Sapling forest 1962 signed and dated 'Fred Williams. 62' lower right oil and tempera on composition board 119.5 x 180.3cm (47 1/16 x 71in).
PROVENANCE Acquired from the Wardell Prize Exhibition, Perth, 1965 The Harold E Mertz Collection, Texas, United States of America Jack S Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Texas, United States of America The Harold E Mertz Collection of Australian Art, Christies, Melbourne, 28 June 2000, lot 100 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 2000
EXHIBITED Fred Williams, Georges Gallery, Melbourne, 1 - 14 April 1964, cat. no. 9 Fred Williams Farewell Exhibition, Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney, 13 - 30 May 1964, cat. no. 6 T.E. Wardell Art Prize, Skinner Galleries, Perth, February 1965, cat. no. 8 The Mertz Collection of Contemporary Australian Painting, National Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 12 March - April, 1966, cat. no. 98 The Australian painters 1964 - 1966: contemporary Australian painting from the Mertz Collection, touring exhibition, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, United States of America, 10 March - 24 April 1967; Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersberg, Florida, 24 August 24 September 1967; University Art Museum, University of Texas, Texas, 26 October 16 November 1967; State University of New York, New York, 728 December 1967; University of Alabama, Alabama, 1 February 7 March 1968; Greenville Power & Light Company, South Carolina, 25 April 16 May 1968; DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Massachusetts, 12 September 7 November 1968; West Virginia University, West Virginia, 12 January - 9 February 1969; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia, 14 September 12 October 1969; Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts, Pennsylvania, 2 30 November 1969; Watkins Institute, 8 February 8 March 1970, cat. no. 28 On long-term loan to the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1982 1990 A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987
LITERATURE Ross K Luck, The Australian Painters, 1941-1966 : contemporary Australian painting from the Mertz collection, Griffin Press, Adelaide, c. 1967, p. 47 (illus.) James Gleeson, Masterpieces of Australian Painting, Lansdowne Press, 1969, p. 171 (illus.) Laurie Thomas (Ed), 200 Years of Australian Painting, Sydney, 1971, p. 85 (illus. and cover) Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams, Bay Books, Sydney, 1980, p. 162 (illus.) James Mollison, Fred Williams Souvenir Book, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1987, p. 19 (illus.) James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, exh. cat., Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1987, pp. 72-73 (illus.) Deborah Hart, et al, Fred Williams: Infinite Horizons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2011, p. 198 (illus. in situ)
Fred Williams was 35 when he painted Sapling forest. It was the largest painting he had undertaken and marked the first time he painted a major work to sum up a period. The sapling or forest series had begun two years earlier, derived from gouache and oil studies he made at Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. Williams found his distinctive voice there, on home turf, so to speak, and began his ascent to become one of Australia's greatest painters. This grandly conceived epic jointly possesses the austere order of abstract art and a full-fleshed feeling for the touch and texture of the bush. The path to this achievement was not a simple one. It involved struggle and fortitude on the artist's part.
In 1957, after five years in London, Williams had returned to Australia and made the conscious decision to paint the landscape. And not just any old landscape: he took the gum tree and the gum tree forest as his principal form and image. In the late 1950s this was regarded as 'mission impossible' for a serious young artist. The gum tree had become stereotyped in Australian art, the domain of Hans Heysen and the 'Heysenettes' as Robert Hughes wittily dubbed his less talented followers. No truly modern painter could take on such a theme. The Australian art world was riven in those days between the opposing claims of abstract art versus figurative. The idea of painting landscape was irrelevant to both. The gum tree forest allegorised in a brooding, primitive mode, could be acceptable for a figurative drama such as Arthur Boyd's Love, marriage and death of a half-caste, painted contemporaneously with Williams' early landscapes.
