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Hunter, Robert - 1989.3

Robert Hunter

Untitled #1 1988
synthetic polymer paint on plywood
122 x 244 cm
Donated by the Westpac Banking Corporation 1989

One of The Field generation of artists,[1] Robert Hunter occupied a unique position in contemporary Australian art, steadily pursuing an elegant, individualised abstraction contained within an apparent adherence to the intrinsic logic of minimalist art principles. But by the time Untitled #1 was executed, twenty years after the ‘dazzling debut’[2] of his first solo exhibition, Hunter’s painting practice had evolved beyond minimalism’s prescriptions: its impassive seriality and structural geometries. By 1988, it could be remarked that for Hunter minimalism was ‘less a style than a concern for certain values’.[3] His paintings of this time were described as ‘baroque in their complexity’,[4] perceptually elusive and luminously expansive.

The period between 1968 and 1988 saw Hunter progress from square paintings of tonally nuanced white acrylic house paint on canvas to pale paper and spectral stencils on walls in the 1970s, and then to long, thin grey paintings incised with coloured polyester thread. He finally adopted, in 1983, common hardware sheets of 4’ x 8’ plywood, would-be walls on which he could create, by 1985, pictorially complex but still evident geometrical configurations, based on two squares divided into a grid at four-inch intervals.[5]

Through all these shifts in structure and surface, ever present in the process of making were the grid, the diluted Dulux paint, the rollers and the ubiquitous masking tape (for him, the ‘known’ elements)[6] to achieve the hard-edged geometrical structures common to the practice of some New York artists in the 1960s. Hunter’s interest in edges reflected his view of painting as a sculptural process, insisting on the importance of the process of making rather than thinking about form and colour as separate entities.

This painting, the first of a series of eleven, marks an important step in Hunter’s compositional approach, not only for its grey borders and central division but also for its emphasis on textural parts within the basic formal armature, the interplay of matte and gloss segments. This decisive development came about during his residency, in 1988, with the University of Melbourne Gallery at the invitation of its then director, Frances Lindsay. The series was shown as the inaugural exhibition of the Ian Potter Gallery, from May to June 1989, which followed the artist’s first (and, until 2018, only) survey at the Monash University Gallery in March 1989.

The complex chromatic configurations and personal expressiveness of Hunter’s late-1980s paintings (which he considered closest in spirit to his 1968 paintings) reflected both his intuitive compositional process and the practical experiential base of his art making. Everyday materials and commonplace starting points informed his approach and included the fixed six-point layout of a pool table (with which he was well acquainted), as well as the experiences and interactions of daily life.[7] The conclusions of one painting informed the commencement of another in the series, and within each painting the orchestration of parts progressed organically within the given structure towards resolution.

At the point of this painting’s 1989 exhibition, Hunter’s intimate working process was not only linked to surrealist automatism but was also interpreted as a means of self-assertion, a personal enquiry into identity,[8] thereby setting his practice apart from the accepted impersonal processes of pure minimalism. Hunter’s paintings are as enigmatic, self-contained and elusive as the artist himself. But they are also the product of the stringent pragmatism of his approach to the process of making art.

The survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2018, emphatically affirmed his deserved place as a key exponent of late modernist abstraction within contemporary Australian art.[9]

Jenepher Duncan was the curator of Contemporary Australian Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, during 2004–18. She was previously the director of MUMA, Melbourne, and director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, South Yarra, then affiliated with Monash.

[1] The Field was a landmark exhibition of hard-edge abstraction and colour field painting and sculpture, at the new St Kilda premises of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968. Showing with a new generation of contemporary Australian artists (forty in all, mainly male), including Robert Jacks, Dale Hickey, Robert Rooney, Janet Dawson and Sydney Ball, Robert Hunter, at twenty-one, was the youngest of the represented artists.

[2] Patrick McCaughey, ‘Dazzling debut by young artist’, The Age, 15 May 1968.

[3] Charles Green, ‘Persistent subjectivity: revaluing Robert Hunter’, Robert Hunter Artist-in-Residence 1988/1989, exhibition catalogue, Melbourne University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1989, n.p.

[4] John McDonald, ‘The sensuous side of minimalism’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 1987, p.47.

[5] For a detailed account of Hunter’s working method see Tom Nicholson, ‘Still flow: Robert Hunter’s painting 1985–2014’, Robert Hunter, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2018, p.90.

[6] Hunter, quoted in Gary Catalano, ‘Something out of nothing: an interview with Robert Hunter’, Art & Australia, vol. 33, no. 2, Summer 1995, pp.200–05; reprinted in Robert Hunter, exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p.99.

[7] Nicholson, op. cit., p.90. See also Grazia Gunn, ‘A nothing point: the paintings of Robert Hunter’, exhibition opening address, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, 2007.

[8] Green, op. cit. Note also, Hunter’s words, ‘They develop their own assertions and character: their becoming finished is a thing they decide themselves. It’s unexplainable’, quoted in Catalano, op. cit., reprinted 2018, p.101.

[9] Hunter would receive an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship in 1992 and go on to further international exhibitions from London and Madrid to Seoul and Paris.