instamatic photographs and an accompanying printed text index documenting a ‘personal ritual’ – in this case the daily laying-out of clothes to wear. Rooney had evidently described the development of the project to Cutforth, whose letter of 4 March 1973 concludes with the suggestion that ‘[Rooney] consider enlarging the format from 3½ x 3½’, and that ‘8 x 8 colour prints are expensive but look great!’, and that this change in format ‘might bring out different readings?’46 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 4 March 1973. Rooney did not alter the size or colour of this work, but rather retained the smaller Instamatic format in its production and display. A similar format was used for the subsequent and related work AM-PM: 2 Dec 1973 – 28 Feb 1974, 1973–74. Interestingly, however, these photo-works did mark the end point of Rooney’s investigation into suburban routines presented in the serial, black-and-white photographic format.

In the latter months of 1974 Rooney wrote to Cutforth on behalf of Bruce Pollard, asking if he was happy for Pollard to sell those remaining works from the earlier exhibitions in Melbourne, to which Cutforth agreed. Rooney asked at this time, too, about the possibility of acquiring Noon time-piece (April) for himself, which pleased Cutforth:

There’s two versions of it, one I’ve got, which I showed here and London, got some of its photos damaged so it has mismatching photos so I never have it up as it disturbs me.47 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 12 Nov. 1974. The alternative version of Noon time-piece (April), 1969, that Cutforth mentions was the second version he made of the work, exhibited in Information, MoMA, 1970, and in other American and European shows. It was destroyed in a studio fire in 1986, leaving Rooney’s acquisition as the sole copy.

Rooney bought the version that had been displayed in Burn Cutforth Ramsden at Pinacotheca in 1969, and it hung on his bedroom wall (fig. 9).

There is a flow of information regarding each other’s local art scenes, and art seen, throughout Cutforth and Rooney’s correspondence. This strand of dialogue reveals the artists’ curiosity and depth of understanding of international practices, and stimulates discussion between them of the perceived successes and failures of contemporary art at that time and, specifically, of conceptual art. In particular, the pair seemed in agreement about the limitations of ‘purer’ forms of conceptual art (the linguistic, analytical model expounded by Kosuth, Burn, Ramsden, and Art & Language). Cutforth expressed his opinion, for example, that regarding Art & Language, ‘the initial premise (of arguing the status of an essay as an art-work) by [Terry] Atkinson in 1969 seems to have hardly been advanced on’. The problem, as he saw it, was that:

its [sic] become a ‘formalism’ based on an over confidence in the efficacy of language in being able to deal with certain problems – and the possible solutions that can be achieved this way.48 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 30 Aug. 1971.

Cutforth further articulated his position on the failings of analytical/linguistic conceptualism in a letter to Rooney in December 1971, predicated on an understanding that the premise of open discussion had become dictatorial. Cutforth wrote:

As pure Conceptual art is so bound up with its own definition (this is about all that sustains the analysis and analogies) it looks like all that can happen is [proliferation].49 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

In the early months of 1972 Rooney enquired about the work of Mel Bochner, which prompted Cutforth to describe a recent showing of Bochner’s work at MoMA. Cutforth went on to discuss a catalogue of video works by Peter Kennedy sent to the library at Brighton Polytechnic, as well as recent performances by Graham, ‘carried out in a semi-strict fashion and … non-participatory’ at Lisson Gallery, London. In September 1972 Cutforth received information on the Australian art scene from Terry Smith, who had visited him in New York. Cutforth wrote that Smith’s descriptions of Pinacotheca echoed those of Rooney, that it was ‘the only serious gallery in [Melbourne]’.50 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 28 Sept. 1972.

Conclusion

The correspondence between Rooney and Cutforth eased gradually from the end of 1974, mirroring a shift in the artists’ interest away from first-wave conceptualism. After seven years of long-distance communication and an intense art dialogue, their communication ceased entirely in 1978. The correspondence demonstrates the scope of the information exchange that took place between the two artists via international mail, which significantly broadened their knowledge of each other’s local art scenes (particularly in relation to conceptual art practices), and illustrates their individual and shared involvement in a serious discussion and consideration of contemporary art. Rooney and Cutforth’s interest in stylistic or visual conceptualism and the perceived failings of analytic, non-visual conceptualism was discussed and rationalised. This strand of dialogue, evident throughout many of the letters, provided an opportunity for the articulation of these ideas. The pair’s correspondence also represents the broader debate among many first-wave conceptualists about the definition of practice. The specific details of the ‘disenchantment’ between Cutforth, Burn and Ramsden, and the cessation of their partnership as the Society for Theoretical Art and Analyses, based on this fundamental theoretical and philosophical divide, was articulated in the letters.

