You are here
Gareth Sansom and the "Great Outdoors"
Artists’ CVs are funny things. They are meant to tell us something about the artist, but sometimes they tell us despite themselves. The seventy-six year old Melbourne artist Gareth Sansom is one such example. Looking at his CV, we can see that he is highly regarded, but no one quite knows why. Lots of people think he is good, but their reasons for doing so are not, or at least are contradictory. No real consensus has emerged around his work, and no two critics or curators seem to agree as to why it is important, or conversely—this being the art world—they think it is important because someone else thinks it is important, without knowing why themselves.
Sure, there have been two retrospectives of his work held by the University of Melbourne—Sansom was first a lecturer and then a professor at the Victorian College of the Arts from 1977 until 1991—Gareth Sansom: Paintings 1956-86, held at the then-University Gallery in 1986, and Welcome to my mind: Gareth Sansom: A study of Selected Works 1964–2005, held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in 2005. (There was also an earlier survey exhibition of his work from 1964 to 1978 at the RMIT Gallery in 1978.) There have been shows, dating back almost to the beginning of his career, that take up at least the dominant technique in Sansom’s work—Collage at the Ray Hughes Gallery in Brisbane in 1977, A Collage Survey at the Holdsworth Galleries in Sydney in 1987 and perhaps most prominently Stick It! Collage in Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2010.
There have been exhibitions that have sought to locate Sansom in a particular period—Australian Art Post-1960 at Deutscher Gertrude Street in 1988; then Off the Wall, In the Air: A Seventies Collection at Monash University Gallery and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne in 1991; then Australian Printmaking in the ’90s at the Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne in 1997; and finally Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2013. There have been exhibitions that have attempted more specifically to describe or categorise the work—Vox Pop: Into the Eighties at the NGV in 1984; Mass Media Mixed Media at the Painters Gallery, Sydney in 1990; OZPOP, a group survey with Colin Lanceley, Richard Larter and Mary Moore at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 1992; and finally Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style at the NGV in 2013. (And it is telling that in all of this Sansom can be understood equally as of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and present.) Finally, almost as a symptom of this unclassifiability, there have been a number of exhibitions that, as it were, throw up their hands at the art-historical task and instead seek to capture what they see as Sansom’s particular mode of refusal—Freaks, Fiends and Folly at the Bright Gallery, Melbourne in 2004; The Led Zeppelin World Tour at the Lismore Regional Art Gallery in 2008; and, arguably mistakenly, the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object for which Sansom’s A Universal Timeless Allegory (2014) was the signature piece.
Although I had long been interested in Sansom’s work and had looked at it intently for a number of years—the University Art Museum at the University of Queensland where I taught acquired Sansoms in 2012 and 2013 and exhibited them prominently—for a long time I did not know how to respond to it. I did not think I could say anything about it without betraying what I felt to be the peculiar difficulty of the work, its absolute idiosyncrasy, which I also felt that the work was somehow about. And I felt too that—contradictorily—the work was part of a much wider sensibility that could be found not only in art but also in fashion, design and architecture. I felt that for all of its ‘localism’—and, of course, Melbourne is shorthand for that in Australian art—it could be understood to be part of something much bigger than any OZPOP or Modern Australian Painting (the title of the long-running series of exhibitions Sansom has been involved in at the redoubtable Charles Nodrum Gallery since 1986).
It was not until I saw Sansom’s The Great Democracy (1968) at the superb though critically under-rated Wayne Tunnicliff and Anneke Jaspers-curated exhibition, Pop to Popism, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2014 that it clicked.1 The show was notable, first of all, for making the case that there had been a considerable Pop Art movement in Australia throughout the ’60s and ’70s, which had been written out of those accounts of Australian art that went directly from John Stringer’s The Field in 1968 to Paul Taylor’s Popism in 1982. That is, one of the central claims of Taylor’s exhibition was that there had never been an art movement that had admitted the ‘influence of the rhetoric of photography’2 in Australia, as part both of his argument for historical precedence and more generally his wiping away of the art of the ’70s (feminist art, the art of social movements, the idea of a non-national art). And, alongside this reminder of the existence of an actual Pop Art movement in this country, Pop to Popism also emphasised the global dimension of Pop Art itself, pointing not only to the British precedents to the better-known American version, but also to its contemporaneous European equivalents.
