The Joy of the Gestalt: John Nixon 1949 – 2020

Juliana Engberg
Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki

Before I met John Nixon I had already seen John Nixon. John was the sub­ject of a por­trait by Jen­ny Wat­son that was exhib­it­ed at Georges’ Gallery, Mel­bourne which was on the upper floors of the depart­ment store. John was placed like a Bar­rett New­man stripe in the mid­dle of the can­vas wear­ing an alto­geth­er colour­ful shirt with exot­ic birds and foliage and fad­ed blue jeans. He was placed in a mono­chrome of bright Cad­mean yel­low. The thrilling aus­ter­i­ty of the back­ground, a ges­ture to John’s own chro­mat­ic min­i­mal­ism, inspired me to go home and paint a series of sim­i­lar­ly reduced works. I got low grades for the effort. I think this was 1975.

A bit lat­er, when John vis­it­ed the Arts Book­shop, a famous­ly impor­tant place for all artists want­i­ng the most recent inter­na­tion­al mag­a­zines and jour­nals, flown in at high speed and cost by the pro­pri­etors Elly Fink and Gil­da Rudz­ki, and where I worked, he cut a dash in a Mao blue out­fit of cov­er­alls. Min­i­mal­ist, mono­chro­mat­ic. The uni­form was an indi­ca­tion that he was a man at work pur­su­ing his dili­gent mod­ernism in a labour­ing kind of unheroic approach. He was always dressed the same and I was tak­en with the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of his sar­to­r­i­al statement.

It became clear that cer­tain artists always wore the same thing. Robert Rooney a plain pressed shirt with ordi­nary pants; Aleks Danko, also inclined to Mao blue, dressed in coat and workman’s cap; Howard Arkley had a jaun­ty striped blaz­er, school type, and so forth.

John Nixon
EPW, 1987–89
Installation view, City Gallery, Melbourne

Even though John was from Syd­ney, he was part of a push that cura­tor Daniel Thomas called Mel­bourne Cool. Artists col­lect­ed around him like the plan­ets of our solar sys­tem do the sun, drawn into his charis­mat­ic def­i­n­i­tion of art and life, work and life mantra and exam­ple. They were not nec­es­sar­i­ly all striv­ing for the quo­tid­i­an mod­ernism that John fol­lowed. One of his great qual­i­ties was his sup­port of many dif­fer­ent approach­es. But the under­pin was conceptualism.

I wrote a review of John Nixon’s work in the first issue of FASS, our uni­ver­si­ty attempt at engag­ing with con­tem­po­rary art. I made it a string of ref­er­ence words, all in upper case. I tried for an alpha­bet­ic pre­ces­sion … CATHOLI­CISM, CON­CEP­TU­AL­ISM, CON­STRUC­TIVISM, CRU­CI­FIX, MALE­VICH, MOD­ERNISM, and so forth. I was pret­ty ner­vous about it. When Paul Tay­lor asked me to come work with him on Art & Text he told me John thought it the best review of his work thus far. I was very encour­aged by that. Paul also asked me what I thought about John’s work. Was he a Roman­tic, a Post­mod­ernist, a Mod­ernist, a Con­cep­tu­al­ist, a Min­i­mal­ist, a Dadaist? I said I thought he was all those things, but in par­tic­u­lar I thought he had a roman­tic approach to the anti-roman­ti­cism that formed the basis of his rad­i­cal mod­ernism. I still think that’s true.

Even though the work-to-rule for­mu­las remained steady and stur­dy through­out John’s out­put his work could also accom­mo­date cer­tain the­o­ret­i­cal drifts. When post­mod­ernism was at its high point and music had tak­en a New Roman­tic turn, John’s mono­chro­mat­ic project pro­vid­ed a plat­form for the found object and was briefly embraced by the post­mod­ern flip.

John Nixon
EPW: Silver, 2006
Installation view, Anna Schwartz Gallery

I remem­ber his work in Vivi­enne Shark LeWitt’s exhi­bi­tion The End of Civil­i­sa­tion Part II: Love Among the Ruins, a black rose affixed to a black mono­chro­mat­ic paint­ing. Like many of his object paint­ings, this one seemed to have its par­tic­u­lar semi­otic and land­ed neat­ly into a post­mod­ern deca­dence, but could just as eas­i­ly escape this fleet­ing dal­liance to set­tle back to a more con­cep­tu­al intent. In Paul Taylor’s Tall Pop­pies exhi­bi­tion, John cre­at­ed an instal­la­tion with grand piano, a buck­et of rust-coloured pota­toes on top and a clus­ter hang of works with mono­chro­mat­ic, cross paint­ings. Set­tled on the piano and buck­et were a ham­mer and scythe, a ref­er­ence to Russ­ian Con­struc­tivism and work eth­ic. It was stim­u­lat­ing­ly total in its his­tor­i­cal capture.

John was always around. He was a par­tic­i­pant. He made things hap­pen for oth­er artists. He men­tored the artists who col­lect­ed around Store 5, he launched many a career through his work at Art Projects and the IMA in Bris­bane and as a teacher. His own work, now inter­na­tion­al and well estab­lished, was reg­u­lar­ly accessed at Anna Schwartz Gallery and in Syd­ney at Sarah Cot­ti­er. So it came as a sur­prise when I offered John the oppor­tu­ni­ty to use ACCA’s big Kun­sthalle space to make his own project, that Anna Schwartz told me, just before the open­ing, it was his first big insti­tu­tion­al exhi­bi­tion in Aus­tralia. That seemed remark­able for so cen­tral a figure.

John made his biggest-ever orange mono­chrome paint­ing and installed it on the long wall. Oppo­site he arranged a selec­tion of works from his EPW (Exper­i­men­tal Paint­ing Work­shop) and added two ply­wood tres­tle tables hold­ing paint­ings. It was a Gesamkunst­werk – sus­tained, sta­ble and endless.

New Zealand is lucky. The Auck­land Art Gallery has a very good col­lec­tion of John Nixon works, their own and those held in the Chartwell Col­lec­tion. New Zealand embraced John and his prac­tice and this influ­ence is clear. John’s life work was to make man­i­fest ideas through his every-day, work-to-rule sys­tem with its adher­ence to colour, mate­ri­al­i­ty and restraint. Noth­ing super­flu­ous. Every­thing pur­pose­ful to the unend­ing exper­i­men­ta­tion of com­bi­na­tion. An exu­ber­ant daz­zling prac­tice with­in set lim­its. Joy­ful, viva­cious, tex­tured, sit­u­at­ed. John cre­at­ed a rig­or­ous and sus­tained body of work that kept alive the cel­e­bra­tion of infin­i­ty in pur­suit of the gestal.

Juliana Eng­berg was the com­mis­sion­ing cura­tor of John Nixon: EPW at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art, Mel­bourne, 2004.


This essay is repro­duced cour­tesy of Auck­land Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

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