Installation of Two Decades of American Painting showing Andy Warhol’s Jackie 1964
© Andy Warhol/ARS, New York. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Introduction

The subject of this essay is one of the most important travelling exhibitions ever to arrive in Australia, Two Decades of American Painting (henceforth, Two Decades), a large exhibition of postwar New York School paintings, many of which were indisputable masterpieces, coordinated and curated by the International Program of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.1Two Decades of American Painting, curated by Waldo Rasmussen for the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art and the US Information Service (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1967); the International Program, sponsored by MoMA’s International Council, was to all intents and purposes autonomous from the Museum of Modern Art’s own exhibition programs and the director of the program, Waldo Rasmussen, was curator of this exhibition, though not of most exhibitions from the International Program. Rasmussen was not, effectively, a MoMA curator. Such structures are echoed within large Australian state galleries, within which, for example, state regional touring exhibition agencies often find office-space and mailboxes. The work of influential curators such as John Stringer and Daniel Thomas, and of key museum directors such as James Mollison and Tom McCullough, needs proper study by art historians; for a start on this, see Anne Sanders’ exemplary, unpublished PhD thesis, The Mildura Sculpture Triennials 1961-1978: An Interpretive History, Australian National University, Canberra, 2010. During 1967 the exhibition toured to two Australian cities, first to Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and then to Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), at the end of an itinerary that had comprised Kyoto in Japan and New Delhi in India.

The influence of this exhibition is indisputable. All artists and students active in Australia during the late 1960s remember visiting the show.2Other writers, notably Heathcote, have focused on the overall context of the late 1960s already (see Christopher Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution: The Rise of Australian Art, 1946–1968, Text, Melbourne, 1995). It remains, for most, an indelible memory. Two Decades was one of the two major international exhibitions of contemporary art in the history of Australian art; the other, French and British Contemporary Art, was presented in 1939 at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide, the Melbourne Town Hall in Melbourne and David Jones’ Art Gallery in Sydney.

The influence of Two Decades was enormous in terms of the public appreciation for what was then contemporary art. But the works appeared belatedly, most of them too late to genuinely have an influence on advanced Australian artists’ practices, except at the level of measuring size and ambition; for the world had already moved on, well beyond Abstract Expressionism and almost beyond Pop art. Even so, the minimalist muteness of both Ad Reinhardt’s notoriously blank ‘black squares’ and Andy Warhol’s soup cans still carried considerable incendiary charge, offending conservative artists and public alike. Above all, this was a watershed event at the end of one idea of Australian art and the start of another, and thus the exhibition’s reception and aftermath, including the art criticism it attracted and the shifts in touring exhibitions it announced, deserves a full account.

 

Two Decades was the result, unfashionable though it might seem to downplay covert hegemonic force, of the agency of cosmopolitan, internationalist individuals: NGV director Eric Westbrook and his exhibitions officer, John Stringer, and at the AGNSW, an energetic young curator, Daniel Thomas. Without them, this exhibition would not have been seen, and this essay will therefore underline their contributions and highlight the then-positive role of art critics in the reception of new art.

One year later, in 1968, the NGV followed up Two Decades, inaugurating its new premises in St Kilda Road with The Field, an exhibition of contemporary Australian art curated by John Stringer and Brian Finemore, consisting almost exclusively of colour-field and hard-edge painting and sculpture, but also including a cryptic early glimpse of conceptual art. Soon afterwards the NGV made a few adventurous purchases — including an important Donald Judd aluminium and perspex cube, Untitled, 1969–71, which was purchased in 1974. That year MoMA’s International Program had sent another substantial exhibition of American contemporary art, Some Recent American Art, 1974, to Australia, a survey of minimalism, process art and conceptual art assembled by MoMA’s influential and progressive curator, Jennifer Licht. This was a particularly challenging exhibition and an ideal follow-up to Two Decades.3Some Recent American Art was able to tour in Australia because of 1972 upgrades to the AGNSW building, for the much-improved quality of this and other Australian state art museum buildings was one key reason that MoMA offered the exhibition to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Another factor was the assistance of the newly created federal agency, the Australia Council for the Arts, which brought many important American artists, including famous minimalist Donald Judd, to each of the three venues. AGSA even commissioned a site-specific, outdoor, concrete sculpture of great significance from Judd. For a detailed account of Judd’s concrete sculpture at AGSA, see James Lawrence, ‘Don Judd’s works in concrete’, Chinati Foundation Newsletter (Marfa, Texas), vol. 15, October 2010, pp. 4–15.

Two Decades and its Cold War context

One explanation of the genesis of Two Decades could be to acknowledge its Cold War date – the mid 1960s – and to then adapt the Marxist art-historical narrative of American cultural imperialism and Cold War geopolitical domination, one hinted at in Ian Burn and his associates’ The Necessity of Australian Art (1988), presaged overseas in Kozloff’s (1975) and Guilbaut’s (1982) studies and, more recently, reinforced by studies that have forensically traced the CIA’s involvement with US cultural programs overseas, including that of the International Program.4See Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether & Ann Stephen, The Necessity of Australian Art: An Essay About Interpretation, Power Publications, Sydney, 1988; Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983; Max Kozloff, ‘American painting during the Cold War’, Artforum, May 1973, in Kozloff, Cultivated Impasses: Writings on Modern Art, Marsilio, New York, 2000, pp. 220–49; this was a revised version of the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition Twenty-five Years of American Painting 1948–1973 (curator, James T. Demetrion, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines 1973); Eva Cockcroft, ‘Abstract Expressionism, weapon of the Cold War’, Artforum, vol. 15, no. 10, June 1974, pp. 39–41; Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Granta, London, 1999. The reception of Two Decades would, as well, have been inflected by the broader political and social context of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, worldwide anti-American feeling of the 1960s, as well as the emerging protests against Australia’s longstanding conservative state and federal governments. But in this case such explanations would be incorrect, even though during the 1950s and early 1960s the US Information Service (USIS, which was part-coordinator of Two Decades) and MoMA’s International Council were indisputably linked to CIA personnel through cultural sponsorship aimed at projecting the prestige and power of American art.5See Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?, which traces this history in considerable detail.

