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What happened to the survey exhibition? Art Museums in Australia seem to have abandoned them in favour of the cult of youth, popular awards and themed group shows. While we understand their responsibility to developing ever-wider audiences, their responsibility to examine the sustained practice of senior artists as a mapping of our art history has taken a back seat, a responsibility increasingly picked up by regional galleries; recall Sydney Ball’s seminal survey at Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest in 2009. What does that say about the charter of our state institutions or, more pointedly, is this oversight a manifestation of ‘Curator Chic’ that relegates the artist to exemplar of a curatorial manifesto?
Like Ball, an artist who has contributed deeply to the dialogue of Australian abstraction is Ildiko Kovacs [b.1962]. Her superb survey curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham for Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, ‘Ildiko Kovacs: Down the Line 1980–2010’, was a loosely chronological presentation of the stylistic evolution that defined Kovacs’s practice. Her expressionistic fields of painted gestures from the early 1980s were teased out into ribbony lines that became volumetric during the 1990s, and she eventually took a roller to that line with bold confidence. ‘Down the Line’ collectively lands a jaw-dropping punch; it is electric in the space.
Revealed across the breadth of this exhibition, we see Kovacs’s Australian mentors, echoes of Ken Whisson, Tony Tuckson, and even Brett Whiteley at times, in the early gestural works such as Crowded Square (1980-81), Untitled (1989), and Red, Black and White (1986). It was more like a sensual tango than an appropriation or conscious influence that might translate into a curatorial rationale. Kovacs responded to the non-objective tendencies of the day and the sheer energy of abstract art.
She was one of a group of artists, introduced by Garry Anderson through his gallery, that embraced the beauty of abstraction. Her first solo exhibition in 1988 of what she called her ‘void paintings’, attempted to strip back or empty content. Kovacs flayed paint onto the surface with such bristling energy in these paintings that Mudie Cunningham used them as his curatorial point of entry, ushering viewers through a celebration of painting that ricocheted across her later works.
Around 1995 Kovacs ‘ratcheted up’ her graphic language with a traveling line. It defined her career. Caught between a landscape sensibility and formalism, the linear chromatic zing of the paintings from this decade contrasted superbly with the simplicity of their form. This drama was played out through a brace of huge paintings that lined the gallery’s rear wall. They affronted the viewer with ageless energy—hot pink on aqua, electric blue on lime green—their bold definition unwavering.
While we may question the weight given to the survey exhibition within the endorsed curatorium, one might also wonder how rigorously Abstraction has featured in that consciousness, despite its continual reinvention by artists such as Ildiko Kovacs?
Over time Kovacs’s adjustments became increasingly subtle, not so much striking out in new directions but creating a convincing series of variations on a pre-existing theme. The line now caught between a rectangle and a circle became more refined, calmer. Stunning examples are Fig (2001) and Gathering (2002), both organic squares drawn, and overdrawn, in red on a grey field; or Small Trail (2002) and Lulu (2001) which hold echoes of the American abstractionist Brice Marden. Dramatically set alone on a black wall these paintings hold their own amongst the sea of activity and colour of this exhibition; this is where Mudie Cunningham gets it right. He quotes Kovacs, ‘The line emerges from a kind of nothingness, and in doing so navigates space, contemplating time’. Kovacs’s abstractions are indeed timeless.
While this survey exhibition raises all sorts of questions about Australian abstraction, it makes an eloquent observation on Kovacs’s ability to negotiate the huge void in Australian art that separates Indigenous and non-indigenous abstraction. Just as we can see Tony Tuckson or Brice Marden in these paintings, equally there is a dialogue with Paddy Bedford, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Kovacs’s ability to absorb and extend that language into her own expression with confidence and individuality has been largely uncelebrated, yet it offers a way to move forward in an examination of Australian abstraction. This is a brave stand.
Overwhelmingly, however, it is Kovacs’s line that has defined her, jostling between positive and negative space and sparking tensions that reiterate her untiring openness to the tenants of abstraction. In the late works she has visibly stripped down her practice, almost returning to her earliest void paintings with the most utilitarian of painterly gestures: the roller. The line takes on a kind of internal staccato as it pulses across the picture plane maintaining movement and energy from within.
Across four decades Kovacs’s paintings have pulsed; they are balanced and true to her vision. This is an important and ongoing chapter in Australian abstraction that thankfully has been documented in the major publication, Down The Line 1980–2010: Ildiko Kovacs. However, the question remains: why wasn’t this mid-career survey of a ‘senior artist’ presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales?
'Ildiko Kovacs: Down the Line 1980-2010'. Installation view, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, 2011.
Travelling Pink Line, 1995. Oil on plywood, 244 x 244cm. Laverty Collection.
Gathering, 2002. Oil on plywood, 187 x 163cm. Private Collection. Courtesy the artist.