MADA Artforum: In Memory of John Nixon
In this special Artforum, we discuss John Nixon’s work and contribution to artist run initiatives, curating and collaborative practices. Speakers include Kathy Temin, artist and Head of Monash Fine Art, Anna Schwartz, Director of Anna Schwartz Gallery, Amalia Lindo and Jacqueline Stojanovic, artists who assisted John Nixon in his studio, Max Delany, Director of ACCA, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and artist Rose Nolan.
– I acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners and elders past and present of the lands and waters on which Monash University operates. At MADA, we acknowledge Aboriginal connection to material and creative practice on these lands for more than 60,000 years and celebrate their enduring presence and knowledge.
Welcome to the Artforum in memory of John Nixon. I'm Kathy Temin, Head of Monash Fine Art. This Artforum is the space for an artist, architect or designer to talk about their practice. And as you will hear from the speakers, we wanted to celebrate what we have experienced and learned from John Nixon's practice and being in John's orbit. Given we cannot all be together because of COVID-19, we felt this was one of the things we could do at this time. John was our colleague and our friend and a committed educator and advocate for art-making. We're privileged at Monash Fine Art to have had John working with us, for the last 13 years. And he began working at Monash when Domenico de Clario was Head of Fine Art. John taught in the BVA and BFA courses and the Non-objective Abstraction Painting elective. John studied at the National Art School that became the VCA, and I welcome the students and staff from the VCA here, where John was an alumni. I especially welcome John's wife, Sue Cramer and his daughter Emma Nixon, who is also a recent Monash alumni of the Bachelor of Art History and Curating course and has worked in our faculty gallery. I welcome John's other friends and colleagues, as well as students who did not know John.
Since March 2020, John's exhibition Groups + Pairs, 2016-2020 has been on display at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne and due to the extensive lockdown and John's passing, the exhibition has been extended until December. Today, the order of events is that there are six people speaking about John and I greatly appreciate the speakers who are talking here today. Each person will introduce themselves and talk for five minutes and then introduce by name, the next speaker. I will begin talking and then Anna Schwartz, Amalia Lindo, Jacqueline Stojanovic, Max Delany and Rose Nolan. If you'd like to speak or say anything, please put it in the chat. And if there is time, we'll open this space up at the end. So I'm just going to begin, as my role as speaker.
I met John Nixon in 1986, when I was 18 years old. And he was one of my lecturers in the TOP, Tertiary Orientation Program at Victoria College, known as Prahran College. And he was the most direct of all of my teachers. He was also teaching with other artists that he was close to and they included Tony Clark, Jenny Watson, and the late Howard Arkley. One day John asked me to make a painting in 10 minutes. And I remember saying, "what do you mean 10 minutes?" I thought he was joking. And he said, "Just do it." So I did it. In that process, I felt liberated. In trying to do something different or a different way of working, that I had not considered before. And it was quick and direct. I was lucky enough to be in John's exhibitions or in exhibitions with John and participated in some of the projects that he generated, that included shows it's Store 5, which was the artist's run initiative that Melinda Harper, Gary Wilson and Kerrie Poliness initiated, between 1989 and 1993 that was located, in Maples Lane across the road from Prahran College, just off Chapel Street. Callum Morton studied alongside me and lived in one of the warehouses, where Store 5 was located and he introduced me to the group.
John was a mentor to Store 5 and the artist run initiative was this supportive space, to develop and show your work. And having an artist of an older generation gave a gravitas and an already made context, one that I did not understand at the time. The audience was broad because of John's connections and during that time I met Anna Schwartz and Max Delany and Rose Nolan, two of the other speakers, during this time. John was a supporter of the S.W.I.M, Support Women Image Makers group that I initiated, while at art school and all of these activities were happening at the same time. And he was supportive of many female practitioners that were part of the Store 5 collective.
John came to my studio when he was curating, the Drawing Now show as part of the Melbourne Now exhibition at the NGV in 2014. The joy of having another artist curate an exhibition is that there are no formalities. And John chose a drawing that I tore out of my book and he put it between two pieces of cardboard and left within 15 minutes. John had direct economy of means in his approach to making and installing. And this exhibition of drawings that was installed by the artists alphabetical surname, to determine the order of the show.