However, this sponsorship had trailed off by the time of Two Decades, and the USIS had little involvement, though it had managed the small exhibitions prepared by MoMA’s International Council that had arrived in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, and these earlier exhibitions were far too humble to overwhelm home-grown culture; even the British Council was more effective in projecting national prestige into Australia. So, against the grain of recent scholarship’s consensus and many present-day Australians’ assumptions that there must have been covert money behind Two Decades, it should be remembered that it was Australians who proposed the exhibition travel to Australia and then largely paid for it. MoMA officials and others went to great lengths to extend the itinerary of Two Decades, but only after persistent and intense lobbying by representatives of the NGV and AGNSW, notably by John Stringer, who was based temporarily at MoMA on a work placement in 1966, and by Daniel Thomas, who Waldo Rasmussen consulted in 1966 when Thomas was passing through New York; later, Thomas kept AGNSW director Hal Missingham enthused about the show. 

Seeking cash for culture

Australia needed to find the money to pay for the tour. It is clear that MoMA primarily wished to send the exhibition to Japan and India, and in the context of the mid 1960s it is obvious that there were powerful strategic and foreign-policy reasons why American cultural diplomacy to those nations rather than to Australia mattered, given the attempts from the Kennedy presidency on  attempting to forge a closer relationship with India (the Russia-leaning leader of the non-aligned nations) and, given the considerable anti-American feeling in America’s closest East Asian ally, Japan. But even in India and Japan, both of which were more important to the US than Australia, local agencies had to find considerable money to cover costs. Financial negotiations of this kind were and are normal among art museums. So, it is far from clear that Australia mattered enough – based on the correspondence between MoMA and American and Australian government agencies – for the Americans to have registered any pressing need to be involved in the expense of such costly cultural projection. Australia was, after all, willingly involved in Vietnam already (an Australian battalion had been sent in 1965). Australians would have to pay for the exhibition and, when that seemed doubtful,6Australia’s Commonwealth Art Advisory Board was as uninterested as the conservative Federal Government, and the much more cosmopolitan Australia Council did not yet exist. Harold Mertz, an American who had recently formed a collection of contemporary Australian art to tour the United States, came to the philanthropic rescue. The show arrived more by lucky accident, individual persistence, newly available capabilities for airfreight and traditional American philanthropy than by American politico-cultural design.

MoMA already had connections with Australia. A Sidney Nolan painting, After Glenrowan Siege, 1955, was in the permanent collection. MoMA’s International Program – largely detached from the Museum’s principal curatorial activities – had begun in 1952, touring a series of exhibitions around the world, including to Australia. The program was strengthened from 1957 by sponsorship from the International Council.7The International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, American co-sponsor of the exhibition with the US Information Service, was a non-profit organisation consisting at that time of 145 invited patrons from the United States and eleven from foreign countries. It sponsored MoMA abroad from 1957 onwards (for further information, see Saunders). Maie Casey, who was to open Two Decades in Melbourne, had become a MoMA International Council member well before Two Decades; her frequent contacts with MoMA dated from the tenure of her husband, Richard Casey, as head of the Australian Embassy in Washington DC in the 1940s.8After the great success of Two Decades, Waldo Rasmussen suggested that the International Council invite a small number of prominent Australians onto the council, eventually including Sandra McGrath, Penelope Seidler, Ann Lewis, James Fairfax. John Kaldor and Patricia Guest. Much later, Melbourne collectors Marc and Eva Besen became members. Seven shows had already been sent to Australia through MoMA’s Circulating Exhibitions Program, including the famous Edward Steichen-curated photography exhibition, The Family of Man, 1959, Visionary Architecture (to Sydney and Brisbane, 1962), Abstract Watercolours by Fourteen Americans (to Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Perth, 1965–66), Jacques Lipchitz: Bronze Sculptures, 1912–62 (to Melbourne, 1965) and Architecture without Architects (to Launceston, Hobart, Adelaide and Sydney, 1966).

An exhibition that almost did not happen

Waldo Rasmussen, the executive director of circulating exhibitions at MoMA, responded to a letter from Pamela Warrender, chairman of the small, precariously funded and penurious Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia (MoMADA) that John Reed had established in Melbourne, in which he described to her an exhibition ‘tentatively titled Two Decades of American Painting’.9Waldo Rasmussen, letter to Mrs Simon [Pamela] Warrender, 11 May 1966, NGV archive. Rasmussen was executive director of circulating exhibitions, MoMA. The planning for the exhibition was already well advanced and Rasmussen was able to say there would be about one hundred paintings and included a list of thirty-five artists. It consisted of some key works from MoMA’s own collection but comprised a larger number carefully gathered from other American art museums, a range of excellent private collections, art dealers and directly from the artists. Many important works were, discreetly, available for sale – MoMA would put potential collectors or art museums in touch with dealers – for, in retrospect, extraordinarily low prices. The show was to travel to Kyoto, Japan, in October 1966 and New Delhi, India, until April 1967. It might conceivably be available to open in Melbourne on 1 June 1967. Rasmussen’s letter detailed the costings and obligations of hosting the exhibition. He was very helpful, simultaneously writing to the American Embassy in Canberra and to the US Department of State, requesting sponsorship of the exhibition in Australia even though he was not clear about where and what the Museum of Modern Art and Design was.10See Rasmussen, letter to Susan S. Parrish (officer-in-charge, Australian Affairs, US Department of State), 16 May 1966, NGV archive. In this letter Rasmussen believes that MoMADA is in Canberra.