Undeniably, the revelation of the show was the absolute historical priority of the artists associated with Britain’s Independent Group (Eduardo Paolozzi, John McHale and Richard Hamilton), who were claimed as the real inventors of the movement. Although perhaps an accident of curation, insofar as similar early pieces by Robert Rauschenberg were likely not available, the first works in the show, dating from the late ’40s and early ’50s, were a series of collages by Paolozzi, featuring crudely cut-out and stuck-down mass media images (pin ups, the covers of science-fiction novels, advertisements for Coca-Cola and Californian tinned fruit). These early exercises by Paolozzi hardly amount to any kind of collage or montage, often consisting in merely the different covers of the books placed next to each other, or at most Minnie Mouse and a can of tuna pasted under a photo of Lucille Ball. But in a couple of the works—Man holds the key (1950) and Sack-o-sauce (1948)—there is perhaps something else at stake. Man holds the key is a parody of those anatomy-class dummies that fold out to reveal the inner workings of the body, except that in this case it is revealed that the intestines, brain and other bodily organs resemble something like a factory production line. The even more interesting Sack-o-sauce is a lively assemblage of what looks like a packet of self-saucing hot dogs, an aeroplane, a Yves Tanguy-style humanoid and a cartoon duck beating a drum.
What is revealing about these latter two cut-outs is the radical incommensurability of the parts Paolozzi puts together. Admittedly, in the black-and-white Man holds the key the pulleys, conveyor belt and waterwheel are subject to an overall logic of movement from the stomach at the bottom of the picture to the mouth at the top. But in the multi-coloured Sack-o-sauce the difference between the various elements seems irreconcilable. There is Mickey Mouse, a duck beating a drum, an aeroplane, what looks like a cake on a scale, post-Surrealist squiggles and geometrical shapes, all on a primary-coloured landscape of red earth, blue water and yellow sky. Unlike Man holds the Key, no unifying logic or narrative is able to be discerned, and it cannot even be read as parody or transgression as in Dada or Surrealism. This lack of meaning and style (or even anti-style) is part of the works’ unacknowledged or even accidental status as inaugural objects of Pop Art. It is exactly out of these careless, almost throwaway objects that Pop Art arises.
It is a different matter with the other foundational works in Pop to Popism—Rauschenberg’s two Dylaby combines (1962) and the silkscreen Quote (1964). Of course, Rauschenberg’s first works, made of glued-down images and looking very much like Paolozzi’s in their simple abuttal of elements, date from the early ’50s (for example his Untitled works of 1952). However, despite the shared chronologies, Rauschenberg’s works do not strike us with the same surprise as Paolozzi’s in the show, not merely because he is a much more central figure in histories of Pop Art (it was not until 2000 when October magazine devoted a special issue to the Independent Group that the British contribution and indeed priority became widely known), but also because it is around Rauschenberg’s work that we have already learnt to address certain important questions regarding Pop Art.
Indisputably, the seminal early reading of Rauschenberg—the one, in fact, in which the term ‘flatbed’ was first applied to his work—is by the great Renaissance art historian Leo Steinberg, originally delivered as a lecture, ‘Other Criteria’, at MoMA in 1968, and subsequently published as ‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’ in Artforum in March 1972. It is fundamentally a polemic against what Steinberg characterises as the ‘preventive aesthetics’3 of Greenberg and his understood-to-be follower Michael Fried, whose ‘Art and Objecthood’ had come out just the year before in 1967. But, in a way, Steinberg uses Rauschenberg—inspired equally by the pre-art of the Renaissance and the post-art of John Cage—to offer an alternative both to Greenberg’s modernism and to Fried’s own bête noir of Minimalism, which for Steinberg is still too close to that ‘corporate’ model of reductionist design, which ‘moves, as if predestined, toward utter homogeneity’.4 On the contrary, for Steinberg, in refusing both this formalism and reductionism, Rauschenberg’s work opens us up to the world. And, in not closing off its options in these ways, his works’ various elements remain ambiguous, at once abstract and representational. As opposed to any final unity as either the artist’s mind or the external world, we have the work as the ‘outward symbol of the mind as a running transformer of the external world’. Or, to see this from the point of view of the work itself, insofar as the picture is conceived as an ‘image of an image’, this guarantees both that it ‘will not be directly of a world-space’ and that it will ‘admit any experience as the matter of representation’.5
It is in the context of Paolozzi and Rauschenberg, as I say, that I felt it possible to think productively for the first time about Sansom’s work. Of course, there were more obvious precursors to his work in the Pop to Popism show. There was a wide representation of British Pop, including David Hockney, Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and Derek Boshier, whose slapdash technique and sexual iconography are undoubtedly to be found in many places in Sansom’s practice. There was also the most complete survey so far of Australian Pop Art from the ’60s and ’70s, including the Annandale Imitation Realists, Michael Allen Shaw, Mike Brown, Richard Larter, even Tony Tuckson, whose radical juxtaposing of incommensurable styles and iconographic elements (deriving as much from such artists as Bernard Buffet, Mimmo Rotella and Jacques Villeglé as the British) is again like Sansom’s work, although this time indicating not so much historical influence as the scene or context he came out of, even if he was unaware of it at the time.
