Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle 1970-73 synthetic polymer paint on hardboard 213.5 x 122.0cm (84 1/16 x 48 1/16in).
PROVENANCE The collection of the artist Daniel Thomas Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Tony Tuckson, Watters Gallery, Sydney, 11 April 5 May 1973, cat. no. 15 Tony Tuckson, John Firth Smith: Two Sydney Painters, Monash University Exhibition Gallery, Melbourne, 3 June 3 July 1975, cat. no. 7 Tony Tuckson, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 April 9 May 1976, cat. no. 84 Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 4 November 2000 4 February 2001, cat. no. 57
LITERATURE Sandra McGrath, 'Tony Tuckson', Art and Australia, vol. 12, no. 2, Spring 1974, pp. 156-66, p. 159 (illus.) Grazia Gunn, Tony Tuckson, John Firth Smith: two Sydney painters, Monash University, Melbourne, 1975, cat. no. 7 (illus.) Daniel Thomas, Tony Tuckson 1921-1973, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1976, p. 30, p. 47 (illus.) Daniel Thomas, Tony Tuckson, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1989, pl. 149 (illus.) Tim Fisher, et al, Painting forever: Tony Tuckson, exh. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2000, p.56 (illus.), 62 Michael Fitzgerald, 'Private totems', Time, 11 December 2000, pp. 72-3, p. 72 (illus.) Geoffrey Legge, Renée Free, Daniel Thomas, Terence Maloon, Tony Tuckson, Craftsman House 1989/2007, p. 146 (illus.), 201
Tony Tuckson's Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle was first exhibited in a now legendary exhibition held at Watters Gallery in Sydney between 11 April and 5 May 1973. Although he had been painting and drawing prolifically, with tremendous intensity and dedication since 1946, this was only Tuckson's second one-man exhibition. It proved to be the turning point that established his reputation as an outstanding abstract expressionist painter and one of the foremost Australian artists of his generation.
Daniel Thomas, who was Tuckson's close colleague at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Sandra McGrath, then the art critic for The Australian, described the revelatory impact of the Watters exhibition in two articles that appeared the following year in Art and Australia. 1 The Tuckson retrospective exhibition curated by Daniel Thomas for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1976 left no doubt whatsoever about the magnitude of his achievement, nor about the sublimity of the 1970-1973 paintings which were then present in a magnificent throng. 2
Paintings that Tuckson produced between 1970 and 1973 comprise a distinct subset within his oeuvre. Their identifying features are their largeness and openness and these are qualities that don't just relate to the works' physical scale and formal simplicity, but to the soaring, bursting quality of their emotional energy, the billowing, effulgent behaviour of their colour, and their commanding formal unity. Those features stand in marked contrast to the general tenor of Tuckson's pre-1970 works, breaking away from the latter's febrile, pullulating, pent-up nervous energy, ushering in a superbly controlled lyricism in its stead.
What occasioned such a dramatic breakthrough in Tuckson's art? There is no simple answer. No doubt his epic tour of more than 300 of the world's museums undertaken in 1967-68 gave him first-hand experience of many of the artists whose works he had hitherto only known in reproduction, some of whom he had already aligned himself to, and to a greater or lesser extent emulated. In America and in various museums in Europe, Tuckson could measure his own art's quality against famous luminaries such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. Rather than being crushed by these comparisons, he may well have taken heart from them.
He would also have been able to reacquaint himself with Matisse's paintings, taking account of the mighty influence Matisse exerted over this same group of artists Rothko, Motherwell and Newman in particular. The above-named artists could be corralled into an imaginary company, and it is tempting to imagine Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle surrounded by them, sharing something of their atmosphere and their idiom, although Tuckson is far too independent and profound an artist to be glibly pigeon-holed in terms of putative "influences" and "affinities".
