Figures by the sea 1985 inscribed and dated '"FIGURES BY THE SEA"/ R. WATKINS/ 1985' verso acrylic on canvas 122.0 x 168.0cm (48 1/16 x 66 1/8in).
PROVENANCE Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1988
EXHIBITED 18a Bienal Internacional de Säo Paolo, 4 October 15 December 1985
LITERATURE Sheila Leimer, et al, 18a Bienal Internacional de Säo Paolo, Säo Paulo, 1985, p. 60 Daniel Thomas, Imants Tillers, Dick Watkins: XVIII Bienal de Säo Paulo, Brazil, October 4 December 15 1985, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, New South Wales, 1985, pp. 11, 51 (illus.)
Dick Watkins is one of the most ingenious and unpredictable Australian painters of his generation. He has moved easily between so-called hard edge formalism as in The mooche 1968 (sold, Bonhams, Laverty Collection, 24 March, 2013) and painterly and 'automatic' abstraction. His enduring interest in the artists from the School of Paris, the fountainhead of modernism, remains undiminished. Yet, on occasions, he has been so sparse and instantaneous that his work in black and white reminds us of Asian calligraphy.
But it is European and American modernism that is his mainstay. Figures by the sea might at first seem like a subtle tribute to the School of Paris. Perhaps the exuberant beach scenes from the 1920s by Picasso with their playful angularity, where figures and incidents become striking compositions; or the flat shapes and dense, light-saturated colour of Matisse. In Sidney Nolan's St Kilda 1942 (National Gallery of Victoria) we find black painted outlines in-filled with incidents of primary colour, another earlier re-working of early twentieth century modernism.
But in Watkins' work, it's all this and more if it were not for the title we might not pick up the hints of pictorial literalism. Watkins appears to us as reflective and respectful of those he admired. He is never subservient to his source and nor does he fall into mimicry. He is an artist who admires history, and remains contemporary in attitude. It's an approach which has secured interest in him in Australia and internationally. Figures by the sea was exhibited in 1985 when he represented Australia at the XVIII Biennial de Sao Paulo in Brazil, less than a decade after Clement Greenberg, the great American formalist critic, visited Australia and described Watkins as Australian's finest living painter. In Figures by the sea abstraction is bold and emblematic of its subject and source.
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