In fact, there was an implicit tension in Pop to Popism, signalled not so much by either ‘Pop’ or ‘Popism’ as the word ‘to’ connecting them. As we suggest, the obvious reading of the show is that, although Australia did not have its own Pop movement, Taylor’s ‘Popism’ has been a major influence on the past thirty years of Australian visual culture. Indeed, more than ‘Popism’ being merely the delayed Australian version of Pop Art, Taylor’s particular form of ‘Popism’ makes the further claim that Australia’s art is by definition ‘Popist’: derivative, second-hand, a matter of mere style and artistic strategy outside of any original context. In Taylor’s words from ‘Popism – The Art of White Aborigines’, it is an ‘explosion not of our detonation’.6 But—and this was undoubtedly one of the ‘revisionist’ aspects of the show—Tunnicliff and Jaspers set out to demonstrate that not only was there an original Pop Art movement in Australia, but the original Pop, even in Australia, was not a ‘style’—at least not in the ironic and distanced version of it that Taylor insists are the terms within which we must understand it.
On the contrary, when we look at the original Australian Pop work in the show, we are struck by how styleless it is, how daringly unformed, unfinished, rough-edged, to use a word popular at the time, funky. Take, for example, the Annandale Imitation Realist Byzantium (1961-62), a grimy assemblage of kitchen plates, clay figurines and writhing Dubuffet torsos on hardboard, which was itself once mounted on a concrete block with stuck-on, stretched-out arms and a kerosene head. Or take Tuckson’s Pyjamas and Herald (1963), which features the banner page of the Sydney Morning Herald, a pair of pyjama pants and a hessian sack, all glued down on a composition board and covered with thick strokes of red, white and black synthetic polymer paint. Or take Garry Shead’s Bondi (1968), which consists of a Derek Boshier- or early Allen Jones-like woman in black bikini top sitting on Bondi Beach with cut-out ads for women’s lingerie and Benson & Hedges cigarettes below and an ominous swoosh of blood red paint taking off from her towel and running down the canvas. Or take, finally, not Richard Larter’s nudes of his wife Pat but his crude Untitled collage (1965) of magazine images of naked women, Che Guevara, soldiers, sharks and Chairman Mao, all cut up and reassembled in no particular order. And this is not even to speak of Vivienne Binns’s toilet graffiti-like polymer images of snarling vagina dentata swallowing mushroom-headed penises, or Colin Lanceley’s strippers hung with beads, brooches and gauze, or Alan Oldfield’s Cliché (c.1968), which combines Pop imagery and hard-edged abstraction in a comic book character whispering ‘I feel like an ingrate’ in response to the apparent injunction to be ‘Made in Australia’.
It is this artistic incoherence that gets lost in the move from Pop to Popism. It is this ‘stylelessness’—or, more precisely, the heterogeneous, irreconcilable mixture of styles and techniques—that gets written out with the more straightforward works of the Popist ’80s. There, for all of Tillers’s tiles and disparate sources, the undecidability of Richard Dunn’s duck-rabbit problem, the vernacular details of Howard Arkley and the explosive fragments of Maria Kozic’s Campbell’s Soup Can (1986), we inevitably have the same slickly painted, spray-painted or silk-screened surfaces. Indeed, it is notable that those artists of the original ’60s Pop who have lived on as a reference for artists of the ’80s (Robert Rooney, Dick Watkins, Dale Hickey and even to an extent Vivienne Binns) manifest exactly this unified style, and one of them (Rooney) was even in both parts of the show. In fact, it is not surprising that a reproduction of Warhol’s Reversed Marilyn (1979) preceded the section of the catalogue devoted to Popism, not merely because Warhol was such an influence on Taylor, but also because the original Pop can only retrospectively be seen as a form of Popism, through the lens of an artistic logic that unifies, not simply stylistically (although that too), but strategically and intentionally.
