JOHN NIXON (1949 – 2020)

Robert Forster

WHENLIVED in cul­tur­al­ly and polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive Bris­bane in the late 70s and ear­ly 80s, John Nixon was the first full-time prac­tic­ing artist I ever met. He was from Mel­bourne and had moved to Bris­bane in 1980 to be the direc­tor of the Insti­tute of Mod­ern Art, a bea­con of artis­tic hope at that time. I was one of two singer-song­writ­ers fronting the Go-Betweens, and to see the dark-clothed charis­mat­ic fig­ure, hair swept back behind one ear, a fringe of black ringlets cas­cad­ing over the oth­er side of his face, gaz­ing intent­ly toward the stage dur­ing our pub and club shows was an unex­pect­ed plea­sure. Indeed, see­ing any­one over twen­ty-five at a Bris­bane under­ground music show in those days was rare; the fierce anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism enabling the ultra-reac­tionary Queens­land gov­ern­ment chased a gen­er­a­tion of cre­ative peo­ple into exile in oth­er cities. Into the breach stepped John Nixon.

New in town, he had moved into a two-sto­ry apart­ment block at the edge of the city precinct, with­in walk­ing dis­tance of the IMA. On the floor below lived Grant McLen­nan (1958 – 2006), the oth­er singer-song­writer of the Go-Betweens. We came to know John well; Lindy Mor­ri­son, the band’s drum­mer, and myself, lived near­by, and the three of us vis­it­ed his apart­ment often. That is where his influ­ence on the group began. It was a cru­cial time for us all in the trans­for­ma­tive heat of the post-punk era, every­thing in glo­ri­ous flux, musi­cal forms scrapped and oth­ers stripped to the bone, and John’s art — eclec­tic but dis­tinc­tive, exper­i­men­tal but dis­ci­plined, respect­ful­ly plun­der­ing utopi­an avant-gardism but still some­how of the moment — was both inspir­ing and provoca­tive. And unlike us, he could explain what he was doing, slic­ing open his work and, by infer­ence, ours to reveal var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal con­texts. No stuffy, wine-glass-in-hand procla­ma­tions of lofty truths here; his man­ner was gen­tle and con­fi­dent, impart­ing ideas on art and music with a del­i­ca­cy as cool and clear as that ema­nat­ing from his unpre­ten­tious paint­ings dot­ting the walls of his dark-wood­ed apartment.

John Nixon, Groups + Pairs 2016 – 2020. Installation view, Anna Schwartz Gallery.

His ener­gy and curios­i­ty pushed him way beyond paint on can­vas, and here was anoth­er les­son for me and Grant: the blend­ing of dis­ci­plines. We knew some­thing of this ten­den­cy — from 60s Warhol to then man of the moment David Byrne — but to see some­one eight or nine years old­er than us, up close, upstairs, mak­ing raw-noise audio­cas­settes with his part­ner and fel­low artist Jen­ny Wat­son (under the moniker Pink + Blue; one tape includ­ing new songs from the Go-Betweens), while pro­duc­ing the won­der­ful­ly titled Pneu­mat­ic Drill (a xerox­ed fanzine ded­i­cat­ed to his exper­i­men­tal-music activ­i­ties and art-the­o­ret­i­cal man­i­festoes), shoot­ing innu­mer­able Polaroids, and orga­niz­ing Dada-inspired events around town, was real­ly some­thing to behold.

And that social­i­ty was a cen­tral fea­ture of John’s work, or what I wit­nessed of it; he was a con­duit, con­nect­ing peers and dis­sem­i­nat­ing ideas around the often com­pet­ing forces of art­mak­ing and its sacred prin­ci­ples. He spread the word in both for­mal and infor­mal set­tings (it was the lat­ter for me), orga­niz­ing and inspir­ing oth­ers to make art, music, and mis­chief in his own spir­it. In the last decade of his life, he taught at Melbourne’s Monash Uni­ver­si­ty; one course was titled Non-Objec­tive Abstrac­tion, and I could well imag­ine him there in his aes­thet­ic ele­ment. He con­tin­ued paint­ing until the end, exhibit­ing nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly. When I attend­ed, now with a fam­i­ly, his open­ing at Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery in 2013, his paint­ings had not changed that much from those he was pro­duc­ing in Bris­bane in 1980. Nor had John. That’s anoth­er thing I got from him — a steady ded­i­ca­tion to one’s own art over a stretch of time as a form of sec­u­lar belief and cul­tur­al vindication.

Robert Forster is a musi­cian and the author of Grant and I: Inside and Out­side the Go-Betweens (Hamish Hamil­ton, 2016).


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