Meanwhile, Pamela Warrender wrote a letter to the NGV to investigate the possibility of housing the exhibition, suggesting the NGV donate space, staff and resources to MoMADA for the show, and even collect and transfer to them the money from admissions and catalogue sales.11See Pamela Warrender, letter to Eric Westbrook, 23 July 1966, NGV archive, in which she asks the NGV to provide the space and staffing for the exhibition while requesting that the trustees of MoMADA be allowed to charge admission and sell exhibition catalogues. By the time Rasmussen wrote to Stringer at the NGV, he realised that MoMADA was not in any position to host the exhibition, and that the only practical option for sending it to Melbourne was to deal with Victoria’s principal state art museum, the NGV. 

 

New York connections

When John Stringer visited New York in 1964, Australian expatriate artist Clement Meadmore had introduced him to the famous New York School artist Barnett Newman, who in turn introduced Stringer to Rasmussen. This greatly facilitated the offer of Two Decades to the NGV. As yet, however, Rasmussen had not had any formal expression of interest from the NGV.12See Eric Westbrook, letter to Waldo Rasmussen, 5 August 1966, NGV archive. Westbrook reported that the NGV trustees were excited at the prospect of the exhibition visiting and felt that they must assume responsibility. Rasmussen began his letter by saying that he had met and spoken to Daniel Thomas, a curator at AGNSW, then visiting New York, who hoped that Two Decades could also go to Sydney. He told Stringer that the exhibition could go to both Sydney and Melbourne only if it travelled from India or Japan by air, rather than by sea, because of the time constraints of loan agreements; many paintings were on loan from private collectors. The problem was further compounded because some of the paintings were so large that they might not fit in commercial aircraft and might need to be shipped in military aircraft. It was clear that the exhibition needed the endorsement of both the US and Australian governments. Eric Westbrook replied enthusiastically on 5 August 1966, pointing out that MoMADA no longer had ‘any real existence’ and would be completely unable to host a show.13Westbrook, letter, 5 August 1966. He added that the NGV would need government assistance from the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board to meet the cost; this would be more likely to be forthcoming if the show also travelled to Sydney. His solution to the time constraint was to suggest that the Americans bring the exhibition straight to Australia from Japan, omitting the Indian venue.

Mertz to the rescue

From here on negotiations took a far less tentative note as arrangements for the exhibition dates quickly firmed up. The sticking point remained the cost of transport. While all the governments concerned agreed that Two Decades was an excellent exhibition and more than welcome in their respective countries, they would not pay for the transport of the paintings. The problem was compounded because sending the exhibition to Sydney after its Melbourne showing would extend the loan of works well beyond the agreed period. Some lenders agreed to the extension but many did not. Waldo Rasmussen had to negotiate loan extensions and new replacement works, plus the shipping of these works to and onwards from Sydney. The AGNSW director, Hal Missingham, was reluctant to agree to take the exhibition with replacement works, especially when their cost was unknown. The logjam was broken in December 1966 when, as mentioned, Harold Mertz offered to underwrite this cost from his Mertz Art Fund.14See Harold Mertz, letter to Edick Anderson (cultural attaché, US Embassy, Canberra), December 1966, NGV archive.

Although there were to be squabbles about the discrepancy between the numbers of days the exhibition was shown in Sydney compared to Melbourne, and disagreements about other, similarly petty issues, the major negotiations had been completed. The correspondence about the exhibition shows that Missingham had been his often-cranky self when it came to managerial details, neatly summed up in his telegram to John Stringer: ‘Convinced all Yanks useless’.15Hal Missingham, telegram to John Stringer, 2 May 1967, NGV archive. The more cosmopolitan Westbrook had seized the offered opportunity, a decision consistent with his entrepreneurial directorship throughout his tenure at the NGV, as Heathcote has accurately chronicled.16See Gerry Manning, ‘Telling a mod picture from a hole in the ground’, Australian, 22 July 1967, p. 7; our research confirms Westbrook’s generally supportive attitude to avant-garde art circles in Melbourne; though enthusiastic about showing the conservative strand of contemporary art and as Anglophile as Westbrook, Missingham was simply less interested in art of the kind shown in Two Decades; he also had a smaller exhibitions and acquisitions budget and, until 1972, the AGNSW exhibition spaces compared poorly with the splendid new NGV premises. (For Heathcote, see n. 2.)

The problems and expense of Two Decades were caused by the logistics of transporting one hundred paintings from New York to Kyoto, New Delhi, Melbourne, Sydney and then back to New York within a tight schedule, all of which was necessary if the pictures were to be returned within their loan period. The largest painting was almost three and a half metres by seven metres and some were approximately four and a half metres square. They were thought far too large for normal commercial airfreight, which was why Rasmussen sought military aircraft to transport the paintings but the cost was too high. They were eventually shipped by sea from India to Melbourne and by Qantas flights from Sydney back to the US. No paintings were damaged until they reached India where the galleries of the Lalit Kala Akademi proved to be less than ideal.17Franz Kline’s Siegfried fell off the wall; it was too large to be flown back to New York and had to be sent on to Australia with the other paintings. Adolph Gottlieb’s Pentaloid, number 2 and Ellsworth Kelly’s Orange blue 1, were both damaged by bird droppings inside the gallery. Finally, a crate containing paintings was damaged during loading onto the ocean liner Oronsay in India for transportation to Melbourne. Rasmussen sent detailed instructions to Stringer about the handling of the paintings in a letter dated 19 May.18See Rasmussen, letter to Stringer, 19 May 1967, NGV archive. But there was more to come. When the exhibition was in transit back to New York from Sydney, crates containing three paintings were left out in tropical Brisbane rain and heat by airfreight handlers. The damage included irreparable harm to Larry Poons’s delicate Richmond ruckus, 1964, (‘Dear God, not the Poons!’ wrote Stringer when he was informed of the catastrophe).19Stringer, letter to Rasmussen, 27 October 1967, NGV archive.