However, as we suggest, Pop to Popism also offered us an opportunity to rethink this seeming inevitability and bring to a halt the apparently inexorable slide from Pop to Popism. We might seek to recapture a certain lost moment or potential in those inaugural works of Paolozzi and Rauschenberg—and this is where Sansom comes in. Sansom’s The Great Democracy, which was in the show, is a perfect example of—almost a manifesto for—the radical potential of Pop Art that is lost by its transformation into Popism, in the movement from modernism, at least a certain kind of modernism, to post-modernism. We are almost tempted to say, given the seeming subject matter of the painting, what is lost in the movement from a popular artistic democracy open to all, to an ironic-critical aristocracy available only to insiders, which maintains its power in the almost indiscernible crook of a smile, its apparent distance from the ruling ideologies of the time. It would be a distance towards belief possible only because of the belief of others, that secretly relies on another to believe in our place.7
Indeed, it is true that my own experience with Sansom was not perhaps unique. For, as previously suggested, he maintains a very high status in the Australian art world without anyone quite knowing why. Like that ‘interpassivity’ outlined above, it is almost as though people believe he is good because others believe he is good, without quite believing themselves. For the critic face-to-face with the work—or, indeed, the artist—the experience is difficult, unsettling, without quite knowing which way to take it or having any ready-made vocabulary with which to describe it. Take, for example, the puzzlement or at least refusal to decide concerning the status of Sansom by Terence Maloon, which is all the more surprising given that it occurs in the context of Sansom’s 2005 retrospective at the Potter: ‘To conclude, I would like to recap some of the contradictions and paradoxes we can observe in Sansom’s work: popular and esoteric; revelation and cover-up; fragment and whole; form and anti-form; sublime and demotic; brainy and dumb’.8 And this uncertainty has been echoed by the long history of reviews of Sansom’s exhibitions, which from the beginning have been marked either by an approval of Sansom’s work without really knowing why—Bernard Smith unexpectedly praises Sansom in a 1965 exhibition at South Yarra for his ‘cubist collage and pop-art devices’9—or an approval of his work exactly because it goes against the reviewer’s taste—Ashley Crawford writes frankly of seeing Sansom’s work before a 2007 show at the John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne: ‘Seeing this work in the studio ahead of the exhibition, it was difficult not to have doubts about Sansom’s eccentricity, if not his sanity’.10
But this difficulty in saying why the work is successful is revealing and tells us something important about it. It is something that each critic writing on Sansom must grapple with and it raises a question that we suggest is unresolved even for Sansom himself. We find it in the various writings on Sansom in the following form. Critics begin by noting the extraordinary heterogeneity of images, materials and techniques in his work. On the level of images, we might note his abutting of autobiographical photographs and black pen scribbles in Tree of My Life (1976-77), or drawing of a cartoon-like profile on top of a multi-coloured background in Religiosity à la mode (2000). On the level of materials, we might note his use of oil, enamel, tape, chalk and photographs in He Sees Himself (1964) or a layer of brown enamel revealing an underlayer of polymer paint revealing the canvas in Shit Face (1989). And on the level of techniques, we might note his words with photographs with charcoal drawing in Stage by Stage by Stage (1978) and his thick Penck-like drawing on top of a white scumbled surface in Carmine Sardine (2004). And this promiscuous mixing of various elements is seen to have all kinds of artistic precedents in the criticism on Sansom’s work—from Francis Bacon, R.B. Kitaj and Jean Dubuffet, who are all acknowledged to be influences, to the more general context of the Synthetic Cubism of Picasso and Braque, to the more speculative suggestion of the immediately pre-Suprematist Dadaist works of Malevich.
