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Robert Rooney is an artist who has a reputation for being both extremely well informed about contemporary art and for not travelling very widely. Some accounts of his career suggest that he has made only one or two brief expeditions outside his native Melbourne—quick trips to Sydney or Canberra. Unlike many of his peers who headed off for extended periods to work in Europe or North America, Rooney has spent almost his whole adult life working in Melbourne, living in the same house in Hawthorne. In light of this, it may seem rather odd to find him so centrally placed in an exhibition dominated by key international figures in conceptual art.
It is an irony that was perhaps not lost on Rooney. In his 1971 work 10.8 miles in 44 minutes, May 1971, he presents a sequence of photographs of fellow artist Robert Hunter riding an exercise bike in the artist’s studio—putting in all the effort, but in practical terms, going nowhere. Many of Rooney’s photographic works of this period make a virtue out of the routine and familiar, the systematisation of even the most mundane aspects of everyday life, from meals eaten (Meals, Jul – Aug 1970 ), to the documentation of the clothes worn each day (Garments, 3 Dec 1972 – March 1973). It is the kind of approach that runs through much conceptually focused art from this period.
On their own, the selection of photographic works by Rooney might perhaps only serve to suggest something of a tangential side story to his career as a painter. However in this exhibition they are combined with a wider selection of pieces, by both Australian and international artists, that seeks to place them more squarely within the early context of conceptual art generally. While a few pieces are drawn from the Gallery’s collection, or are on loan from other collections, the bulk of the work in the exhibition is drawn from a recent donation to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) by Rooney. The exhibition, curated by Maggie Finch and Cathy Leahy, makes good use of the materials available, teasing out a wider story from both the art works and their provenance.
Although Rooney’s donated collection of conceptual work does include unique exhibition pieces (such as Roger Cutforth’s Noon time-piece (April) 1969—originally purchased by Rooney in 1974), there is also a good deal of material that might, under other circumstances, fall more into the category of ephemera. This is not at all surprising given the way conceptual art works were often little more than brief texts, diagrams and photographs published cheaply in loose-leaf limited editions, anthologies or catalogues, work that was part of a tendency that saw both the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’ (to use Lippard’s phrase) and also its democratisation. But in an ironic twist, it is often the case that while much of this work was produced in relatively larger editions than is usually the case for print works, its cheap—almost ‘give away’—nature has seen much of it become quite rare. In addition, it does not seem that many major art collecting institutions paid all that much attention to the work at the time. Even if they did, it is just as likely for the work to have ended up in a gallery’s library, rather than its main collection.
The late sixties and early seventies saw a sudden proliferation of this kind of work, driven by both new ways of thinking about art, and the ready availability of new technologies—from the photocopier to the instamatic camera (and the associated infrastructure of cheap photographic prints). Nearly all of the pieces by Rooney make use of this basic technology, with a particular focus on simple ‘point and click’ photography.
In his important introductory article to conceptual art, ‘Conceptual Art as Art’, published in the journal Art and Australia in September 1970, Ian Burn (already a key figure internationally in the movement) described the camera as a ‘dumb documenting device’. It’s a phrase that Rooney subsequently adopted to describe his own approach to the use of photography, although it is not always clear that the work falls within the increasingly tight definitional constraints that developed around conceptual art, and Rooney himself is hesitant about the application of the term.
While these days we may find the term used fairly generally—as it is in this exhibition—Burn’s identification of Australian artists working in the field is very thin. He cites just two artists, Paul Partos, and the then New York based Robert Jacks (neither of whom are included in this exhibition). However, Burns is also somewhat hesitant to define their work as strictly conceptual. While noting that Jacks has ‘moved beyond painting into conceptualised presentations of numerical systems and serial techniques’, he goes on to point out that ‘such art is closer to a kind of process art than it is to a stricter definition of conceptual art’.
Although quite a range of artists and artworks are usually included under the general heading of ‘conceptual art’, it needs to be remembered that the definitional boundaries were hotly contested. Even Sol LeWitt, whose ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ from 1967 is so often used to provide a basic definition (as it is in the catalogue for this exhibition), could be treated as not quite pure enough for inclusion. For example, as Donald Karshan wrote in his notes in support of the seminal ‘Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects’ exhibition at the New York Cultural Centre in 1970: ‘The earlier version of a conceptual kind of art—such as Sol LeWitt’s and Donald Judd’s—was actually a non-expressionist system by which to build sculpture. And while this work is historically significant, and was probably necessary for the emergence of the work under discussion, it should not be confused with being the same’ (a copy of this brief essay, ‘The Seventies: Post-Object Art’ is among the materials Rooney has donated to the NGV).
Of course, Burn, along with Mel Ramsden and Roger Cutforth provide a key focus for this exhibition, not least because of the role they played in being early exhibitors of conceptual art at Pinacotheca, the Melbourne gallery where most of the Australian conceptual work in this exhibition was first shown. Key works from the NGV’s collection, such as Burn’s Mirror Piece (1967) and Ramsden’s Secret Painting (1967–68) (both acquired in 1972), provide something of a solid anchor for the selection of Rooney’s work and the pieces by his Pinacotheca contemporaries, Dale Hickey, Ti Parks and Simon Klose.
While this exhibition is given a clear focus by the selection of work and other material donated by Rooney, it also seems to open up scope for a wider consideration of the way that conceptual and related art practices developed within Australia. Of course, the inquisitive collecting habits of artists such as Rooney clearly played a role in providing a focus for discussion of new ideas. Certainly, a lot of the serial photographic works seem to owe something of a debt to the seminal artist’s books of Ed Ruscha collected by Rooney. But while Rooney stayed put, and built his connections through mail order or the exchange of letters and postcards, other artists were much more mobile. And perhaps, with conceptual art, unlike painting, it is possible that there was not really that much difference between experiencing work ‘in reproduction’ rather than in ‘the original’ (given that so much of the work seemed to exist only in the former state, rather than the latter). In fact, this exhibition seems to make a virtue out of Rooney’s ‘stay at home’ approach to contemporary art, although I’m far from convinced that anything particularly ‘local’ emerges from this.
In addition to the opportunity to see an interesting group of early Australian conceptual experiments, the exhibition offered a rare opportunity to examine a good selection of early artist’s publications and conceptual pieces. Rooney’s ‘day job’ in various book stores during the ’60s and ’70s no doubt fuelled and facilitated his collecting, and certainly until the establishment of Printed Matter in New York in 1976, the distribution of artist’s publications was fairly erratic. It is an important area which has often not been given the attention it deserves—with access to such work in library collections often being better than in art galleries. Unlike other areas where digital images seem to offer a poor substitute to the work itself, the fragile nature of much of the (often rare) ephemeral work produced during this period is now being offered a productive second life through digitalisation. Rooney himself has recognised the possibilities here, with the inclusion of a suite of new video works that reprise earlier photographic sequences, with the addition of his own musical sound tracks. Oddly, these pieces don’t seem particularly new—or innovative—but are clouded with a strange shadow of nostalgia.
‘Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art’, National Gallery of Victoria, 12 November 2010 – 27 March 2011.
Peter Anderson is a free-lance writer based in Melbourne.