 

Two Decades opens: shock, awe and art criticism

The exhibition was opened in Melbourne with great pomp and ceremony on 6 June 1967 by the Governor-General’s wife, Lady Casey . It was elegantly installed in the classically proportioned galleries of the building on Swanston Street usually occupied by the NGV’s permanent collection, which had been moved out for the occasion. The grand nineteenth-century spaces suited the paintings perfectly. There were the expected howls of philistine protest in Letters to the Editor of the city’s newspapers, including, ‘Those art critics who pretend to rave over this collection are merely spinning elaborate phrases in describing something without meaning’.20Athel Ride (Mentone), ‘Letter to the Editor’, Age, 13 June 1967, p. 5. The young critic Patrick McCaughey wrote two impassioned, deeply complimentary reviews for The Age, as did the ubiquitous Daniel Thomas for The Sydney Morning Herald. John Henshaw and Ronald Millar published more equivocal but generally approving reviews.21Patrick McCaughey, ‘Great American moderns’, Age, 10 June 1967, p. 24 and ‘Yanks, go home?’, 20 June 1967, p. 4; John Henshaw, ‘A second look at the art of a new world’, Australian, 29 July 1967, p. 11; Ronald Millar, ‘American art comes to town’, Australian Student, vol. 3, no. 6, July 1967, p. 10.

In an article published two days before the exhibition opened in Sydney, Daniel Thomas declared Two Decades ‘the most important exhibition ever seen in Australia’, commenting on the ‘enthusiasm and awe’ among the ‘fantastic traffic jams’ of people who had seen the exhibition in Melbourne. His essay is worth analysing since it communicates well the impact of the paintings in Two Decades.22Daniel Thomas, ‘Australia’s most important exhibition’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1967, AGNSW archive. He stressed that American art of the past twenty years had been the ‘best new art’. He dismissed the criticisms that had been made of the paintings in Melbourne by the general public, conservative critics and artists; they were ‘cranky’, belonging to the ‘modern-art-is-all-a-hoax-and-a-conspiracy kind’. He then addressed the main cause of complaint, three extraordinarily austere, almost blank, black-on-black paintings by Ad Reinhardt: Abstract painting, 1960, Abstract painting, 1962, and Abstract painting, 1963. These were the most challenging, reductive works in the show, and the ones most resonant with young artists but most offensive to members of the public. They were typical of Reinhardt’s late minimalist paintings, in which he subdivided monochrome surfaces into a few subliminally close-hued and close-toned squares. 

Reinhardt eludes the hasty beholder

Thomas suggested his readers contemplate Reinhardt’s paintings themselves to discover what was transparently there to behold. He managed to convey the idea that the reader would be far too informed about contemporary art to fall into the trap of a mere ‘quick glance’. The hasty viewer would miss out on the true significance of these and all the paintings in the show, which was the ‘subtlety and fineness of the originals’. He emphasised the sheer size and presence of the works – this was a shock to local audiences – and their grandeur and aloofness; these were qualities superficially at odds with his previous point, but they were directly linked to their avant-garde nature, to the ‘radical development’ of a ‘large yet intimate picture’.

Again – and most perceptively, far more than any other reviewer of the time – Thomas emphasised the new role of the beholder. These paintings, he wrote, must be ‘experienced in the original’ (rather than seen in photographs) to be properly appreciated. In summing up, Thomas noted how important this exhibition was for local painters, expecting that its effect ‘should not be evident for several years but it will surely be great’. Thomas’s essay was clever and not at all didactic, introducing ideas as if they were something already known but perhaps forgotten. The style was to be was typical of Thomas’s prose over his long career for the next few decades, presenting a deceptively populist argument in support of a challenging exhibition without being the least bit defensive or aggressive. Communicating to both casual viewer and specialist art audience, it typified what was to be Thomas’s place in the literature on contemporary Australian art: building a wider community rather than seeking to intervene directly.

Daniel Thomas’s hopes for the far-reaching benefits the show might have for painting in Australia were anachronistic. Since the works belonged to the recent but rapidly receding past, they were ultimately irrelevant in the creation or diffusion of new art. But his essay must be placed in context to recreate the short-lived positive place of art criticism during the later 1960s and early 1970s in the reception of art new to Australia, of art such as that contained in Two Decades, and its advocacy of a new idea of Australian art. The dominant strain in mainstream art criticism after that time, from the 1980s, was quite different. But the role we have outlined in order to communicate the impact of the art in Two Decades was typical of Thomas’s place in the recent history of Australian writing on art as the only significant writer predominantly and primarily concerned with communicating to a broad general public who was committed to new art rather than to being its reactionary opponent. Art curators and art historians (often the former have displaced the latter, who have no necessary or genuine commitment to a wide audience) rather than art critics have been the Australian champions of new art; and art history has been more often produced by curators such as Thomas (including in their pervasive outputs as critics in exhibition catalogues and art magazines) rather than academics. As such, and with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian art and empathy with living artists, Thomas’s writing was self-consciously that of an audience-building curator working as an art critic; the differentiations are important since they changed soon after Two Decades with large consequences for curators, art critics and art historians.23Thomas was well aware of the increasingly fragile place of the art history discipline in Australia, but also of the arbitrary nature of its ownership and production: was it to be made by curators or art historians, for whom; and who would be interested in its detailed narrative? (see Daniel Thomas, ‘Art history for artists or for others?’, Artlink, vol. 26, no.1, 2006, pp. 23–7.