Williams intellectually and imaginatively had neither the time nor the taste for the 'mythic', Antipodean side of Australian painting. The five years 1957-62, spanning his return to the painting of Sapling forest, might be fairly described as the high season of Antipodeanism. The figure in the landscape or cityscape became the dominant trope in Melbourne painting and its leading exponents were the Antipodean group Charles Blackman, John Brack, Arthur and David Boyd, Robert Dickerson, Clifton Pugh and John Perceval. They held their one and only exhibition in 1959. The critic and historian Bernard Smith was the chief author of the notorious Manifesto which accompanied the show, with its strident attack on abstract art. Williams to his initial hurt and bewilderment (and later relief) had been excluded from the group. His first essays in landscape were too dour or too abstract or too experimental for the romantic expressionism of the Antipodeans.
Williams had arrived back in Australia steeped in the modern masters. He developed a particular affinity for French painting Cezanne, Matisse and Braque. Years later he would declare his admiration for the French tradition; "My admiration has always been for the French painters, the French way of living, the French attitude, rationalism. All the painters that I can think of that I admire always turn out to be French." When he turned to the landscape in 1957, it was their example he had in mind. How does one use their formal order and inventiveness in the face of the repetitiveness of the Australian bush? He started by separating the elements of the landscape trees and rocks, a river bisecting the landscape, a hemispherical forest pond surrounded by massive tree trunks to give the work formal clarity. A restrained palette of green, blue, brown and blacks with occasional touches of high-keyed colour provided tonal unity to the landscape. The paintings of 1957-9 had an un-ingratiating impersonality for all the vigour of their handling. They were peculiarly airless landscapes. A few of his contemporaries, artists and collectors, admired them, but they enjoyed little commercial success and drew a muted critical reception.
In 1959 a double blow fell on Williams as he struggled to get a foothold in the Australian art scene. The exclusion from the Antipodean group was one and the other was the failure of his third one-man exhibition at the Australian Galleries to attract many buyers. Even if the following year he was invited to exhibit in the prestigious Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship (won by Charles Blackman), Williams was in a state of artistic crisis. Largely spurned by the current art scene, Williams mined his experience. He painted regularly in Sherbrooke Forest and began to conceive of the dense woodland as a wall, emphatic and impenetrable. The first steps towards the climactic Sapling forest had been taken. The horizon line disappeared, as did the ground plane of the forest. The massive trunks of gums or bunches of saplings now formed the entire motif. Consciously Williams did away with the conventional, stage-like space on which the Antipodeans could place a runaway bride or a lost explorer. Williams created instead a purely pictorial space, open to the eye and to the touch as Sapling forest so wonderfully demonstrates. Williams endowed these landscapes with an atmosphere of their own. Light filters down from the top of the picture or emanates unexpectedly from the surface. The impersonal dourness of the early landscapes gives way to a surface that is energised by Williams' gesture and touch, as the rich and varied textures of Sapling forest bears out. It is the feel of the landscape its dryness, its emptiness as much as the look of the place.
Williams relished the abstractness of his forest and sapling series. He had always fought clear of the idea of landscape painting as a 'view' of the subject. Without horizon line or ground plane, the painting surrounds the viewer like an environment. Williams knew he had broken through to a new, original and distinctive way of painting the Australian landscape. He felt free to adopt and adapt some of the most contemporary modes of the period. The texture painting of the Spaniard, Antoni Tapies, played a role, and the broad vertical divisions of Sapling forest echo the famous 'zips' of Barnett Newman's colour field abstractions. So much for the absurd distinction between abstract and figurative painting which littered the Antipodean Manifesto.
After the struggles of 1957-9, the sapling and forest series elated Williams. He wanted to sum up that breakthrough on an epic scale. Most of the series were necessarily painted in a vertical format to accommodate the motif but here in Sapling forest Williams returned to a landscape format, giving the painting sweep as well as intensity. The grandeur of the work transcends a specific time or place and gives to the Australian bush a universal, timeless existence. Williams had found a way forward for himself and for Australian landscape painting. It marks the turning point of the 1950s into the contemporary, experimental world of the 1960s.