But now the real question arises. What is the artistic meaning of this heterogeneity? Or, more specifically, what does Sansom do with this heterogeneity? Most readings of Sansom’s work, taking instruction from the artist’s own remarks, suggest that his aim is to unify the various elements of his work, have them go together, ultimately make them disappear. Here, to begin with, is the important moment in an early interview with James Gleeson, in which Sansom speaks of what he seeks to accomplish through his assembling of apparently disparate elements: ‘Once you’ve gone past the instant shock at whatever each particular image and its connotations are, the combination of them is an aesthetic whole or rightness that transcends the literalness of each little image’.11 And Sansom further elaborates on this in an interview with Robert Rooney on the occasion of his 1986 retrospective at the University Gallery, Melbourne: ‘Modern painting seemed to be about something you started with and then you broke it down and left it that way. Now, as I learnt more, I find out that the reverse was possible, that you could start with something broken down and then reassemble it, but in a slightly inverted way’.12
And, as we say, following his lead, critics have invariably described how Sansom does put the various elements of his paintings together, and what they think the effect of this is. Revealingly, however, they are generally unable to describe or account for the basis on which these elements are combined, and what the effect of this is—whether it produces formal synthesis, productivist montage or Surrealist metaphor. Rather, it is simply asserted that we can sense a certain unity behind the work and that this is testament to Sansom’s ‘synthetic intelligence’.13 This kind of language, needless to say, tends to be the preserve of the more ‘conservative’ critics, but it can take a number of different forms. Thus, in one of the first serious responses to Sansom’s work, Graeme Sturgeon speaks of Sansom proceeding ‘intuitively, each development suggesting modifications to the preceding one and leading on to the final synthesis of medium, technique and idea’.14 While for his part Sebastian Smee writes of Sansom’s work on the occasion of his inclusion in an exhibition Cross Country: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2007: ‘In Sansom’s painting [this ordering impulse] translates to a captivating sensitivity to colour, shape, scale and the formal relationships between individual parts and the whole’.15
But even critics who at first resist the idea of any kind of formal synthesis in Sansom’s work in the end return to it, or at least forget to go against their initial scepticism. Thus Maloon in his catalogue essay for the 2005 retrospective, in arguably the best piece yet written on Sansom, begins by suggesting that Sansom breaches Baudelaire’s famous injunction against eclecticism in his Salon review of 1846, and concludes by offering a powerful genealogy for the work as coming out of both the grotesque and Menippean satire. But, in between, after quoting the interview with Rooney in which Sansom speaks about ‘reassembling things’, he approves of Sansom’s description of himself as ‘primarily a formal painter’ and seeking to bring his compositions to the ‘brink of incoherence before redeeming them’.16 And, equally, in Maloon’s earlier essay for the 1991 Indian Triennale, after acknowledging a certain ‘carnivalesque’, he concludes that Sansom’s works offer unified ‘amalgams’ of ‘multifarious styles and various representational codes’.17
And underpinning all of these efforts to construct Sansom’s work as synthetic and proposing a final unity to its elements are two explanations or perhaps motivations, one specific and biographical and the other universal and political. The first is the thought that Sansom’s project is in some sense reparative or restorative, a way of putting back together what was once whole. This is understood to have a personal dimension in the fact that Sansom’s father had returned from World War One missing an arm and having sustained permanent and visible scars as a result of having been fired upon (his body retained fragments of shrapnel in a manner that was meant to be shocking to his young son). As Frances Lindsay writes in the catalogue to Sansom’s 1986 retrospective: ‘Sansom’s way of coming to terms with his father’s [injury and death] was to use his art as a means of giving expression to concerns about the uncertainty of life and man’s mortality’.18 And on a wider, more social level, Sansom’s work is understood to allegorise a society that puts together its different constituents to form an overarching unity. And this reading would take inspiration from Sansom’s The Great Democracy with its row of George Washington heads running across the top of the picture. Maloon, for example, provides such a political reading of Sansom—and we cannot help feel it is an attempt to explain something of Australian society to an overseas audience—in his text for the Indian Triennale:
Over the following decades [from 1947-59, which saw a significant rise in immigration], the nascent cosmopolitanism of Melbourne and Sydney would steadily erode Australians’ sense of their collective identity… As hindsight reveals, the leading artists of Sansom’s generation played an important role in the redefinition of Australia’s identity from self-styled monoculture to a self-styled multicultural society.19
But what if all of this were not the case? Let us return for a moment to Steinberg’s lecture at MoMA. He points there to a constant ‘tension’20 between formalism and anti-formalism, in which he favours, through Rauschenberg, the latter. However, it is, as he suggests—against simple readings of him—not a battle that is ever definitively won, but must constantly be waged, with the danger always of slipping over to the other side. And we might say the same thing about Sansom—going against both the artist and his critics—in adopting the same position as Steinberg. Recall again that interview with Rooney that is often taken as evidence for a finally ‘formalist’ approach in his art. After speaking there of a new understanding of modernism as the reassembling of things, he goes on: ‘To some extent, my painting is to do with how close you can get to the edge without everything collapsing’.21 Now this is invariably read as though we approach disorder from the side of order, coming as close as possible to it without ever crossing the line. But what if we read what Sansom is saying from the other side, as though what he is speaking of is approaching order from the side of disorder, but without actually getting there? So that the real challenge of Sansom’s work is not to flirt for as long as possible with disorder before returning to order, but to flirt for as long as possible with order before returning to disorder? In other words, what Sansom seeks to do is keep the various elements in his work in a state of suspension, in a kind of neutrality or indifference towards each another for as long as possible, without forming any higher unity, whether stylistic, material or iconographic? And that it is this that Sansom means when he speaks in interviews of the ‘constant fight’22 of painting and the way it ‘gets harder every day’23 as he gets older. It is not that it gets harder to find ways of putting his pictures together, but that it gets harder to keep the various elements of his pictures apart, from falling back into recognisable styles or even old ways of keeping things apart that he has used before.