Bargains of the century

The Reinhardt’s that Thomas wrote about were not for sale, but no Australian museum would have been brave enough to consider acquiring them or any of the more radical large paintings: not Warhol’s great Electric chairs, 1964, which could have been acquired for US$6065; not Kline’s masterpiece, Shenandoah Wall, 1961, forbiddingly priced at $100,000; not Ellsworth Kelly’s Orange blue 1, 1965, $3200; nor Alex Katz’s then little-known oversized paintings of heads, for instance Smile again, 1965, $3560. In the end, the NGV and the AGNSW both acquired fairly safe paintings: the NGV purchased a small and jewel-like yellow Josef Albers, Homage to the square, 1966; AGNSW bought a similarly low-priced Albers, a yellow Homage to the square, 1966, from the artist’s extensive series. The NGV also acquired a large, beautiful and important, but relatively conservative, landscape-like abstraction by second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, Cape (Provincetown), 1964; the AGNSW bought Morris Louis’s austere but safely classic abstraction, Ayin, 1958. Louis’s and Frankenthaler’s stained paintings on unprimed cotton canvas had been the bridge to newer colour-field painters, and Clement Greenberg had championed both artists’ works. Besides well-known masterpieces by Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and Andy Warhol, there was a major painting by the then scarcely known Cy Twombly. Rasmussen had to lobby very hard for the inclusion of these now celebrated works.24The ever-prescient Thomas tried to interest AGNSW in more ambitious purchases and found out from Rasmussen that many more major works than he previously thought were potentially available, but he was not able to act on this. Interest from private collectors was almost non-existent, though architect Harry Seidler purchased for himself an Albers’s Homage to the square (1966).

Precursor of the blockbuster tradition

Crowds queued in Melbourne winter rain and the NGV extended its opening hours, as it was to do decades later with its blockbuster exhibitions in the early years of the twenty-first century. A simultaneous exhibition of Rodin sculptures was also attracting large crowds, as catalogue sales of 2467 for Two Decades and 2653 of Rodin and his Contemporaries attested (though the Two Decades catalogue cost $1 and Rodin cost 30¢). Two Decades attracted a staggering number of visitors (115,000 visitors in Sydney alone), but numbers consistent with the success of later imported blockbuster shows of modern and contemporary art, a sequence that was to continue from 1975 onwards.

The next show in the series was Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse, also a product of MoMA’s International Program, but one now tailored to the Australian box-office formula of Melbourne plus Sydney, given that both had gained state-of-the-art exhibition spaces.25See Thomas, letter to Rasmussen, 4 September 1967, AGNSW archive. Modern Masters bookended Two Decades late modernist painting with great masterpieces from earlier phases of modernism, just as Some Recent American Art in 1974, the far more challenging exhibition of art made after the end of modernism, had been a follow-up to Two Decades. Crowd-pleasing blockbusters such as Modern Masters have come to dominate programs at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and at state art galleries in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, culminating at the NGV with the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces mega-exhibitions and, most spectacularly, with the round-the-clock visitor fever associated with the NGV’s 2009 exhibition Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire.26In 1975, in a series of public seminars in Melbourne and Adelaide, Modern Masters was pilloried by a group of young critics and artists – members of an Australian chapter of the New York conceptualist collective Art & Language – for its cultural colonialism. Though MoMA itself was increasingly detached from contemporary art, the succession of exhibitions that reached Australia from the museum’s International Program – from Two Decades, 1967, Surrealism, 1972, Some Recent American Art, 1974, to Modern Masters, 1975 – gave Australian audiences unprecedented access to major works of hitherto unseen international art. The curatorial ambition and innovation – the contribution to knowledge that such blockbusters were to embody, with rare exceptions such as the Dalí show – was fairly passive and negligible, consisting primarily of a celebratory package with little genuine reassessment or local input. Unlike MoMA’s 1975 Modern Masters, such exhibitions often showcased a single collection, available during a period when an institution was closed, perhaps for renovation.

