Colourful ties

Patrick McCaughey has endeared himself to Melbourne people with his wit, good humour and generosity of spirit. What is more, given his many successes, he has survived the habitual Australian consequences of the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. Perhaps this is because he is only too willing to admit a variety of flaws and failings. He does so, unabashedly, in his recent publication The Bright Shapes and the True Names: A Memoir.

An uppish schoolboy who saw his peers at Scotch College as divided into ‘the philistine majority and the civilised minority’, he became a laid-back and somewhat under-committed undergraduate at Melbourne University. ‘I was lazy about my academic work, doing only what interested or came easily to me.’ He admits to a casual decision to combine Honours in English and Fine Arts to avoid ‘bad’ and boring things like Old Norse. He became a brash and, some would say, overconfident art critic and nurtured a snobby attitude to suburbs like Caulfield, Burwood and Box Hill—and even Ivanhoe where, for a time, he enjoyed free lodgings at the university’s McGeorge House.

Stacked up against these characteristics are the obvious positive things. Melburnians of my generation do not need the book to be reminded of McCaughey’s tumultuous impact on the local art scene from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. I believe that in the first decades of his career he was probably the youngest art critic appointed by The Age, the youngest scholar to land a professorship in Visual Arts at a leading university and the youngest arts administrator to become Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Influential critic, senior academic and leading museum director—all in double-quick succession and, to an extent, without the traditional prerequisites. In those days, as he says, ‘Everybody got his or her own way’.

Part of this run of successes might be put down to the luck of the Irish (and there is a charming Irish lilt throughout the entire book), but even more important was the fact of felicitous timing. McCaughey entered public life in the 1960s—that decade of kaleidoscopic change when young people felt they could do and achieve anything, and usually did.

Against the tide, Vincent Buckley declared the 1950s less grey and eventless than we all thought and it does now appear that this homely, parochial, less-travelled and under-electronically-connected decade bred a generation bursting with self-confidence and open to the unique opportunities of the 1960s. So many of the ‘bright shapes’ and ‘true names’ catalogued in the book enjoyed this same context and rose to equal heights in their respective fields. Among them were Olivia Newton-John, Anthony McNicoll, Peter Corrigan, Hilary McPhee, Bernice Murphy, Winsome McCaughey (née Howell), Peter Steele, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Jaynie Anderson and Margaret Plant. ‘I used to say’, writes McCaughey, ‘nothing moves in Australia unless you kick it but the opportunities to kick something were limitless’. Ambition was not a dirty word. ‘The desire to be known was the besetting narcissism of my time … . There was a free masonry of the “talented …”. ‘The cult of talent led quickly to the prizing of “promise” and the “promising”.’

At Melbourne University where much of the story is set there was an answering generation of notable elders—‘true names’ whose magnanimity towards their protégés was profound. In Patrick’s case these ‘true names’ begin with his parents, Davis and Jean McCaughey, and then extend to John Sumner and Wal Cherry in the Union Repertory Theatre Company and Vincent Buckley, Evan Jones and others in the English Department. Then there was Franz Philipp and Joseph Burke in Fine Arts—and Bernard Smith who, in 1966, launched Patrick’s professional career by offering him the opportunity to write art criticism for The Age.

This post led to a timely relationship with contemporary exhibiting artists. It was akin to that he already enjoyed with the poets. The late 1960s to early 1970s collision of some young art historians, critics and artists was fortuitous. It set the scene for the emergence of the then underdeveloped (but soon to burgeon) curatorial profession—putting people like McCaughey in a prime position to undertake museum management. This tendency was assisted by his years, from 1974, as a Trustee of the National Gallery in Canberra when it was under the inspired direction of James Mollison.

Among the ‘true names’ and perpetrators of the ‘bright shapes’ were the artists of The Field, the now legendary opening exhibition at the new National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road. It formed a symbolic watershed between all that was old and new in the visual arts. Notwithstanding his deep and abiding appreciation of artists like Roger Kemp, Leonard French and Fred Williams (the brightest of the ‘true names’) and his affinity with the RMIT group (Jan Senbergs, George Baldessin, Les Kossatz, Andrew Sibley—and Tate Adams and the Crossley Gallery to which he pays special tribute in the book), it was to the ‘bright shapes’ of the colour-field abstractionists that he became attracted as a critic.

Robert Jacks, Michael Johnson, Alun Leach-Jones, Robert Hunter, et al. now had a mentor who, like them, hurdled the divide and launched into the colourful new world of international sensibilities centred in New York. There, from 1969 to 1971, on a Harkness Fellowship and living in Greenwich Village, he added the critic Clement Greenberg, the museum director Henry Geldzahler and artists Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Morris Louis, Frank Stella and Sol de Witt to his list of ‘true names’.

In 1971, back in Melbourne and ‘pennyless’, his luck continued. Joseph Burke offered him a Fellowship in Fine Arts, The Age re-employed him and Margaret Plant gave him some teaching at RMIT. Thus he enjoyed an easy transition into the experimental art world of the 1970s. A list including Peter Tyndall, Dom de Clario, Mickey Allen, Peter Booth, Kiffy Rubbo, Bruce Pollard and Marianne Baillieu conjures up some of the ‘true names’ identified with that period. Via a brief directorship of the Visual Arts Board, he addressed an Australia-wide spectrum of contemporary artists and, in 1974, with the unfailing support of Joseph Burke, was appointed Professor of Visual Arts at Monash University. The ‘true names’ of this academic interlude included Grazia Gunn, Jan Minchin, Jenepher Duncan, Judith Trimble, Paul Taylor, John Walker, Memory Holloway and Christine Abrahams.

When appointed Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, McCaughey writes, ‘I had never worked a day of my life in an art gallery and had never managed more than a dozen people’. However, he soon made enduring friends among ‘a succession of presidents or chairmen of trustees’ and developed an atmosphere of trust that saw him through the much-publicised theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman. The public loved his bow-tied, televised performances in front of works of art.

The book is bright and optimistic. The sour notes are few. Brief mention is made of ‘the fractious nature of the National Gallery of Victoria’s staff’, ‘the unsmiling’ art critic Alan Warren with whom he exchanged a few gruff words, ‘dreary Caulfield’, ‘the wilds of Burwood and Box Hill’, ‘the tedium’ of Joseph Burke’s first year course and the reputation of Roy Grounds for having ‘unshipped his partners’ once awarded the commission to build the Victorian Arts Centre. Though he muses over such matters, he does not dwell on human failings. He actively seeks the ‘bright shapes’ and bestows the ‘true names’ with a spirit of generosity and grace sometimes thought to be unusual in the art world and in Australian society in general.

If this review is somewhat selectively biased in favour of the art world, others will address another aspect of McCaughey’s intellectual life—his involvement with poetry and the poets. His literary appreciation developed at an early age, at home and in school. It was nurtured in the English Department at Melbourne University and it is expressed in the writing of his book. The memoir is beautifully written, full of personal response, popular expression, sardonic humour and intellectual critique. It proves to be an affectionate documentation of several very important decades in Melbourne’s cultural history. 

The Bright Shapes and the True Names: A Memoir, Patrick McCaughey.
Text Publishing, 2003. isbn 1 877008 71 0, rrp $32

Jenny Zimmer is the art publisher with Palgrave-Macmillan Australia and an arts writer.

 

 

 

 

 

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