In fact, if we look at Sansom’s work objectively, there is no stylistic trajectory, no development in procedure, technique or methodology. Indeed, we might suggest, it is almost the opposite: that whereas in the beginning we have a recognisable ‘pop’ style—the silkscreen-like effects of The Most Catholic Clairvoyant (1964), the drawing of Humphrey Bogart with cigarette in On the Prowl (1965)—we gradually move towards a practice in which more and more heterogeneous elements are added—the photographs of Sansom in drag in Kiss Me (1976), the addition of masking tape in Study for a Painting (1978)—until there is no possible overall look or style. Indeed, if we can say that there is progress in Sansom, it would be that he simply keeps on adding elements, not as any challenge to produce some final unity but rather to ensure that there is no final unity: the insertion of a patch of ink pressings in the middle panel of Du Hast Keine Chance, Nutze Sie (1981), the checkerboards made with the handle of a brush scattered throughout Friendship’s Road (1984). There is no stylistic development in Sansom’s painting because his entire oeuvre constitutes the incessant and ongoing attempt to avoid or outwit any identifiable style. Or as he puts it at another moment in the interview with Rooney: ‘It’s sort of a chaotic thing where from time to time the chaos is almost touching the edge of order, and then I do something to the painting to disintegrate that sense of order’.
This is obviously the contradiction that drives Sansom’s work, but again it must be seen from both sides: not merely as the tipping over into disorder from the side of order but also as the tipping over into order from the side of disorder. And it is this tension again that can be seen in Steinberg when he speaks of the ‘cancelling out’ of illusion and its opposite in Rauschenberg’s early ’60s photographic transfers: ‘The images—each in itself illusionistic—keep interfering with one another, intimations of spatial necessity forever cancelling out to subside into a kind of optical noise’.24 In other words, although Steinberg strongly opposes Greenberg’s ‘formalism’—by which we might mean something like the integrity and self-containedness of the picture plane—he does not dismiss it entirely. It remains as a temptation or tendency, not so much something to be aspired to and achieved as something that is inadvertently fallen into if we are not paying attention. To put it in terms that we are familiar with from before, it is perhaps not so much that Pop becomes Popism as that Pop starts with Popism and has continuously to tear itself away from it.
It is this neutrality or indifference of things towards themselves that is the ‘pictorial surface that lets the world in’25 that Rauschenberg opens up for art again. It implies an evenness and unfocussedness of attention that is caught so well by John Cage when he speaks of Rauschenberg’s art in terms of the then still relatively new technology of TV: ‘But our windows have become electronic: everything moves through the point where our vision is focussed. Wait long enough and you’ll get the Asiatic panoply’.26 And we see this also in Paolozzi, who if he has emerged as strongly as he has in recent years, it is because in his work too there is this same almost scientific or taxonomic impulse that is beyond any individuality or psychologism, whether it be negative as in Dada or dream-like as in Surrealism. Paolozzi, in his mouldings and assemblages of found objects, is like an archaeologist raking over the remnants of a past civilisation. He is postmodern, not in the sense of any conscious artistic style, but in the sense that any modernist teleology or progress is over—and, of course, living in the bombed-out ruins of that great modern metropolis London in the aftermath of the Blitz was the inspiration for this insight. This is the meaning of the ‘Patio and Pavilion’ he put together with the architects Alison and Peter Smithson for the ground-breaking This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, in which he simply put together bike parts, a battered bugle, a clock without hands and an archaic pistol in a corrugated plastic room, without any thought as to their ultimate cohesion or synthesis.27
This is perhaps the true ‘democracy’ at stake in Sansom’s The Great Democracy: not any higher unity made out of constituent parts, like an elected leader embodying the will of the people, but rather the absolute levelling of all distinctions, all hierarchies, all bureaucracies. For, indeed, where is the evidence that Sansom is imposing any kind of ‘multicultural’ unity upon its various elements? Is this how we actually read or respond to the painting? Beneath the row of George Washington heads (one of which is notably out of register), a Peter Blake-like figure with pasted-on eye stares across a chaotic scene of cut-out images of skin diseases, eye operations, atomic bomb explosions and sheets of handwriting, with inexplicable patches of black, purple and green paint, pencil lines and a wallpaper of what looks like parody Russian Suprematism. Nothing goes with anything, or if it does the connection is cancelled out by something else. Thus, if we think there is some relationship between the various eyes, suggesting some line of sight between them, this is contradicted by the wall of black paint in the centre of the composition. If we can see a resemblance between the silver head in a vase and the mushroom cloud, a series of arrows leads off from the latter towards the Suprematist wallpaper. There is even with its composition board backing which can be seen beneath the layers of paint to the bottom left, seemingly no stable underlying surface on which all of its components co-exist. Rather, we have only—to use the title of Rauschenberg’s artist manifesto of 1963—a ‘random order’, or—to use the title of Rosalind Krauss’s well-known essay on Rauschenberg—a ‘perpetual inventory’.