Nothing new to write or say

Two Decades was the continuation of MoMA’s earlier tradition of impeccably and knowingly selected touring exhibitions, painstakingly assembled in this case from many well-known and important lenders. Two Decades was not merely part of a collection exported during an institution’s downtime; it was a substantial exhibition, but even so, contained no new thesis about its art. The catalogue allocated a double-page spread for each artist, consisting of illustrations facing a checklist and a short biography. There were three short essays. The first, by young art historian Irving Sandler, foreshadowed the tone of his landmark book The Triumph of American Painting, which was to be published a mere three years later.27Irving Sandler, Abstract Expressionism: The Triumph of American Painting, Pall Mall, London, 1970. It concentrated on Abstract Expressionists and colour-field painters, enthusiastically echoing the then virtually hegemonic taste of New York art critic Clement Greenberg. Through Rasmussen, Greenberg offered to come out to Australia for a speaking tour to be associated with the exhibition, but his demands for a first-class air ticket and considerable fees far exceeded the Australians’ budgets and he was turned down. A year later, Professor Bernard Smith, just appointed at Sydney University to head the new Power Institute, Australia’s second university art-history department, was to host Greenberg, who in turn presented the first Power Lecture, repeating it in Melbourne. The second essay was by Lucy Lippard, later to become a pioneering promoter of feminist and post-minimalist art. Her focus was on the rather restrained minimalist component of the exhibition, represented by Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella; since it was an exhibition of paintings, there was of course nothing by minimalist sculptors Donald Judd or Dan Flavin, nor anything by any of the other, already famous, more conceptual minimalists such as Carl Andre or Sol LeWitt, all of whom were featured in the follow-up exhibition of recent American art, already mentioned, sent to Australia in 1974. A veteran exhibition director and curator, and far from conservative in his own artistic tastes and knowledge, Waldo Rasmussen was to continue in his position at MoMA with international exhibitions for many years more, well into the 1990s. He was to direct the US participation with Robert Ryman, Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt in the 1970 Delhi Triennial, at which Robert Hunter represented Australia and where Hunter met Andre. The two were to become good friends. The third essay for Two Decades, principally on Pop artists James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg, was by maverick critic Gene Swenson, a tireless promoter of Pop art who had been working freelance at MoMA for a couple of years on special exhibitions. He was about to take up a lonely daily picket and protest outside MoMA, accusing the institution of ignoring social and political inequity, and he would then become closely connected with the notorious Art Workers Coalition (AWC).

Aftermath

Waldo Rasmussen flew to Australia for the Melbourne opening and then travelled to Sydney. He wanted to collect an archive of Australian art for MoMA’s great reference library and was also interested in acquiring paintings for the collection. In Melbourne John Stringer took Rasmussen to visit several artists, most of whom were soon to be associated with dealer Bruce Pollard’s gallery, Pinacotheca. Through Stringer, Rasmussen was able to see Trevor Vickers’s and Paul Partos’s impressive, early minimalist works in their inner-city studios. In Sydney Daniel Thomas took Rasmussen to visit several Sydney galleries – notably Central Street Gallery – and artists’ studios. They spent three days looking at paintings, sculptures and architecture across the city and its inner suburbs. These artists were to feature in Finemore and Stringer’s exhibition, The Field, the following year. Their austere aesthetic, beginning to incorporate shaped and modular formats, already diverged from the works in Two Decades.

Though letters between the energetic Stringer and the indefatigable Rasmussen show that these visits were very stimulating and that the American curator was deeply impressed, the outcomes did not add up to much – except perhaps for Stringer, who was to move to New York in 1970 to take up a position at MoMA as Rasmussen’s assistant director at the International Program – because of the lack of Australian follow-up and the generally lackadaisical attitude of many Australian artists and their dealers, an indifference that would certainly not be the case nowadays. Rasmussen wrote:

I hasten to say, though, that I should put a ceiling on the price because I received an astonishingly high bill for one group of slides from Melbourne which made me realise I hadn’t been specific about what we could afford. We pay from $2 to $4 per slide here.28Rasmussen, letter to Thomas, 21 September 1967, AGNSW archive.

This ‘astonishingly high bill for slides’ seems inexplicable today. Adjusted for inflation, a US$4 price tag for a duplicate slide in 1967 is equivalent to more than US$25 today, or at least A$30 per slide.29If Rasmussen had received an astonishingly high bill for slides from Australia, more than US$4, the mind boggles at what these people were charging. At the very least, unprofessionalism aside, this is evidence of the profound shift from artist to curator over the past thirty years. Nobody would now charge a curator for anything, whether the destination was a rich library or not, no matter how tight a dealer’s budget. Artists and galleries have become used to sending information and images free of charge to curators, who are more likely to receive swathes of slides, books and information unsolicited. But if, surprisingly, some galleries and artists apparently tried to profiteer from the sale of slides to MoMA, then others seemed reluctant to send them at all. Rasmussen wrote to John Stringer in Melbourne and Daniel Thomas in Sydney in October, nearly five months after his June visit, asking for these slides:

I’m anxious to report to a curatorial committee in the museum on work by Australian artists in the early part of November, and I still haven’t received any from Sweeney Reed of [Col] Jordan, [Ken] Reinhard and [Sydney] Ball, nor gotten any from Robert Jacks … I’m afraid my report will lose its point if I can’t show the material soon.30Rasmussen, letter to Stringer, 23 October 1967, NGV archive.

This, in turn, leads us to ask if confident predictions about the influence of Two Decades were realised? John Stringer’s perhaps unexpected recollection of the exhibition’s impact, as he raced through his studio visits and selection for the landmark NGV exhibition The Field during the following year, is worth quoting at length:

While the more informed were generally impressed and very supportive of the exhibition, far more significantly, the young found they had an unprecedented opportunity to pass judgement on the entire preceding generation of painters. Though not without admiration, the vanguard quickly concurred that abstract expressionism had already run its course. It was equally apparent that the abrasive commercialism of pop art was being eclipsed by the more disciplined, cool, pure and restrained formalism of minimal art. In terms of timing it could not have been better for those already on the path of abstraction but bewildered by the alternatives. The path was clear.31Stringer, manuscript, later published as ‘Cultivating the field’, in Charles Green (ed.), Fieldwork: Australian Art 1968–2002, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2002, p. 18.

In a review of Two Decades, Patrick McCaughey wrote:

Once again Melbourne has been dragged screaming into the 20th century. The hostile, even contemptuous, reactions to the exhibitions of Two Decades of American Painting at the National Gallery [of Victoria] show just how insular a view of contemporary art many people carry around with them.32Patrick McCaughey, ‘Yanks, go home?’.

