Untitled – yellow was included in the 1973 exhibition of Tony Tuckson’s recent paintings at Watters Gallery, Sydney. It was the second of only two solo exhibitions Tuckson held during his lifetime. Although he described himself as a ‘Sunday painter’ who only had time to work in the evenings, on weekends and holidays, Tuckson painted throughout much of his life and he drew almost constantly – his oeuvre consists of around four hundred and fifty paintings and more than ten thousand drawings. His reticence about exhibiting publicly came from his role at the Art Gallery of New South Wales where he was deputy director from 1957 until his death in 1973, and the conflict he perceived between this position and his art practice.
While Tuckson’s work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales restricted the time he had to make art and his willingness to exhibit, it also afforded him extraordinary firsthand access to the world of art. Through the gallery’s collection, international travelling exhibitions that were shown there and the visits to commercial exhibitions and artists’ studios undertaken in his professional capacity, Tuckson saw a lot of good art. He was also surrounded by like-minded and knowledgeable people who were always keen to talk about art. As his colleague at the time, Daniel Thomas, has noted, this environment was an important element in sustaining Tuckson’s passion for art-making, and his ability to do so around a job which demanded most of his time.
At their very core Tuckson’s late paintings are, put simply, paintings about painting. Minimal titles such as Untitled – yellow focus attention on the raw materiality of these works and their tactility is heightened by the masonite support which, unprimed, was already warped by the time of the 1973 exhibition. The scale of the panels Tuckson used in this painting demanded an intensely physical way of working and the broad brushstrokes of white paint over yellow, with splashes, smudges and dribbles of red, black, blue and grey speak of the frenetic energy of its creation.
In the years since Tony Tuckson’s death, the significance of his contribution to Australian art has been widely recognised. Exhibitions, the publication of a major monograph and the collecting of his art by public galleries and private individuals alike have acknowledged the quality, individuality and beauty of his work. As abstract paintings and drawings that are striking in their apparent simplicity – one can’t help but hear the familiar refrain, ‘A child could do it!’ when looking at them – it is the authenticity of Tuckson’s style that ultimately imbues his work with such authority. Critics writing about the 1973 Watters exhibition identified crudity, violence and wild energy in Tuckson’s work, and whether their assessment was positive or negative, all recognised his fundamental need to paint.
In his review of the exhibition, James Gleeson described the making of art as a kind of birth, involving labour, which some artists make great efforts to conceal. By contrast he wrote that Tuckson forces us ‘to feel the urgency of his need to paint and the anguish of the act that converts the need into a fact of paint … He lays it fairly and squarely on the line. Painting, he says, is hell, though not to paint is a still deeper level of hell. So he paints, desperately, defiantly and eventually triumphantly’ (Sun-Herald, 22 April 1973, p. 65).
Kirsty Grant, Senior Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).