The things that I shared an interest in with John was DIY, play, anything from the sixties and seventies circles, abstraction, materiality and a focus on collecting. The John box as I call it is a perspex storage container that formed when I was moving a few years ago. And the things that John had collected from me over the years, things he saw that had a connection to my work. He just gave me, or sent them to me and they include a dark hot water bottle, a Koala tapestry that he sent in the mail to me when I lived in London, photographs of trees he took while in Japan and a Fred Flintstone wooden toy car he found in an opportunity shop. And he would leave me things in my pigeonhole at Monash. And in the last few years, he would let me know that he was, what he was doing by pinning flyers of his events on my office door. My daughter Alona loves the Fred Flintstone handmade vehicle and at her first birthday party, John handed me a tough bag envelope that he had recycled that had his daughter, Emma Nixon's name on it. And inside when I opened, it was an eye painting for Alona, which is the painting that you see behind me. John was a prolific artist and advocator of a range of practices.
He was a curator and collaborator and it is unusual for an artist from his generation to continue to be so engaged with teaching and collaborating with other practitioners. His energy and enthusiasm has been passed on to so many generations. And I conclude that when someone keeps others in mind, as John consistently did, the loss feels so much greater. I was touched by his thoughtfulness, his humour, keeping things simple. And I have learnt so much from how he led by example, of his focus on art-making from his beautiful exhibitions, always advocating for his students and he loved being part of a community.
So I now pass on to Anna Schwartz, director and founder of Anna Schwartz Gallery.
– We can't hear you, Anna.
– Okay, can you hear me now? Yes, thank you and how beautifully you spoke about John, how moving. And actually all you have to say is John, in this country or in many other places of the world, that everybody to know who you're referring to. It doesn't need to be John Nixon. It just John is enough and it's a tribute to what he achieved and the scope and penetration of his influence and the effect that he had on people.
When I first met John, it was quite a different cultural landscape. The relationships between galleries called dealers and artists was quite different to the way it is now. And the galleries, was more of a kind of boss and the artists was sort of subservient to the gallerist in a way, as it had been. And when I first, I did never subscribe to that kind of mode of behaviour but, when I met John and invited him to show in my then gallery, which was called United Artists and was in Fitzroy street, St Kilda behind a restaurant. It had been historically quite an important gallery and that gallery had moved and I then inhabited the space with a group of others. And John had his first show with me then I think in 1985. And it was very simple, it was beautifully installed, which is something I came to know well and which I'll talk about more, but it was a very particular experience for me because the exhibition compressed six works, as I remember it, there's one Polaroid photograph somewhere Max Delany and I've been looking for it, it does exist and I will find it but, the exhibition comprised six small works, two on each of the long walls and one on each of the end walls. And I was visited, the gallery at the exhibition was visited by the then Curator of Contemporary Art from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Tony Bond. And Tony, I think it was the first time I met him too. And he looked at the exhibition seriously and spoke to me about it and then said, "Well, I'd like to buy it." And I naively said, "Which one?" And Tony said, "The whole piece, thank you." And if that was my education, that was my moment of understanding, the nature of John's practice and how I would thence forward look at exhibitions and look at art works.
And that was, you know, that was 35 years ago. And we've done so many, so many things, so many projects and so many exhibitions since. I think it's 23 shows that John's had in the gallery. And including five group shows, two of which he curated himself. One called La Buren and one called Cosmos, in the succeeding gallery, which was called City Gallery. This is all documented actually in a book that was written by Doug Hall called Present Tense. Which is the 35 year history to that point of the gallery and there's some great photographs, and John is very much a theme throughout the book because he has been in my professional life. John, in a way enjoined with me in the gallery, he saw the gallery as one of his projects, I think. And I was very privileged that he saw it that way. It of course is extremely diverse and there are a lot of very, very good artists who are currently represented and who have been, but John was a kind of touch stone, he was always involved, always giving very welcome advice in a very mild way, opinion rather than advice. And very, just very supportive, in a very rigorous way, not only of myself, but I think of everybody who knew him.
Here's some, the current exhibition we had discussed with my co-director Tania Doropoulos, over time with John and a number of studio visits. The studio visits were always extraordinary because they, it seemed to be quite elective really, what the exhibition would be comprised of because there was so many options, you know, John's process of thinking produced work. And each work was precipitated by what had come before he worked very much in series and the series work predicated on previous ones, so that you would see a work or a body of works so nice. They had an inevitability about them. You thought, of course when you saw it, but because it was a logical outcome of what a proceeded it, there was no way of predicting that it would be thus in advance. So it was always revelatory to go to the studio.