McCaughey was clearly driven as much by the hostile response of many local writers and artists as by any public reaction, and almost certainly at the back of his mind was incredulity at the possibility of a reprise of the public scandal of the 1939 French and British Contemporary Art exhibition in Melbourne and the desire to de-fang any revival of a home-grown artistic xenophobia.33For example, see Lionel Lindsay, Addled Art, Angus & Robertson, Sydney. 1942.

Conclusion

Two Decades was an exhibition important for what its reception demonstrated: Australian art had arrived at a watershed. This is why people remember the exhibition with such intensity. One world was fading and another had arrived and come into focus. Making and understanding Australian art as regional art – landscape or Antipodean-style allegorical figuration – was exhausted and now reactionary. Conservative critics such as Alan McCulloch and artists such as Noel Counihan (who deplored the ‘dehumanised values’ of Two Decades), social realists Herbert McClintock (‘It is contempt. Contempt for the cultural achievements of mankind’) and Rod Shaw (‘I find it disturbing to see human beings gazing at Reinhardt’s black squares with reverence and awe, as if a prophet had emerged’) or neo-Romantic Francis Lymburner (‘Utterly boring. Complete rubbish … I think it has no relevance whatever for Australian art’) lamented the absence of a recognisable sympathetic humanism in Reinhardt, D’Arcangelo, Rosenquist, Larry Rivers or Alex Katz, but they failed to see that the superficially distinctive, supposedly recurring landscape–figure theme of Boyd and Nolan represented only one stream of Australian art history and this no longer compelled innovative artists.34See ‘The artists have a word for it’, Tribune, 2 August 1967. This failure, not philistinism, was why older artists and writers on art were so suspicious of the imaginary excesses of a great exhibition of already dated but indisputably epochal American painting. But, then again, the sombre humanism of Two Decades’ Abstract Expressionist and austerely tragic Pop art masterpieces – invisible to these older critics and artists – was itself already under attack from yet more advanced artists. Two Decades of American Painting was less a catalysing event for Australian art than – in its polarised reception – the demonstration of the passing of the idea of Australian art itself and thus a watershed moment.

Charles Green, Associate Professor, School of Culture and Communications, University of Melbourne; and Heather Barker, independent scholar (in 2011).

Notes
The present writers owe Daniel Thomas a considerable debt for his careful reading of our manuscript; with typical modesty, he did not agree with our foregrounding of his key contributions.

1      Two Decades of American Painting, curated by Waldo Rasmussen for the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art and the US Information Service (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1967); the International Program, sponsored by MoMA’s International Council, was to all intents and purposes autonomous from the Museum of Modern Art’s own exhibition programs and the director of the program, Waldo Rasmussen, was curator of this exhibition, though not of most exhibitions from the International Program. Rasmussen was not, effectively, a MoMA curator. Such structures are echoed within large Australian state galleries, within which, for example, state regional touring exhibition agencies often find office-space and mailboxes. The work of influential curators such as John Stringer and Daniel Thomas, and of key museum directors such as James Mollison and Tom McCullough, needs proper study by art historians; for a start on this, see Anne Sanders’ exemplary, unpublished PhD thesis, The Mildura Sculpture Triennials 1961-1978: An Interpretive History, Australian National University, Canberra, 2010.

2      Other writers, notably Heathcote, have focused on the overall context of the late 1960s already (see Christopher Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution: The Rise of Australian Art, 1946–1968, Text, Melbourne, 1995).

3      Some Recent American Art was able to tour in Australia because of 1972 upgrades to the AGNSW building, for the much-improved quality of this and other Australian state art museum buildings was one key reason that MoMA offered the exhibition to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Another factor was the assistance of the newly created federal agency, the Australia Council for the Arts, which brought many important American artists, including famous minimalist Donald Judd, to each of the three venues. AGSA even commissioned a site-specific, outdoor, concrete sculpture of great significance from Judd. For a detailed account of Judd’s concrete sculpture at AGSA, see James Lawrence, ‘Don Judd’s works in concrete’, Chinati Foundation Newsletter (Marfa, Texas), vol. 15, October 2010, pp. 4–15.

4      See Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether & Ann Stephen, The Necessity of Australian Art: An Essay About Interpretation, Power Publications, Sydney, 1988; Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983; Max Kozloff, ‘American painting during the Cold War’, Artforum, May 1973, in Kozloff, Cultivated Impasses: Writings on Modern Art, Marsilio, New York, 2000, pp. 220–49; this was a revised version of the introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition Twenty-five Years of American Painting 1948–1973 (curator, James T. Demetrion, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines 1973); Eva Cockcroft, ‘Abstract Expressionism, weapon of the Cold War’, Artforum, vol. 15, no. 10, June 1974, pp. 39–41; Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, Granta, London, 1999.

5      See Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?, which traces this history in considerable detail.

6      Australia’s Commonwealth Art Advisory Board was as uninterested as the conservative Federal Government, and the much more cosmopolitan Australia Council did not yet exist.

7      The International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, American co-sponsor of the exhibition with the US Information Service, was a non-profit organisation consisting at that time of 145 invited patrons from the United States and eleven from foreign countries. It sponsored MoMA abroad from 1957 onwards (for further information, see Saunders).

8      After the great success of Two Decades, Waldo Rasmussen suggested that the International Council invite a small number of prominent Australians onto the council, eventually including Sandra McGrath, Penelope Seidler, Ann Lewis, James Fairfax. John Kaldor and Patricia Guest. Much later, Melbourne collectors Marc and Eva Besen became members. Seven shows had already been sent to Australia through MoMA’s Circulating Exhibitions Program, including the famous Edward Steichen-curated photography exhibition, The Family of Man, 1959, Visionary Architecture (to Sydney and Brisbane, 1962), Abstract Watercolours by Fourteen Americans (to Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Perth, 1965–66), Jacques Lipchitz: Bronze Sculptures, 1912–62 (to Melbourne, 1965) and Architecture without Architects (to Launceston, Hobart, Adelaide and Sydney, 1966).

