Sitting in his studio, looking at the paintings for this exhibition, Dick Watkins stresses the artistic legacy that he looks back on in his work. He locates himself within his personal theory of modern art that is constantly acknowledged in how he paints and what he paints: Out of Cubism, primarily Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon developed the true vitality of twentieth-century art. The other great streams are Duchamp-ism and Realism. Best known for his distinctive abstract style, Watkins does paint some ‘realist’ paintings but these are seldom shown.
Watkins is from that first generation of Australian artists just after World War II to whom all art history was equally available through accelerated access to art information, particularly the burgeoning international arts press and through travel and study overseas which was often funded by travel grants and art prizes. These artists, and Watkins in particular, directed their primary attention to recent European and American art.
Watkins’s works acknowledge this past without facile or direct quotation. He works from not only what he knows about art from his intense study over five decades of Picasso and Pollock in particular, but from a vocabulary of his own painterly solutions. His paintings are informed and enigmatic skirmishes with different artists and their ways of making art. Watkins’s works, like those of his touchstone, Picasso’s are a vehicle for passion and for intellectual inquiry. Despite appearing deceptively simple, Watkins’s paintings evolve as sophisticated distillations of carefully choreographed intellectual and visual games without sacrificing their primal virility and the vital tension of risk taking and accident.
Form, with line and colour is the essence of a painting by Dick Watkins. Form asserts its supremacy over subject matter. Content is nothing but a device for generating form. Watkins understands the formal language of painting. Collage is a compositional device. He assembles form as a kind of paint colle using a place and put technique and enlisting a calligraphic expressive shorthand. His vocabulary, which comprises a recurring repertoire of motifs, marks and gestures, of lines, thrusts, squares, circles, crosses, spars and arcs, underlies all Watkins’s painting activity.
In this show, Europa and the Bull may derive from the internalisation of the vocabularies of international painters Picasso and Matisse. Yet it is aggressively independent of these. Watkins’s intentions and form are deliberately cryptic. Has he applied abstract gestures to figurative ends, or is the figuration (for instance, the stick figure limbs of the bull and the Cyclopean eye of the ‘demoiselle’ in profile) used here for purposes of abstract expression? Reef with its lyrical palette and ‘cut-out’ forms from Matisse is essentially abstract yet is readily evocative of Long Reef near Watkins’s Northern Beaches studio. In Totem and Tabou, although a deliberate painterliness softens the hard edge style, it retains the emblematic power sought by Jasper Johns as it exploits the active and passive elements of colour and the ambivalence and push and pull of figure and ground.
Watkins’s works declare the act of painting rather than the skill of observation that was prized in older painting traditions. A painting by Watkins communicates its physicality. Its charged surfaces proclaim the complex choreography of body and visual language and the act of painting. The scale of the geometry and gesture signal the reach and power of the artist’s eye and wrist, arm and body, the pull of the brush, the weight of paint, the chance and psychology of colour interaction. Despite the sweep and rigour of his mark making Watkins invariably imposes emotive order, deftly anchoring the powerful contained energy. Watkins plays music while he paints. Very loudly. The improvisation, syncopation and contrapunctal rhythm of jazz is translated into form in Balboa Bash. It is named for a piece by Stan Kenton. As Kenton makes music, so does Watkins make a painting from the distillation of innate essential rhythms.
Dick Watkins is many artistic personalities in one. At the National Gallery of Australia in 1993 for the exhibition Dick Watkins in context I hung twenty five works by Watkins from the National Collection with those of the European and American masters who form his passion and pictures; among them Rauschenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Al Held, and Albers as well as Matisse, Pollock and Picasso. What emerged from that juxtaposition, and is seen in this show, is that irrespective of the sources implicated in his paintings, Watkins continues to pit himself against these mentors and rivals to wrest a mature style which is distinctively and recognisably his own.
Barbara Dowse 2004
Dick Watkins was born in 1937 in Sydney, Australia. As an artist, Dick Watkins is largely self-taught, although between 1955 and 1958 he occasionally attended the Julian Ashton Art School and East Sydney Technical College in Sydney. Dick Watkins held his first solo exhibition at The Barry Stern Galleries in 1963 and from 1966-69 was a driving force amongst the artists of Sydney’s Central Street Gallery. In 1968 Watkins was a key participant in the National Gallery of Victoria’s landmark exhibition, The Field, the first major survey exhibition of colour field painting and geometric abstraction in Australia. In 1970 Watkins began a decade long association with Chandler Coventry, exhibiting at the Hargrave Street Gallery and at Coventry Gallery. In 1985, while associated with Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Watkins represented Australia at the XVIII Biennial de Sao Paulo in Brazil. In 1989 the Wagga Wagga Regional Art Gallery celebrated Watkins’ significant contribution to Australian art with a major retrospective exhibition and in 1993 the National Gallery of Australia mounted the exhibition Dick Watkins in context: an exhibition from the collection of the National Gallery. A pioneer of abstract painting in Australia, Watkins is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, most regional gallery collections and numerous distinguished corporate and private art collections in Australia. Dick Watkins lives and works in Sydney, Australia.