But the current exhibition is a very, very full exhibition and it contains a lot of series. It's produced as is very typical with John, with a lot of his projects in collaboration with others, with Jacqueline Stojanovic and who's made craftworks that alongside John's paintings, incorporated in them, in the works. And then down the street in a clothing shop, Alpha60, there is a collaboration with Grace Uchida, which who's dancer, it's a video in the window of that shop and that's remained up and going throughout the pandemic so that in the desert of Flinders Lane, that is something that people can see if they do walk past.
So John was very engaged with other artists and with his circles, Emma said to me recently that he, Sue and she were an indivisible unit and they were and they are that, and they always will be. And I think we all feel that way about John, that he's indivisible from our lives and our thinking and our way of, our way of looking it up.
I probably finished my five minutes. But I just want to say to the students, and this is for the students that you should take your inspiration from John and you should live well, and you should consider your colleagues, consider your peers and consider the culture around you. What part we play in that and what you can contribute to it. As Kathy said, we have extended the exhibition, until the end of the year as a tribute to John. And because so few people have been able to see it, because of the pandemic and because we're still closed, but please keep an eye on our website or just the newspaper. And you'll know when we're open and do come and see the show. It’s absolutely extraordinary and a privilege to have it in the gallery, thanks.
– So the next speaker is Amalia Lindo.
– Thanks Kathy. And thank you for asking me to speak today. And I wanted to acknowledge Sue and Emma who are out there somewhere in the Zoom universe.
It's a truly impossible task, to summarise the time I spent with John in five minutes. We spent a day working together each week for the last four years. Before working as John's assistant. John was my lecturer, in the undergraduate program in my first and third year of Art School at Monash. I had just moved to Melbourne right before my first year began. And so Melbourne's wider art community and the artists working within it were still very foreign to me and so was John. And in that first year of art school to me, John was the man in blue and red who arrived at my studio, always smiling and always carrying a number of tote bags filled with small plywood scraps. He'd salvage from the workshop. I couldn't have possibly imagined then just how much, how sorry, how much or how important and honest in person John was and how much he would come to mean to me, in the next eight years. In our interactions in that first year, when my practice was in its most formative stages, he was always present, encouraging and so genuinely enthusiastic about my work.
After completing undergrad, I returned for honours. John wasn't a lecturer in honours, but he kindly offered to come to my studio, every other Tuesday over lunch and would talk to me about my work, sharing filmmakers and images and ideas. And he kept a little folder with my name on it, even though I was no longer his student, John didn't believe that practicing art was delegated to specific hours of the day or to the confines of the semester. And he wasn't ambivalent about sharing his personal email address or his phone number. So he could forward films to watch, or music to listen to, or exhibitions to see. He always made time for his students and for his friends. During this time, I found, I quickly learned that John didn't think of us, only as students. He saw us as artists just as he was. There was no hierarchy between emerging and established. To John we were all equals and had shared interest, in art in all forms. And because he believed this, John always encouraged his students to apply for exhibitions, or to find creative ways to make their own. And he so very often included his past students in the programs he curated.
When honours was finished, I was very saddened to think that those fortnightly meetings would end. And so I found the courage to ask John, if he needed any help in his studio. And to my luck he did, while Jackie was overseas, our work together was largely centred around administration. John wasn't much for the technological as I'm sure many of you know though he admired the skill greatly and he often remarked when we completed a task, particularly one in Photoshop that it was like magic. John kept mini boxes and folders of notes and papers in the library at his home. With one with papers and lists for me and another for Jackie, this was the Amalia box. And in those four years, the papers never stopped flowing. And the time I worked with John, he had 17 solo exhibitions and 60 group exhibitions. He founded the Melbourne Art Theatre at RMIT, sorry. Curating nine theatre performances, in the space of 15 months. He organised multiple music and dance forums and program 16 concert events, between the art music crossover at West Space and Bus Projects. This was only a small measure of his momentous achievements, but these were the wonderful projects I was lucky enough to bear witness to, and to assist with.