9      Waldo Rasmussen, letter to Mrs Simon [Pamela] Warrender, 11 May 1966, NGV archive. Rasmussen was executive director of circulating exhibitions, MoMA.

10      See Rasmussen, letter to Susan S. Parrish (officer-in-charge, Australian Affairs, US Department of State), 16 May 1966, NGV archive. In this letter Rasmussen believes that MoMADA is in Canberra.

11      See Pamela Warrender, letter to Eric Westbrook, 23 July 1966, NGV archive, in which she asks the NGV to provide the space and staffing for the exhibition while requesting that the trustees of MoMADA be allowed to charge admission and sell exhibition catalogues.

12      See Eric Westbrook, letter to Waldo Rasmussen, 5 August 1966, NGV archive. Westbrook reported that the NGV trustees were excited at the prospect of the exhibition visiting and felt that they must assume responsibility.

13      Westbrook, letter, 5 August 1966.

14      See Harold Mertz, letter to Edick Anderson (cultural attaché, US Embassy, Canberra), December 1966, NGV archive.

15      Hal Missingham, telegram to John Stringer, 2 May 1967, NGV archive.

16      See Gerry Manning, ‘Telling a mod picture from a hole in the ground’, Australian, 22 July 1967, p. 7; our research confirms Westbrook’s generally supportive attitude to avant-garde art circles in Melbourne; though enthusiastic about showing the conservative strand of contemporary art and as Anglophile as Westbrook, Missingham was simply less interested in art of the kind shown in Two Decades; he also had a smaller exhibitions and acquisitions budget and, until 1972, the AGNSW exhibition spaces compared poorly with the splendid new NGV premises. (For Heathcote, see n. 2.)

17      Franz Kline’s Siegfried fell off the wall; it was too large to be flown back to New York and had to be sent on to Australia with the other paintings. Adolph Gottlieb’s Pentaloid, number 2 and Ellsworth Kelly’s Orange blue 1, were both damaged by bird droppings inside the gallery. Finally, a crate containing paintings was damaged during loading onto the ocean liner Oronsay in India for transportation to Melbourne.

18      See Rasmussen, letter to Stringer, 19 May 1967, NGV archive.

19      Stringer, letter to Rasmussen, 27 October 1967, NGV archive.

20      Athel Ride (Mentone), ‘Letter to the Editor’, Age, 13 June 1967, p. 5.

21      Patrick McCaughey, ‘Great American moderns’, Age, 10 June 1967, p. 24 and ‘Yanks, go home?’, 20 June 1967, p. 4; John Henshaw, ‘A second look at the art of a new world’, Australian, 29 July 1967, p. 11; Ronald Millar, ‘American art comes to town’, Australian Student, vol. 3, no. 6, July 1967, p. 10.

22      Daniel Thomas, ‘Australia’s most important exhibition’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1967, AGNSW archive.

23      Thomas was well aware of the increasingly fragile place of the art history discipline in Australia, but also of the arbitrary nature of its ownership and production: was it to be made by curators or art historians, for whom; and who would be interested in its detailed narrative? (see Daniel Thomas, ‘Art history for artists or for others?’, Artlink, vol. 26, no.1, 2006, pp. 23–7.

24      The ever-prescient Thomas tried to interest AGNSW in more ambitious purchases and found out from Rasmussen that many more major works than he previously thought were potentially available, but he was not able to act on this. Interest from private collectors was almost non-existent, though architect Harry Seidler purchased for himself an Albers’s Homage to the square (1966).

25      See Thomas, letter to Rasmussen, 4 September 1967, AGNSW archive.

26      In 1975, in a series of public seminars in Melbourne and Adelaide, Modern Masters was pilloried by a group of young critics and artists – members of an Australian chapter of the New York conceptualist collective Art & Language – for its cultural colonialism. Though MoMA itself was increasingly detached from contemporary art, the succession of exhibitions that reached Australia from the museum’s International Program – from Two Decades, 1967, Surrealism, 1972, Some Recent American Art, 1974, to Modern Masters, 1975 – gave Australian audiences unprecedented access to major works of hitherto unseen international art.

27      Irving Sandler, Abstract Expressionism: The Triumph of American Painting, Pall Mall, London, 1970.

28      Rasmussen, letter to Thomas, 21 September 1967, AGNSW archive.

29      If Rasmussen had received an astonishingly high bill for slides from Australia, more than US$4, the mind boggles at what these people were charging. At the very least, unprofessionalism aside, this is evidence of the profound shift from artist to curator over the past thirty years. Nobody would now charge a curator for anything, whether the destination was a rich library or not, no matter how tight a dealer’s budget. Artists and galleries have become used to sending information and images free of charge to curators, who are more likely to receive swathes of slides, books and information unsolicited.

30      Rasmussen, letter to Stringer, 23 October 1967, NGV archive.

31      Stringer, manuscript, later published as ‘Cultivating the field’, in Charles Green (ed.), Fieldwork: Australian Art 1968–2002, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2002, p. 18.

32      Patrick McCaughey, ‘Yanks, go home?’.

33      For example, see Lionel Lindsay, Addled Art, Angus & Robertson, Sydney. 1942.

34      See ‘The artists have a word for it’, Tribune, 2 August 1967.