Perhaps, if we were looking for some artistic equivalent to Sansom’s work, and trying to think how his sensibility is shared by others, it is not back to the past that we should look—even all the way back to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Rather, we should be looking across to such fields as architecture, where the theorist Charles Jencks, after identifying a certain ‘post-modernism’ in Los Angeles architecture of the ’60s, went on to nominate a further ‘en-formality’ or ‘hetero’ style in the Los Angeles architecture of the ’70s and ’80s, as seen in Frank Gehry’s Gehry House (1978-79), Eric Owen Moss’s 708 House (1981) and Morphosis’s Angeli’s Restaurant (1985), which are all characterised by the ‘interruption and refutation’ of one element by another.28 And Jencks in his Heteropolis: Los Angeles, the Riots and the Strange Beauty of Hetero-Architecture goes on explicitly to link this style with a new stage in democracy, or perhaps even the end of democracy. Or we might look across to fashion, where such designers as Rei Kawakubo, with her Bump collection, or Alexander McQueen, with his tartan mixed with taffeta, or Martin Margiela, with his black leather with tulle ballgown, all seek to ‘defeat’ fashion understood as any coherent style. Or, to go back to the field of art, we might begin to think of Sansom in relation to the whole European school of ‘bad painting’, as typified by such artists as Albert Oehlen, Werner Büttner and Martin Kippenberger. (Indeed, in one of the more intelligent curatorial classifications, Geoff Newton put Sansom in an exhibition entitled Kippeneberger’s Paris Café at Neon Parc Gallery in Melbourne in 2014.) Or, in fact, we might think of Sansom in terms of the exhibition Unmonumental, held at the New Museum in New York in 2007, which featured such lo-fi sculpture as Iza Genzken’s Elefant (2006), in which corrugated plastic tubes bound together with wallpaper and bubblewrap, out of which silver and black plastic flowers stick, rest on a cardboard plinth; and Rachel Harrison’s Huffy Howler (2004), in which a BMX bike, held up in the middle by purple painted rocks, has bags of stones hanging from its handlebars and a poster of Mel Gibson as William Wallace in the film Braveheart from its back.29
It is hard to see how Sansom has maintained an artistic reputation for so long. After all, he has done everything possible to refute style, taste, quality, any of those measures by which we usually evaluate art.30 Everything in his work goes against these, or at least seeks to neutralise them. But it would be a matter not of any anti-style, which is after all only another style, but rather of the absence of style or a non-style. In a way, there are simply no relevant criteria we can bring to bear upon the work, which is perhaps not even art. And yet, in another way, as with Paolozzi and Rauschenberg, what Sansom represents is always in art, a sort of residuum or reality ‘preceding’ all attempts to make it a style. It would be unbudging, absolute, unchanging, persisting through all of the repeated attempts to give it a style and form. And art is a constant struggle between these two: art starts with this stylessness and is always seeking to turn it into style. Or, even more paradoxically, art is always in the end turning into this stylelessness and this stylelessness lies at the beginning of art. It would be a fleeting, fragile and fugitive moment, always turning back into style, but it would be a moment ‘before’ style, which style must take up as its material and seek to overcome. Perhaps all of this points towards the true ‘great democracy’ in art: a ‘real’ that is not simply before art but is only to be seen through it. What Sansom opens the door onto in a work like Alien Spivvy Space Junk (2002) is something like that ‘great outdoors’ spoken of recently by a number of philosophers. Looking out through the portals of Sansom’s painting, we can begin to imagine a world in which we do not exist. We can even begin to dream of a world in which there is no longer art.
Gareth Sansom, The great democracy, 1968. Oil, enamel, synthetic polymer paint, collage and pencil on composition board, 180 x 180cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Emmanuel Hirsh in memory of Etta Hirsh, 2007. © Gareth Sansom. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, 6. Sack-o-sauce from the portfolio Bunk, 1972. Colour photo screenprint, colour photo lithograph, collage, 36.2 x 26.8cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 2002. Photograph AGNSW. © Sir Eduardo Paolozzi/DACS. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney 2002.