John also didn't drive and so we spend a lot of time in the car together. There was many a time when the back of my car was filled with paintings, theatre props and handmade Donkey's Tail instruments. We would take trips to Bunnings, or to Savers, to exhibitions, to concerts, to films, to the Brunswick studio and later, even to the hospital. At Op shops, John would often buy objects or materials for his friends, when he saw a connection to their practice or their interests. He would regularly take photos of things that he thought you might like an advertisement or detail in the building. Once when I dropped him off at the Eltham pool, he asked me to photograph a small frog sculpture to send to Emily Floyd, because it resembled the Icelandic puffins she had made. He was so attentive to the interest of his friends and his memory was sharp. He was often the one to remind me of things and he would always call to follow up on the conversation of the day, no matter how menial it was. John has shown me what it means to be a friend. What it takes to be an artist and what it looks like to face even the hardest of life's challenges, with the spirit of adventure.
It was a true privilege, sorry, to I've had John as a mentor and boss. Sorry, and to see through him, the myriad possibilities presented by art. But most of all, John was a best friend, without his support, I wouldn't have found the courage to continue in my own work. John watched every film I made, he attended every exhibition opening, he encouraged every idea and even though he really tried to discourage me from doing a PhD, he read every thesis chapter I sent to him always first thing in the morning, citing one of his own Donkey's Tail lyrics he would say, “give it to me in good light and I will try to mend it." And so I thank dear John for having me on his team, for his generous spirit, for his support of his students, for being a true friend and for introducing me to Jackie, another integral part of the JN team, and now a special friend to me, so I'll pass on to Jackie.
– Thank you, Amalia. Hi Sue, hi Emma. I met John as a student at Monash in 2012. And while he was never a designated teacher of mine, nor did I take any of his classes. He was always present during my days there. All it took was a common interest, for us it was the films of Godard. And from then he would continually check in and to see what I was working on. But mainly talk about films.
I came to work for John as an artist assistant, after recording some songs at his home for his experimental music project, "The Donkey's Tail". He asked me if I could sing, I told him no. And he said, "Great, you're on the team then". So just like that, I started recording songs with him and while his home, I asked to see his working studio. He hesitantly agreed that told me he could no longer really work in it. I quickly understood why countless paintings, ceramics, piles of wood, towers of cardboard boxes, furniture John had designed and many paintings piled at the top of one another in his large studio. There was barely room to move. As we left, I casually offered to help can get it in order not expecting anything. Then the next week I had a job and the studio slowly gained some space and John was happy, he could work in it again. Though I quickly learned my job would be more about maintaining space, so prolific was his practice. Each week, I'd leave satisfied with our work. Then the following week, I'd returned to his studio and find up to 20 paintings in progress. Spread out on the floor, the tables, the chairs, paintings on paintings and a happy John exclaiming “What a good day, I've already finished three works this morning, before you arrived.” It became a weekly kind of groundhog day for me, that I was very happy to repeat.
As part of my job, we began to archive the contents of countless cardboard boxes, that I saw as time captions of John's past. Boxes with labels like Zagreb, Curb your dog, Pneumatic drill, Lock paintings, Mike Path, Dick Bruno in brackets MiFi and ET of all things. I came to understand the scope of John's long and diverse practice through these boxes and see John, not only as an artist, but as a collector, assigning significance to the most common of objects that made them all appear more beautiful. Unpacking each box, was an education and I soon understood that after graduating from the university, I was now enrolled in the school of John. In the sorting, there was the discarding. And so often he gave me things he didn't need anymore. One of these things was a small children's lune. Which became my first lune and led me to pursue weaving in my own practice, which he strongly encouraged. Each week, he would have new bags of wool for me, that he had found in the second hand shops and asked me which colours I wanted for the next week. He was my best supplier. Always considerate, helpful and interested. Not only in the new things I was working on, but in my life generally. And in this way, he became a mentor to me and to many others.
In that year after I graduated, John was the first person to help guide my next steps in life. He encouraged me to leave the country, to learn more about art through new experiences and even while I was away, John was always present. He continued to send me boxes of wool, no matter where I was, leaving my friends and relatives puzzled as wool from Australia arrived on their doorsteps. He was always present in my working life overseas too. And as I made my first interview at Nagel Draxler Berlin gallery, I was dumbstruck when the very intimidating German gallerist Christian Nagel asked his first question “So you worked for Mr. Nixon?” Because of course they had already met before. Here, I understood fully how far John practice expanded and how the appreciation for his work, extends well beyond the Melbourne art community. And my special time with John was when he visited me there.