According to Daniel Thomas, Tony Tuckson used to refer to himself as an "action painter." 3 Action painting was a term coined by the American critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952,4 and Tuckson evidently preferred it to the alternative nomenclature of "abstract expressionism" or "tachism". Why he did so is easy to guess: very evident, even in his student works, was his predilection for painting and drawing as a physically vigorous activity, and his works of 1970-73 amplify physical gesture quite spectacularly. The brush or piece of charcoal held in the hand is propelled from the shoulder or the forearm, not just the wrist. One of the qualities Tuckson most prized in art was "directness" which more often than not meant truth-to-materials and an explicit, legible technique. He praised Aboriginal bark paintings, for instance, in these terms: "Directness is an important characteristic in Aboriginal art. There is actually no room for mistakes or for alterations. Each stage of the technical process can be seen and appreciated." 5
Indeed, the more Tuckson's art developed, the more overtly it became "direct" and "performative". Brushwork in a painting like Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle is "live" in a similar way to a jazz musician's improvisation: you begin from scratch and launch into spontaneous creation, needing all your musical culture, your resourcefulness, your presence-of-mind, taste and critical acumen to make the performance work, because your way of invention leaves no leeway for mistakes and alterations. The incandescent physicality of Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle is, of course, an amazing tour de force, and behind it lie decades of experience and preparation, comparable in certain ways to the rigours of a dancer's, an athlete's or a musician's training.
Margaret Tuckson remembers Tony coming home every evening from his day job, pouring himself a whisky and heading straight for the studio. The thousands of paintings and works on paper he produced over these decades may have begun as warm-ups limbering-up and disinhibiting exercises which, in the blink of an eye, could turn serious and engage all his talent and artistry. Faces, figures, still lifes and interiors in his early paintings and drawings were, little by little, upstaged by flurries of brushstrokes and clusters/choreographies of line which began to function independently, establishing their own abstract discourse. 6
Nonetheless it is possible to detect residual images and to find great metaphorical resonance in many of Tuckson's abstract paintings. Daniel Thomas, who was the first owner of Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle, recounted a story which may have a bearing on this particular work. He remembered Tuckson expatiating on Watteau's painting, Gilles -- " the most lyrical dissertation [he] ever gave me on a single painting": "It is a full-length, life-size man in white satin, standing straight, his round face gazing directly at the spectator. Though not a self-portrait, Watteau clearly identified himself with this image. Tuckson had a similar sense of being present in his own work, as well as a Watteauesque tenderness with shimmering white surfaces." 7
Elsewhere in the same essay, Daniel Thomas reinforces this intuition, bringing it into a direct rapport with Pink, white line, yellow edge, red line middle: "Physically Tuckson was very fair. His own pink face and blond hair provided the colours for a number of self-portraits in the 1940s and figure compositions in the 1950s, and perhaps contributed to his ease with pink, yellow and white."8
In other words, for want of a better name, the painting might be construed as Tony Tuckson's ultimate self-portrait.
1 Daniel Thomas, "Tony Tuckson", Art and Australia, vol. 11, no. 3, January-March 1974; Sandra McGrath, "Tony Tuckson", Art and Australia, vol. 12, no. 2, December 1974 2 The installation of the 1976 retrospective can be seen in Curtis Levy's and Christine Olsen's documentary film, Tuckson 1988, Curtis Levy Productions, Sydney 3 Tuckson as a "self-designated action painter", see Daniel Thomas, "An Introduction to Tony Tuckson, 1921-1973", in Daniel Thomas, Terence Maloon, Renée Free, Geoffrey Legge, Tony Tuckson, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2006, p. 25 4 Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," Art News, 51/8, New York, December 1952, p. 22 5 Daniel Thomas, op. cit., p. 27 6 An exhibition I curated in 1989 demonstrated how reminiscences of Tuckson's early imagery underpinned many of his abstract works see Terence Maloon, Tony Tuckson Themes and Variations, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 1989 7 Daniel Thomas, op. cit., p. 37 8 Ibid., p. 23