John Nixon
White Paint­ings

13th August – 17th September 2022
Anna Schwartz Gallery

Sim­plic­i­ty, min­i­mal­ism, the mono­chrome and a sense of mak­ing some­thing out of noth­ing are inte­gral to paint­ing in white.[1]

­—John Nixon, 2012


Since his first exper­i­men­tal block paint­ings of 1968, so called for their shape and small size, John Nixon has made white mono­chromes of dif­fer­ent type and size from a range of mate­ri­als. These paint­ings con­sti­tute a dis­tinc­tive, if rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle-known, stream with­in his mul­ti­fac­eted and most­ly colour­ful abstract oeuvre. 

Nixon’s deci­sions in rela­tion to colour are always con­sid­ered and pre­cise. His palette has ranged from dark and earthy to bright and — of his sil­ver paint­ings — metal­lic. Cer­tain dis­crete series have had a par­tic­u­lar chro­mat­ic focus, such as EPW: Orange, and EPW: Sil­ver, both begun in 1995, and EPW: Poly­chrome, which start­ed in 2006. With­in the spec­trum rep­re­sent­ed across these works, his paint­ings in white pro­vide a strik­ing con­trast, act­ing as a recur­ring touch­stone or con­cep­tu­al ground-zero from which new begin­nings can emerge. 

From Kasimir Malevich’s Supre­ma­tist Com­po­si­tion: White on White 1918, to Piero Manzoni’s Achromes, and the almost all-white oeu­vres of Robert Ryman and Robert Hunter, the white mono­chrome is a clas­sic with­in West­ern mod­ernism. Nixon described this mode of paint­ing as: his­tor­i­cal­ly a kind of tab­u­la rasa … a stand against all oth­er types of paint­ing as sub­ject and as scene’.[2] For him it also offered a field for con­tin­u­al rein­ven­tion, and over the years he brought to it his own per­son­alised lex­i­con and sen­si­bil­i­ty, includ­ing a love of cre­at­ing art using the sparest of means. 

Though emblem­at­ic of mod­ernism, white also has sym­bol­ic, even spir­i­tu­al­ist mean­ing across dif­fer­ent cul­tures and con­texts. Nixon’s con­cerns are more mate­r­i­al and con­cep­tu­al. The works in this exhi­bi­tion are part of his long-term project Exper­i­men­tal Paint­ing Work­shop, or EPW. This con­cept and descrip­tor for his abstract paint­ing oeu­vre, Nixon says, rup­tures the tra­di­tion­al lim­its of paint­ing (narrative/​pictorialism/​realism) to ques­tion its giv­en nature’.[3]

Dis­played in this exhi­bi­tion are sev­er­al of Nixon’s small white abstract paint­ings from the ear­ly days of his prac­tice in the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, and sub­se­quent groups from the 1990s and 2000s. The diminu­tive block paint­ings from 1968 are 9 cen­time­tres square and 4 cen­time­tres deep, while lat­er exam­ples vary in size. Part­ly a response to the large-scale of colour-field abstrac­tion in the 1960s, the eco­nom­ic block-like for­mat, Nixon explains, was ini­tial­ly devel­oped as a unit suf­fi­cient in size and inten­si­ty to hold and explore a con­tent about paint­ing’.[4] While Nixon made these paint­ings in a range of colours, the most reduc­tive ones are white, includ­ing some that fea­ture sur­faces of raw, unpaint­ed linen or felt. Orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to be exhib­it­ed one to a wall, the block paint­ings were also dis­played by Nixon on tables, the results of his research laid out for view. 

Through­out the 1980s and ear­ly 1990s, Nixon spo­rad­i­cal­ly returned to mak­ing white paint­ings on the hes­s­ian, Masonite, card­board, or wood sur­faces typ­i­cal of his work dur­ing this peri­od. There are all-over white mono­chromes as well as more dis­tinct geo­met­ric designs, notably his sig­na­ture cross­es, includ­ing a heraldic cross ban­ner from 1985. Some paint­ings are imbued with tex­ture and res­o­nance through the addi­tion to the sur­face of grit­ty sub­stances, includ­ing white grains of rice, tiny flecks of eggshell or seashells, or white paint­ed bot­tle tops and coins. Larg­er found objects are also put to good use: a net­ted onion-bag pro­vides a wavy grid; a square of stuc­co like­ly retrieved from a skip intro­duces a dec­o­ra­tive swirl. 

Bold geo­met­ric designs — vari­a­tions on a for­mal theme — dis­tin­guish a group of pared-back white mono­chromes made in 2011 – 13. Archi­tec­ton­ic in infer­ence, these works have been built in mat­ter-of-fact style using sim­ple planks of paint­ed wood attached to a stretched can­vas, with a coat of enam­el paint cov­er­ing both sur­faces. White paint­ed can­vas­es are sim­i­lar­ly used as the basis for oth­er types of three-dimen­sion­al works from this peri­od. In some works, sev­er­al can­vas­es are used as units for con­struc­tion and are fas­tened togeth­er. In oth­er works, Nixon incor­po­rates found objects such as pieces of wood­en pic­ture-frames, or cylin­dri­cal card­board tubes. One ele­gant exam­ple from 2019 fea­tures a trans­par­ent French curve ruler fas­tened to a geo­met­ric paint­ing that bears a sub­tle white-on-white design. 

Rich in detail and var­ied in tex­ture and tone, the paint­ings shown here brim with the poet­ry of white. In gath­er­ing them togeth­er for this exhi­bi­tion, I can’t help but think of my occa­sion­al vis­its with John to the Alps, and of the plea­sure he took in nature’s encom­pass­ing snow-laden mono­chrome. Art and life in continuum.


Sue Cramer, 2022


[1] John Nixon, White Paint­ings, exhi­bi­tion book­let, Gertrude Con­tem­po­rary, Mel­bourne, 1 – 30 June 2012, np. The exhi­bi­tion was curat­ed by Nixon and includ­ed one paint­ing each by Gunter Christ­mann, Robert Hunter, David Thomas, Karl Wiebke and John Nixon.

[2] Nixon, White Paint­ings.

[3] Nixon, White Paint­ings.

[4] John Nixon in John Nixon: Block Paint­ings 1968 – 1970, 1992 – 1993, Black Cher­ry Press, Syd­ney, 1993, np. Nixon writes in this self-pub­lished book­let that the small size of the works was a direct response to the large-scale colour field paint­ings of Bar­nett New­man and Ad Rein­hardt and the Aus­tralian field gen­er­a­tion artists’. 

Images

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro

John Nixon

White Paint­ings, 2022
Instal­la­tion view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Chris­t­ian Capurro