And I was lucky to experience John's Berlin and John's London, days full of walking, gallery visits, thrift shops, music and theatre performances with John blazing ahead and me struggling to keep up with him. A man 43 years older than me. When I returned, John welcomed me back to resume working in his studio, which in that time had once again became full. Then last year there came a day, when he offered for me to take the couple of works, he had started making progress on. At first I was confused, were they things John wanted to get rid of? Then he said, "Perhaps you'd like to do something with these and bring them back next week." This very simple, gentle suggestion, was how our collaborative works began and continued. To think that he valued my work enough, to exist within his, still amazes me and it is an immense honour.
The days working in John's studio were always happy days. There was always something new he used to discover. Things even he had forgotten he'd made. I frequently asked him, which is your favourite work? Since I often found paintings, that seemed to me outstanding, but his answer always disappointed me. “I don't have a favourite, they're all good.” And sometimes I would push him further and say, "Then will ever have a masterpiece?" To this, he told me “No, but on the other hand they are all masterpieces.”
This is John, he assigned value to everything he did. He saw beauty in the simple, commonplace, abandoned and the broken. He brought out the best in objects that possess such qualities, through his art practice. Just as he brought out the best in the people, around him, through his many friendships. I'll pass over now to Max.
– Thank you, Jackie. Thanks Kathy, hello everyone. It's an honour to participate. I'd also like to acknowledge and send my love to Sue and to Emma and to John's many friends and colleagues. Kathy asked how we came to know John, how we came to work with him and what we have learned from his work and example.
In my own case, I first saw John's work at United Artists at the back of Tolato Bistro in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda as Anna mentioned, in what I was guessing and I confirmed it was 1985 when I was still an undergraduate student. It's probably not evident to younger generations of students today the extent to which the landscape tradition and figurative nationalist narrative painting, still held it's way in the 1970s and into the 1980s, at least in mainstream circles. The histories of abstract and conceptual art were not well established nor entrenched in Australian art historical cannons. So John's work still maintained a radical, critical alternative perspective and an ideological and theoretical stake in the ground, with its unique synthesis of modernist avant-garde tenets, the monochrome, the ready-made, arte povera, conceptual art, fluxus, anti-art, anti-music, but also informal and amateur art practices.
John was a consummate exhibition designer as Anna has also noted. And his exhibition at United Arts was very much an all encompassing installation, with paintings, chairs, objects, and assemblages place just so, recalling the display histories of constructivism. This approach, which John consolidated through his experimental painting workshop, exhibitions over the next two or three decades. Promoted the idea of the exhibition as, Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art protecting the conjunction of art and life, which is inherent to John's practice. Telato was in the middle of Fitzroy street, in St Kilda and not far from Crimea Street where John had lived with Jenny Watson in the late seventies and early eighties and which was very much at the centre of the punk and post punk music scene of independent bands and record labels. And it's from this context, which John and colleagues, including Jenny Watson and Tony Clark, honed their independent avant-garde credential's, their DIY ethos, their embrace of humble materiality, amateurism and a resourceful Povera aesthetics.
As an aside, I also wonder about the extent to which feminist ideas and practices might also have been influential to John. Janine Burke remembers John alongside Jenny Watson as being a supportive force in the early days, of the women's art movement in the same way that Elizabeth Gower was so important to Howard Arkley. So alongside avant-garde art traditions and histories and the DIY aesthetics of post punk music, I wonder how much John's appreciation for domestic and everyday contexts, for materials derived from the craft, op and hardware shops, what were considered the more lowly genres of the decorative arts and also his unwavering commitment to collaborative practices and consciousness raising, might also have been informed by early feminist methodologies.
I had the great privilege of working with John on number of occasions over the years and these were always both pleasurable and educational experiences. As John had a very warm, subtle and generous way of imparting his wisdom, sharing his knowledge and sensibility, which simply emanated without being forced.
My focus today is on John's exemplary role as an artist, who was also a curator, gallerist, small press publisher and pamphleteer, not to mention musician and producer of experimental theatre. These multiple roles were perhaps most fully inaugurated with art projects. The independent gallery space that he ran, in a rundown office, back block in Lonsdale Street from 1979 to 1994. Art Projects was a Harvard model, adopting elements of the artists run, public, private, independent and alternative gallery models. And it very much established a template and sort of DNA for so many arts run spaces and projects subsequently. As an artist, John was in his own words, self activating. He recognised the importance of artists taking an active role in the discursive framing, presentation, and distribution of their work. It's important to remember that for most of the time that our projects operated in Melbourne, there was no ACCA, Gertrude or CCP, let alone the plethora of artists run initiatives and collectives that are apparent today. There were just a few spaces dedicated to experimental art. University galleries at Melbourne and Monash universities, and less than a handful of commercial galleries, such as Pinacotheca.
