Jackson PollockBlue Poles, 1952 (detail) from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Contemporary Art in Australia

by Boris Cornelissen | 7 May 2020

When I first visited Australia, it struck me how lively the local art scene is compared to most other countries. With a large number of institutional and commercial exhibition spaces, art magazines with critical discourse, biennales, art fairs and private collections, the Australian contemporary art scene is thriving. What also struck me after doing a bit of research was how many historically important works there were in Australian collections. Beyond the obvious masterpieces like Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, Andy Warhol’s Elvis, or Willem de Kooning’s Woman V, there were countless great artworks by both famous and lesser known artists in museums across the country. Some expected (British artists such as Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Bridget Riley) and some less obvious (Eva Hesse, Philip Guston, Pierre Soulages, Andreas Gursky). Perhaps most unexpected to me was the amount of 1980s neo-expressionist painters from Germany (Rainer Fetting, Jorg Immendorff) and Italy (Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi) – artists who have now disappeared in relative obscurity, but were once the rock stars of the art world.

Willem de Kooning - Woman V (1952-53)

Willem de Kooning
Woman V, 1952-53
oil and charcoal on canvas
154.5 by 114.5 cm.

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (acquired in 1973)

What surprised me even more, was that whilst the museum collections were excellent, relatively few works from the permanent collections of international contemporary art were actually on view. Of course it is normal practice for a museum to display less than 10% of its collection, but when I first visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney or the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, I had expected to see many more of the collection highlights than I did. Important works by artists such as Carl Andre, Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Philip Guston, Barbara Hepworth, Donald Judd, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley, Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly and many others were absent from the collection displays. 

And of course there are many good curatorial reasons why these works are not on view, including the simple point that Australian art may resonate more with a local audience, and ultimately that might be a priority for institutions. Nonetheless, it seems a pity to me that such important works would remain out of sight and not receive the attention they deserve. Considering my own area of expertise is post-war and contemporary art, I decided that I wanted to make the international contemporary art in Australia more visible through a series of articles and posts around this topic. Each week I will publish an article on a specific subject here, discussing an artist’s oeuvre through their works in Australian collections, or focussing on individual pieces. My hope is that this will contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of the fantastic artworks that Australian collections (both public and private), have to offer – but are currently not always easy to access.

Some of the collection highlights that are not currently on view:

Gerhard Richter - Abstraktes Bild, 1990, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Gerhard Richter
Abstraktes Bild (725-3), 1990
oil on canvas
225.8 by 200.6 cm.

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (acquired in 1992)

Lee Krasner
Combat, 1965
oil on canvas
179 by 410.4 cm.

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (acquired in 1992)

Richard Prince
Untitled (Cowboy), 1980-89
Ektacolour print
181.5 by 271.5 cm.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by John Kaldor)

Louise Bourgeois
Arched Figure, 1993-2010
bronze, fabric, wood and metal
116.8 by 193 by 99 cm.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (acquired in 2016)

Zhang Xiaogang
Three Comrades, 1994
oil on canvas
150 by 180 cm.

Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (acquired in 1996)