Tony Tuckson, Pyjamas and Herald, 1963. Synthetic polymer paint, tempera and collage of newsprint, hessian and cotton on composition board, 121.9 x 182.8cm.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1979. © Tony Tuckson.
Gareth Sansom, Cravan, 2011. Oil, enamel and collage on linen, image 122.5 x 183.0cm, overall 122.5 x 183.0 x 3.0cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Gareth Sansom through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
1. Wayne Tunnicliff and Anneke Jaspers, Pop to Popism, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1 November 2014–1 March 2015.
2. Paul Taylor, Popism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1982, p.2.
3. Leo Steinberg, ‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’, in Branden W. Joseph (ed.), Robert Rauschenberg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002, p.7.
4. Ibid., p.22.
5. Ibid., p.36.
6. Paul Taylor, ‘Popism – The Art of White Aborigines’, On the Beach 1, Autumn 1983, p.30.
7. We might recall here the back-and-forth of the spectator before the work of Pop Art described by Baudrillard: ‘In many, the works provoke a moral and obscene laugh, … ‘This isn’t very serious, but we are not going to be scandalized by it [we are going to take it seriously because others take it seriously]’. … But these reactions are rather strained, amid some shameful dejection at not knowing quite what to make of it all’, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Sage, London, 1998, p.120-21. And this should remind us of that ‘interpassivity’ as discussed by Slavoj Žižek in his How to Read Lacan, Granta Publications, London, 2006, pp.23-24.
8. Terence Maloon, ‘Gareth Sansom and the Music of the Spheres’, in Bala Starr (ed.), Welcome to My Mind: Gareth Sansom, a Study of Selected Works 1964-2005, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2005, p.13.
9. Bernard Smith, ‘Gareth Sansom’, in The Critic as Advocate: Selected Essays 1941-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989, p.205.
10. Ashley Crawford, ‘Sansom and the Post-Punk Intellect’, The Age, 4 July 2007, p.17.
11. 'James Gleeson Interviews: Gareth Sansom', 28 November 1978, p.9. See http://nga.gov.au/Research/Gleeson/pdf/Sansom.pdf
12. ‘On the Prowl: Gareth Sansom talks to Robert Rooney’, in Frances Lindsay (ed.), Gareth Sansom Paintings 1956-1986, University Gallery, University of Melbourne, 1986, p.15.
13. Terence Maloon, ‘Gareth Sansom and the Music of the Spheres’ op. cit., p.11.
14. Graeme Sturgeon, ‘Gareth Sansom’, Art & Australia, December 1977, p.193.
15. Sebastian Smee, ‘Beauty and Brains’, The Australian, 13 October 2007, p.18.
16. Terence Maloon, ‘Gareth Sansom and the Music of the Spheres’ op. cit., p.11.
17. Terence Maloon, ‘Gareth Sansom’, Seventh Triennale, India, Catalogue Essay, Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency, 1991, p.6.
18. Frances Lindsay, ‘He Sees Himself’, in Gareth Sansom Paintings 1956-1986, op cit., p.8.
19. Terence Maloon, ‘Gareth Sansom’, Seventh Triennale, op. cit., p.6.
20. Leo Steinberg, ‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’, op. cit., p.12.
21. ‘On the Prowl’, op. cit., p.15.
22. ‘James Gleeson Interviews’, op. cit., p.5.
23. Geoff Lowe, ‘Interview with the Artist’, in Gareth Sansom, Seventh Triennale, op. cit., p.23.
24. Leo Steinberg, ‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’, op. cit., p.29.
25. Ibid., p.34.
26. John Cage, ‘On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work’. Cited in Branden W. Joseph, ‘A Duplication Containing Duplications’, in Robert Rauschenberg, op. cit., p.135.
27. See on this principle what the Smithsons called ‘new ordering’ Ben Highmore, ‘Rough Poetry: Patio and Pavilion Revisited’, Oxford Art Review, 29(2), 2006, p.86.
28. Charles Jencks, Heteropolis: Los Angeles, The Riots and the Strange Beauty of Hetero-Architecture, Academy Editions, London, 1993, p.63.
29. See on this Richard Flood et al., Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, Phaidon, London, 2007.
30. As recognised some time ago by Janine Burke: ‘Sansom nudges the borders, both conceptual and real, of what is tasteful, proper—indeed, what constitutes art as such’, ‘Borderline Position’, Australian Society, July 1991, p.34.
Thank you to Jack Willet.
Rex Butler is an art historian, writer and Professor of Art History and Theory at Monash University, Melbourne.