So Art Projects was very much pioneering in this regard. In the five and a half years that it operated, Art Projects presented every 100 exhibitions. Setting the pace for his prolific productivist methodology, which continued unabated, as Amalia has explained. He worked with artists, including his friend and collaborator at the gallery, Peter Tyndall, as well as John Matthews, Tony Clark, Jenny Watson, Mike Parr, Ti Parks, Benita Ely, Imants Tillers, Jill Orr, Bob McPherson, among many, many others. In addition to exhibitions and art projects, John also convened additional exhibitions at the V Space, which blurred the distinction between the studio and the gallery. And one day exhibitions in unconventional and non-art spaces with institutional names, such as Art Projects Annex, and the Institute for Temporary Art among others. John was attentive to the distribution of his work and the activities through development and activities developed a small, but to targeted mailing list for exhibition announcements, newsletters and pamphlets, inserting his work and that of his colleagues, into art historical and institutional frameworks. All exhibitions were documented on slide. The archive of which became an important repository for collecting otherwise a femoral experimental practices for historical record.
It was around the time of Art Projects that John really accelerated his activity of self publishing. Both as a platform for his own, as well as his colleagues work and ideas and as a means of distribution and documentation. John published serial newsletters and artists page pamphlets with titles, including anti-music press and Pneumatic Drill, which became models for related publishing projects, decades later such as Material. He also published occasional journals, such as Notes on Our Practice and later "Curb Your Dog" with John Young, these publishing activities and John's friendship, advice and example, were also influential to Paul Taylor establishing Art and Text and Ashley Crawford establishing Virgin Press and later Attention Magazine. John's long standing involvement in freelance, curating and publishing never diminished. And established a template for subsequent influential galleries.
Art Projects was the subject of an exhibition that I curated with John and others, called Pitch Your Own Tent: Art Projects, Store 5, 1st Floor presented at MUMA in 2005. Which focused on the then recent history of contemporary art through the lineage of these three very influential artist run spaces, Art Projects, but also Store 5, which was established by Gary Wilson, Melinda Harper and Kerrie Poliness from 1989 to 93 and also 1st Floor, which was established by David Rosetzky from 94 to 2002. John was centrally or tangentially involved with each of these three galleries, which promoted the values of affirmative action, DIY and a shared sense of community. Trajectory is firmly established by Art Projects, along with ideals of resourcefulness, utopian projection, critical dialogue and collaboration. These models are perhaps commonplace today, but their providence and genealogy, can be traced back to John's hand and influence at Art Projects and as a critical model and stimulus for new art ideas and communities to emerge.
John continued the work of the artist curator in a more formal institutional setting when he moved to Brisbane in 1980 to take up the role of the director of the IMA, the Institute of Modern Art, leaving Art Projects in the more than capable hands of his friends and colleague Peter Tyndall and John Matthews. The musician Robert Forster from the Go Betweens, now a distinguished writer, remembers John as a beacon of artistic hope, when he arrived in the culturally and politically conservative Brisbane, of the late seventies and eighties. He notes that John's art was both inspiring and provocative and I quote "eclectic but distinctive, experimental but disciplined, respectfully plundering utopian, avant-guardism, but still some time of the moment". Foster underlined how ultra reactionary and fiercely anti-intellectual Brisbane was at the time. Which also speaks to the courage, invention and endurance required to be an artist in these times. Characteristics with John had in spades. Importantly, John's tenure at the IMA, also paved the way for subsequent artists directors, including Peter Crips, who followed John in the role and later Barbara Campbell.
So just a couple of final points. John developed networks long before the internet. He's exhibition history charts an intrepid and complex web of exhibitions internationally. And as Jackie also noted, has led to decade long relationships, collaborations, and exchanges, he maintains with artists and curators across the globe. He also connected these artists and curators with each other with artist run space which is Store 5 and galleries that he was associated with such as Anna Schwartz in Melbourne, Sarah Cottier in Sydney, David Pestorius in Brisbane, among many others.
Some critics saw John Nixon's commitment to constructivism and the rhetorical of the avant-garde, as doctrinaire and austere. But this was itself an overly ideological position when you look at the evidence. Not withstanding John's predilection for the monochrome, his work was resonant and anything about austere. He was a great colourist and his work was always marked by a playful materiality and an intensely sensory sonorous and social dynamic. His works are made from paint, canvas, wood, frames and the tools of his trade, such as rulers, paint can lids, a set square or a brush. So they have an ontological and conceptual as well as perceptual register.