Analysis of the curatorial and authorial exchanges detailed in this correspondence demonstrates the international flow and dissemination of works of art and ideas between Rooney and Cutforth in their respective cities, and the ways in which their dialogue formed an important link within the scattered networks that connected conceptualist movements around the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rooney’s and Cutforth’s activities and shared exchange helped the works and ideas of international artists to be incorporated into their local artistic communities. Their communication reveals the cities of Melbourne (specifically through the artists involved with Pinacotheca), and Brighton (through the Experimental Studies course at Brighton Polytechnic) as vibrant and innovative sites of artistic experimentation and dialogue engaged with first-wave conceptualism.

In the postscript to his final letter Cutforth acknowledged that despite the fact Rooney had not travelled abroad, his connection to and knowledge of international art practices was legendary, and that Cutforth’s contribution formed a crucial channel:

P.S. I’m enclosing a page from Arts Magazine on the Gibson show, I realise you may have seen it on your reputation of being the best informed artist in Australia. However, in case you haven’t …51 Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 6 June 1978.

Maggie Finch, Curator, Photography, NGV (in 2013).

Notes

I would like to thank Roger Cutforth and Robert Rooney for agreeing to publish the details of their involved correspondence, and for their generosity with information. I would also like to acknowledge and thank the following people for their ideas and for providing access to information: David Homewood, Charles Green, Trevor Fuller (and the Pinacotheca archive), Steven Tonkin, Dave Cubby, John Hilliard and Dan Graham. All letters between Rooney and Cutforth, unless otherwise noted, are held in the National Gallery of Victoria.

1        Rooney also wrote and received letters during this period from a range of other artists (such as Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden, Mel Bochner, Ed Ruscha, Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt and Dale Hickey), but it was the letters from Roger Cutforth which formed the most sustained, significant and influential correspondence.

2        See Charles Green, The Third Hand: Artist Collaborations from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press, 2001; Ann Stephen, On Looking at Looking: The Art and Politics of Ian Burn, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006.

3        Terry Smith, ‘Peripheries in motion: conceptualism and conceptual art in Australia and New Zealand’, in Jane Farver (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999, pp. 87, 89.

4        Cutforth, response to questionnaire written by Maggie Finch and David Homewood, 16 June 2012.

5        Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art, curated by Maggie Finch and Cathy Leahy, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 12 Nov. 2010 – 27 March 2011.

6        Cutforth, letter to Rooney, May 1971 (undated).

7        For detailed information on this partnership, see Green; Stephen.

8        Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. In 1968 Cutforth produced his first purely conceptual work, entitled ABC of painting. Consisting of three large photostat panels, it reduced the idea of painting to an enquiry into the nature of art, and explored the relationship between visual references and the objects themselves through the presentation of a sequence of ideas and referents. Burn and Ramsden were independently, and simultaneously, engaged in the investigation of increasingly dematerialised and theoretical new art and language. Melbourne audiences had also been exposed to Burn and Ramsden’s works in The Field exhibition held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968.

9        Ian Burn, letter to Bruce Pollard, 29 January 1969, Pinacotheca archive.

10      Burn, letter to Pollard, 12 March 1969, Pinacotheca archive. Cutforth’s photo-work Noon time-piece (April), 1969, was shown for the first time in this Pinacotheca exhibition; a second version was then included in Kynaston McShine’s influential exhibition Information at MoMA, New York, in 1970; Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, New York Cultural Centre, New York, 1970; and Prospect 71: Projection, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, 1971.

11      Roger Cutforth, ‘Artist statement’, Burn Cutforth Ramsden, Pinacotheca, Melbourne, 1969.

12      Stephen, p. 127.

13      Allan McCulloch, for example, discussed the exhibition at some length. He described the contemporary interest in international art trends, and the ‘arrival of dematerialised anti-art’ as heavily diffused in Australia. Critical of a lack of originality, McCulloch wrote that ‘the show might have been inspired by a genuinely-held scepticism about traditional attitudes (are there any left?), or alternatively by ambitions to initiate a three-man agency whereby the somewhat aesthetically retarded city of Melbourne might be brought into direct, non-aesthetic contact with the more sophisticated climate of New York’. Alan McCulloch, ‘Letter from Australia’, Art International, Nov. 1969, p. 46.

