John Nixon : White Paintings | The Saturday Paper

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John Nixon : White Paintings | The Saturday Paper

In curation John Nixon: White Paintings, Sue Cramer, with the help of the artist’s daughter Emma Nixon, has assembled a group of works that reveal the depth and scope of Nixon’s involvement with the color white. From the late 1970s, Nixon approached his painting practice as an experimental painting workshop (EPW), exploring the possibilities of making a painting at the intersection of color, form, material, technique and texture.

To demonstrate the range of artistic invention within strict limits, Nixon dedicated two subsets of the EPW to a single color. He started EPW: Orange and EPW: Silver in 1995, both colors chosen for their optimistic character and tendency to radiate light. There was never an EPW formally devoted to white, but the organization of the works in Nixon’s estate after his death in 2020 made Cramer aware of its importance in his practice.

Nixon curated an exhibition titled White paintings at Gertrude Contemporary Art Space in 2012 which included five paintings by himself, Gunter Christmann, Robert Hunter, David Thomas and Karl Wiebke. He saw non-objective art as an ongoing collective enterprise built on the experimentation of successive generations of artists. In the exhibition catalogue, Nixon wrote about the history of white abstract painting internationally and in Australia. He noted how the all-black works of Ad Reinhardt and the all-white works of Robert Hunter – as seen in two important exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, Two Decades of American Painting (1967) and The field (1968) – warned him about the power of aesthetic economy and the monochrome.

However, the first influence he cites on his use of white was Kazimir Malevich’s White on White (1918). Much of Nixon’s sense of the potential in non-objective art comes from studying the Russian avant-garde’s development of the idea of ​​laboratory art. Malevich purposefully experimented and dispensed with complex, colored forms over a period of three years to better evoke a realm of pure ideas carried over from the future in vestigial form by painting barely distinguishable white forms on white ground.

In John Nixon: White Paintings, Cramer shows how many of the elements of Nixon’s practice were incipient and evolved in scope and significance over his five decades. The most recent work is Untitled (White Monochrome) (2020), a simple composition formed from two rectangular, monochrome canvases. Both are executed in white enamel paint, but the upper rectangle is standard canvas, while paint is applied to casting in the lower one. The work illustrates Nixon’s interest in the phenomenology of materials: the complex of sensations and meanings that materials produce through their physical presence. His use of white enables a singular convergence of color and materiality.

The earliest paintings in the exhibition are four small works from 1968, when Nixon was a 19-year-old art student. It was a year of furious debate about the place of modernism in Australian art. The field exhibition – held for the opening of the National Gallery of Victoria’s St Kilda Road site – included a range of contemporary Australian abstraction, although the catalog largely framed it in terms championed by the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg argued that to guarantee the independence of painting as a counter to the banality of mass culture, artists must focus on what is integral to the medium—primarily flatness, two-dimensionality, and optics.

By 1968, however, Greenbergian modernism had been undermined by minimalism’s exploration of non-art aesthetics and objectivity. Minimalism’s array of geometric objects refuted aesthetic decision-making, postulating an art of simple facts stripped of aspirations to self-expression or metaphysical insight. In a further break with art history, minimalist works disrupted the veneration of artists’ manual skills and, as they were produced from industrial materials in engineering workshops, the conventions of the medium.

Developed as a series of variations on the construct of the painted canvas, Nixon’s earliest white paintings have a stake in these debates. For Nixon, however, a work of art was never simply the physical remnant of an artistic proposition. He was very invested in the physical production of his work, and became increasingly so as the emergent character of the act of making drove the development of his practice.

The EPW utilized the analytical potential of non-objectivity from many starting points. Nixon was as interested in the Russian avant-garde’s proposal of constructed sculpture, which utilized real space and non-art materials, as he was in Malevich’s investigation of the metaphysical significance of compositional, color and texture combinations. For Nixon, the color white represented the space to make something out of nothing.

In John Nixon: White Paintings, Cramer shows how his extraction of color emphasizes the properties of objects and materials, and the dynamics of composition. He sourced many of the components of his works from hardware stores, thrift stores, junkyards and his immediate surroundings. Colors, objects and materials entered Nixon’s work with a generative quality activated by the making process. A major product of the EPW is a taxonomy of ways of working with all three, revealing how they constitute a diffuse system of affects and meanings that make up our everyday world, with an agency that acts upon us.

The lack of other color in the white paintings makes the tactile properties of paint more apparent, emphasizing its behavior due to its thinness or viscosity and the character of the brush strokes used to apply paint. The simultaneous presence of many colors of white and types of paint interacting with different surfaces – canvas, denim, casting, Masonite, onion bag or rough wooden boards – suggests the contingency of perceptual experience and an approach to medium itself as a field of meaning.

Whiteness in relation to the formal arrangement of elements emphasizes the analytical imperative in modern art. In works that incorporate real space, Nixon’s use of whiteness emphasizes the relationship of artworks to the white walls of the gallery. Nixon saw works of art as embedded in their immediate social and temporal context – a manifestation of the circumstances of the artist.

In many works, the otherworldliness of white is disrupted by ordinary objects: bottle tops, ceramic tiles, grains of rice, a plastic ruler, an enamel plate, a spoon. Above all, the exhibition shows, in the most nuanced ways, that by exploring the qualities of colors, compositions and materials in association with objects, Nixon created a rich milieu to encounter the poetry of forms and materials.

John Nixon: White Paintings showing until 17 September at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 3 September 2022 as “Witgoed”.

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