John was a collector of folk, modern studio pottery, and an efficient art of modern jazz and these forms of handmade free form improvisation, naturally found their way into the experimental spirit and playfulness and verve of his work as an artist and experimental musician and composer. Installation such as The Grand Piano, in front of the yellow wall at the original ACRA 94 or his 20 meter orange painting for APWO at ACCA in South Bank in 2004. And the immersive polychrome installation, at City Gallery Wellington in 2017, resonant with joyous sonorous colour, the chromatic equivalent to the wall of sound. As is apparent in John's final exhibition Groups and Pairs at Anna Schwartz Gallery, there's a great sense of freedom, rhythm and sensation in his works, executed with a poetic, a musical genius.
It's been very moving and unprecedented to see many tributes to John over the past month. Damiano Bertoli noted, and I quote how "John showed us, that an artist can be autonomous and still community minded." He showed us the importance of rigor, the sovereignty of the artist and the primacy of art and ideas.” As an artist, curator, publisher and teacher among myriad other roles, John model the many ways that one could be an artist. He was a promoter of, mentor to and collaborated with generations of artists and curators, sharing his generosity, wisdom and good humour, with great dexterity and panache. Perhaps above all, John's work was marked by love, friendship and generosity, of spirit. In a recent post on social media, Fiane Davi recalls her invitation to John to give an artist talk about Hell's Kitchen. Reflecting on his work and motivations, he concluded his speech with the following remarks, and that is what I want from art, I want happiness, which is also an appropriate place for me to conclude. And I now hand over to Rose.
– Thanks everybody and thanks Max. And hi, Sue and Emma, a lot of things have been covered already today, but I'm just going to read something that probably should just take about five minutes. I owe a lot to John in many respects. It's hard to talk about the impact of John's practice without talking about John, the human being, because it's not only what he did, but it's the optimistic and generous way he chose to go about it.
I first met John at Art Projects in Lonsdale street here in Melbourne, which Max's talked about, in the decisive and proactive manner with which we've all become familiar. John had started this artist run space, to produce exhibitions and events by small and select group of already important artists, unencumbered by existing institutional and commercial limitations. Artists such as Jenny Watson, Peter Tyndall, Robert McPherson, Peter Crips, Tony Clark, and others. For me as a young art student studying painting at the VCA visiting art projects provided an alternative, a window into another world, to other possibilities, for how to approach making work, always investigating the nature and limits of what constitutes an artwork. It was heady stuff.
I'd been spending of my time in the VCA library, trying to catch up on what I didn't know. So let's just say I was in there a lot. The emerging figurative expressionism at the cusp of the eighties was not what I was interested in. I didn't always understand exactly what I was seeing in Art Projects, but gee it felt exciting, seeing John's roughly hewn painted Hessian works simply now to the wall was pivotal for me. I felt like I was accessing a space and a program, that was historically important, part of a bigger project, which of course for John, it was. Climbing the stairs to see the exhibition, was both exhilarating and slightly intimidating. Often seeing John behind his big desk with typewriter and freshly produced publications, laid out neatly across the desktop. And we're not talking computer desktop here. This was serious John and John as curator, administrator, gallerist and publisher.
Only a couple of days before John passed away, still with his ever acute memory, he reminded me. "Elizabeth Gower brought you to me." He paused and then looked at me and said "She knew." And the memory of that encounter came flooding back. For years, it had puzzled me, for when that more formal introduction was made John quietly but clearly informed me that he was not only supporting, that he was only supporting one year, one artist, young artist that year. And that was Dale Frank. I had no expectations, we could have had a short, polite conversation that would have been enough for me. But that's not how John operated. He wasn't into small talk. He saw it as important to treat the moment with seriousness and respect. In that gentle, but unequivocal let down, he was acknowledging me as a young artist. In fact, he knew more than I did, I wasn't sure what I was doing, I was still working it out. It was an early introduction to the clarity and integrity that John displayed in all of his work. I wasn't deterred and from that point, from that point on, John continued to be supportive, keeping up with what I was doing, often mailing invitations to exhibitions, and eventually curating my work into significant group exhibitions, Geometric Abstraction at ACCA, which he co-curated with Sue Cramer, Boheme at Linden and Cosmos at City Gallery.