14      An important transitional work from Rooney’s hard-edge paintings to the conceptualist use of photography was Second landscape for instruments (Slippery seal), 1968. This graphic score incorporates shapes taken from Kellogg’s cereal packets, which musicians ‘read’ and interpret differently in each performance. The idea of this type of ‘event’ score, leaving open the formal elements of controlled chance, and the move towards a temporal and less physical work of art was developed further in Rooney’s conceptualist photographs of the 1970s. Every artist born in 1937 so far located 1970–, 1970, is another key work from this moment. This work consists of neatly filed index cards (arranged alphabetically by surname), within a small black filing box, each one containing handwritten information sourced by Rooney – generally an artist’s name, year of birth (1937, that of Rooney) and city and/or country of birth. Rooney imposes a sense of equivalence that gently levels the information to a serial, archival structure. The first photographic work was War savings streets, 1970, which with characteristic wit reveals the evolution of Rooney’s interest in cereal packets to serial structures.

15      Joseph Kosuth, ‘Art after philosophy part II: “conceptual art” and recent art’, Studio International, vol. 178, no. 916, Nov. 1969, pp. 160–1.

16      See Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 30 Aug. 1971. As Cutforth has recently recounted, ‘I had always had an interest in visual work, and it was while mounting this show that this put me in contention with Ian [Burn] and Mel [Ramsden], both of whom wanted to present an ultra radical form of conceptualism, totally non-visual, consisting only of written documents. I think I may have wanted to put some of my photo-works in the show? We split up pretty much from that point on’. Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood.

17      Ian Burn, ‘Conceptual art as art’, Art and Australia, vol. 8, no. 2, Sept. 1970, p. 170.

18      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 18 Oct. 1971.

19      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

20      In Hilliard’s early works, photographs functioned as information, representing the material of the camera itself. As Richard Cork wrote, Hilliard found it ‘impossible to ignore the logical invitation which comes from accepting the central status of pictures supposedly intended as information sources alone’. Richard Cork, ‘From sculpture to photography’, Studio International, July–Aug. 1975, p. 62. Hilliard and Cutforth had exhibited their photo-works together earlier in 1971 at the Lisson Warehouse in London. Hilliard recalled: ‘I had the basement and Roger had the ground floor’. John Hilliard, email to Maggie Finch, 22 June 2012.

21      Hilliard, email to Finch, 22 June 2012. In the same email, Hilliard wrote: ‘There was also a lively visitors’ program over the next few years [at Brighton Polytechnic] (Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, Jeff Wall, John Stezaker, Victor Burgin, were among many artists who came to talk about their work)’.

22      Cutforth,  questionnaire by Finch and Homewood.

23      Cutforth,  questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. Cutforth has described the exhibitions as ‘a kind of guerilla art activity on my part, attempting to undermine the established order’. The shows existed outside of the formal range of activities and programs, and as such were not listed on the calendar of events and exhibitions staged at Brighton Polytechnic in the 1971–72 period.

24      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 18 Nov. 1971.

25      Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood.

26      Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. The documentation of several key works by Dan Graham can be identified, including Binocular zoom, 1969–70; Two correlated rotations, 1969; Lax/Relax, 1969; and Roll, 1970. Graham and Cindy Hanant, email to Finch, 27 Sept. 2012. Cutforth sent Rooney an installation photograph of Graham’s show to explain the display format.

27      See Alexander Alberro, ‘At the threshold of art as information’, in Alexander Alberro & Patricia Norvell (eds), Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner by Patricia Norvell, University of California Press, Berkely & London, 2001, pp. 1–15. The concept of ‘information’ displays were presumably also inspired by the 1970 Information exhibition at MoMA, and by the ‘mezzanine’ exhibitions at the highly progressive Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, which featured shows by a range of local and international artists, mainly of a conceptual nature and which could be transported by post. An exhibition of works by Cutforth, Transpositions of Place Situation Duration Direction Relation Circumstance was displayed there in Oct. 1971. See Garry Neill Kennedy, The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968–78, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2012, p. 121.

28      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

29      The photo-works sent by Rooney included Scorched almonds, Jul – Aug 1970, 1970; Anzacs, Jul 1971, 1971; Meals, Jul – Aug 1970, 1970; 10.8 miles in 44 minutes, May 1971, 1971; Holden Park 1, 1970; Variety, 1971; and Miami Street, Dec 1971, 1971. The printed works were War savings streets, 1970, and Words and phrases in inverted commas in the collected works of IBMR, 1972. On receipt of the missing works a few weeks later, Cutforth wrote to Rooney of displaying Miami Street, Dec 1971 as part of the Brighton Polytechnic exhibition, although the work is not visible in photographs of the installation. See Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 14 Feb. 1972.