Most significantly for me in the later 1980s, John connected me with other young artists who shared similar formal and conceptual interests, from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. We became what John would continue to refer to as The Friends. This was social John and John as mentor, connector and influencer. And in 1989, I became involved in the artist run space Store 5, founded by Gary Wilson, Kerrie Poliness, Melinda Harper in Prahran, which everyone is referred to today. Many friendships and partnerships, some romantic were formed. It was creative, social immersive and at times argumentative. It's where I first met you, Max, Kathy and Anna and other artists, such as Stephen Bram, Callum Morton, and Anne-Marie May and Marco Fusinato, and many others. One day exhibitions with a go and we all benefited from the rigorous weekly turnaround to present or view new works, providing us with the opportunity to think about the space of the exhibition and display of our works beyond the studio.
In the year 2000 John even secured funding for return airfares to Copenhagen, for a group of us to participate in an exhibition, he co-curated titled The Floor Show. It brought The Friends, both Australian and European together. We were billeted out with local artists. It was summer, we rode bikes everywhere. I think even Marco did, we socialised and we made the exhibition. It was an example of John's rhythm and flow between art and life where making art was to be taken seriously. But it didn't need to be hard.
Over these many years, I learned not to make assumptions about John's specific and yet ever evolving practice. It may seem a surprising thing to say, but within John's consistent approach, I could never actually predict what he would do next. And that's exactly the way he set up the framework for his overarching project, to allow himself the freedom to introduce, recombined and rearrange works, resisting any easy historical chronology or older works could be dusted off John's words mot mine, and brought into rhythm with recent works as a continuous whole. He made it look easy when it wasn't.
In this way, he removed the need to concern himself with the concept of linear progress or improvement within an artist practice, where each work is expected to improve upon or superseded previous work. He would describe himself as a fast artist, preparing and making multiple works in a working session. Sometimes it was actually hard to keep up with John and his new projects. He moved quickly, once something sparked his curiosity and interest, but these projects were never arbitrary and interesting collecting mid-century modernist ceramics from around his Briar Hill, Eltham area, would lead to a beautiful exhibition in 2018, bringing attention to the significant practitioners and optimistic posts for development of the suburbs. A local history that may otherwise have been missed.
In 2014 John, even ventured into making jewellery from simple found stones and other basic materials, showing these at Gallery Funaki here in Melbourne. John's practice required, consistent attention and focus to experience the full joy, poetry, meaning and sometimes unintended humour of his work. To really allow yourself to revel in the conversation between paintings, exhibitions, evenings of music, publications and more recently theatre. It wasn't enough to see one of John's exhibitions and think that you could leave it for another five years before seeing the next. John's impact and influence is far reaching and layered. What we all came to learn so saliently is that John privileged the agency of the artist over anything else. And I'll leave that there. Thanks everyone.
– Hi again, thank you so much to all the speakers that shared. There isn't anything in the chat at the moment. So and we're on time. I'm going to just stay here for a few minutes to see if anyone wants to say anything before we end.
– Oh, just now.
– We can here you Sue.
– This is completely impromptu, but I just wanted to say how, wonderful it is to hear everybody speak about John. Thank you so much and you know from, the younger artists perspective, the wonderful Jackie and Amalia who we value so much, to the friends we've known for such a long time, such as Anna and Max and Rose and Kathy of course, I think John would be terribly moved to see everyone here today. I wish, he would wish to be here, you know, to be part of the discussion. There was nothing he liked more. And as I said to Kathy once I think that John might be the only teacher who, when it was the end of semester, he was the only one who was really cranky about it, because he wouldn't be able to, he didn't want to take a holiday 'cause he didn't want to miss seeing his students. He really loved his time at Monash and he gained a lot from his teaching experience with you all and his colleagues and friends, who were here today, they meant everything to him. So, you know, thank you very much for participating today. It's really been a wonderful tribute. Thank you, thank you Kathy.
– Thank you, Sue. I think that's a good place to end. I want to thank everyone for being here. I'm really touched by how many people have come and want to remember John. I'd also like to say that this will be one of many, many events that will mark John's memory. You know, as I've said before, we can't really do very much in person at the moment. So please stay tuned to what other people will be doing. And also at Monash, we'll be doing a few other things and we'll let you know, but Caroline Bans has said hello and yeah. So I'm goning to end there and thank you again for being here and thank you so much to the speakers for participating, Rose for helping so much and Sue and Emma. Yeah, so we'll say goodbye now. Thank you.