30      Cutforth also described the specific installation method used: ‘Your photo-work at Brighton; I mounted it with photo-mounting corners onto sheets of cardboard. Then covered these with thin clear plastic sheets, turned over at the edges, and cellotaped to the back of the card. It gives quite a good temporary (or semi-permanent) presentation’. Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 13 March 1972.

31      Hilliard, email to Finch, 21 June 2012.

32      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971. The exhibitions, while not documented officially, were recalled to the author by Cutforth, Hilliard and Dave Cubby.

33      Dave Cubby, a student who was heavily involved in the ‘Experimental Studies’ course from 1969 to 1972 and studied under Ted Hawke, Cutforth and Hilliard, has also recalled the significance of these exhibitions. For example, Cubby described the display of facsimiles of Ad Reinhardt cartoons that ‘went the length of the corridor between the first floor studios and the library at Brighton Polytechnic’. The importance of seeing this and other displays was vital: Cubby recalled that the Reinhardt exhibition was perceived as ‘revolutionary’ in terms of its structure as a ‘proto-mail art/photocopy piece. As with all of the mobile exhibitions [organised by Cutforth at Brighton Polytechnic] they were radical and direct models of mediated art’. Cubby, email to Finch and Homewood, 22 July 2012. See also Charlie Hooker, ‘Experimental studies and The Fab Shitts’, in P. Lyon & J. Woodham, Art and Design at Brighton: 1859–2009, University of Brighton, Brighton, 2009, p. 273. A small group of students from the early ‘Experimental Studies’ course, including Mick Duckworth, Kevin Atherton and Charlie Hooker went on to become heavily involved in the 2B Butler’s Wharf space in London in 1975 which focused on time-based media and events.  

34      Cutforth, questionnaire by Finch and Homewood. See also Cutforth, letter to Bruce Pollard, 19 Jan. 1972 (this letter forms part of Rooney’s archive, as details the organisation of the Cutforth exhibition). Cutforth wrote of sending the following works: ‘3 cards 16” x 20” on the “Non-Art Project”. Possibly 2 mounted “Location Pieces” 8” x 16” and a work titled “Photographic Surfaces” 20” x 3”’. In addition to the works described, Cutforth also included three original Underground posters (8” x 11”).

35      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971. Cutforth had created a Location piece, with assistance from Ramsden, in 1969 for the Pinacotheca exhibition Burn Cutforth Ramsden; and another on the site of Lisson Gallery in London in 1971, when he exhibited there with Hilliard.

36      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 20 May 1972.

37      Patrick McCaughey, ‘Sculptor parks under review’, The Age, 2 Aug. 1972.

38      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 18 Nov. 1971.

39      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

40      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 31 Jan. 1972.

41      David Homewood, ‘RR/SK: public exhibition’, Discipline, no. 2, autumn 2012, pp. 97–105.

42      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 31 July 1972. See also Homewood, ‘RR/SK: Public Exhibition’, p. 98. The letters show that this reduction of the parameters of work to a set of instructions or characteristics, executed with a camera as a basic recorder of information, was an intentional construct of the artists. Peter Kennedy, artist and co-founder of Inhibodress Gallery in Sydney, commented negatively on this approach in an interview in June 1971, stating his reason for giving up the use of the camera was that ‘photographs have become a cliché in new art – they are making artists look the same. Like Close [sic], Hickey, Cutforth, Rooney, looked very similar’. Peter Kennedy, ’Interview’, in The Situation Now: Object or Post-Object Art?, Contemporary Art Society of Australia, Sydney, 1971, p. 19. Kennedy’s perception of the ‘sameness’ of the photographs of the four artists associated with Pinacotheca is an accurate insight into their conceptualist concerns at that time: to conceal identity or an individualistic ‘touch’, to use the camera as an automation system.

43      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 1 Dec. 1972. Rooney later sent Holden Park II, 1970, to complete the work already in Cutforth’s possession.

44      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 31 July 1972.

45      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 1 Dec. 1972.

46      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 4 March 1973.

47      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 12 Nov. 1974. The alternative version of Noon time-piece (April), 1969, that Cutforth mentions was the second version he made of the work, exhibited in Information, MoMA, 1970, and in other American and European shows.  It was destroyed in a studio fire in 1986, leaving Rooney’s acquisition as the sole copy.

48      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 30 Aug. 1971.

49      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 21 Dec. 1971.

50      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 28 Sept. 1972.

51      Cutforth, letter to Rooney, 6 June 1978.