Beyond the Opening

-- Demystifying Contemporary Art --

O'Keeffe, Preston, Crossington Smith | MAKING MODERNISM

The opportunity to experience a substantial collection of each of these three artists under the same roof was thrilling. These women - forerunners of their time, working in the same genre, same medium, with similar sensibilities and themes drew cultural and artistic lines across two countries (Australia and America). The layout and design of the exhibition made it easy to compare and contrast, to see the similarities and differences, and to understand more about the modernism movement as a whole.

A highly enjoyable experience.

This touring exhibition has first been exhibited at Heide, but if you missed the Melbourne exhibition, you could head over to the Queensland Art Gallery for a quick look before it closes on the 11 June 2017, or pop up to the Art Gallery of NSW as it will be exhibited there between the 1 July and the 1 October 2017.


Entering the grounds of Heide is always a delight. Today the sun is softly shining and there is not a whisper of breeze. The trees are in full leaf, luscious and green. Dappled shade. I walk up a gently sloping hill, through the gardens. Rounding a corner I pass the bubbling cafe overflowing with intense chatter, to the entrance of the main gallery.

It is busy here. So busy. I have arrived a week from closing and the gallery is jam packed. From the ticket counter I bustle past the ‘contemporary artist space’ in which Antonia Sellbach’s work seems deceptively simple. She has titled her exhibition ‘Open Fields’ and despite the crowd, it feels spacious: flat linear poles lean against the wall - swatches of bright colour. There is a grid applied to the wall made of complete and incomplete triangles and squares, various colours. On the wall opposite is a similar pattern on canvass. The geometric and minimalist character of her work contrasts extraordinarily against the palpable emotion and textural depth of Albert Tucker’s portraits and story lines (today there is a portrait of Joy Hester looking, as normal, markedly disgruntled).

I wind my way through the permanent collection and the crowd to stand at the entrance of the headline exhibition, greeted by a painting of what seems to be a contemplation of green, or perhaps a magnified flower bud, by Georgia O’Keeffe. The canvas has been worked to produce slight shifts in a jadey-turquoise colour with a fine gently curving line of shell pink moving from top to bottom.

Three galleries have been dedicated to each of the modernist women painters: on entering, Preston (to the left), Crossington Smith (to the right) and O’Keeffe (the back central gallery including the two adjoining rooms). Works are hung around the perimeter of each room, it seems ordered from earliest to latest. There are about thirty works by each artist. Each collection of paintings is accompanied by a display of relative ephemera: photographs, books, newspaper cuttings and reference notes. A book on colour usage is included in Grace’s, whilst a short film accompanies Georgia O’Keeffe collection discussing her inspiration and manifesto.

Gallery 1 [Margaret Preston]

I turn to the left and am greeted by Margaret Prestons' wildflowers, they form a linear border around the perimeter of the room, and they are visually strong: bold definition, simple composition, distinctive pattern and block colour - no ambiguity. As I turn through the display of Margaret's work flower compositions prevail, however there is one portrait.

The portrait draws my attention: 'Flapper'. A young women sitting directly in front of the viewer, large dark defiant eyes stare out from under her fashionable hat and cropped hair. She seems small and large at the same time, sitting there in the midst of a white-ish background, in the working clothes of a 1950's housekeeper.

The works prior to this portrait seems to be Margaret’s earlier works. They seem a little more ‘bitsy’, to have greater colour variety and perhaps more texture. Over time her work seems to become bolder, flatter, perhaps clearer and more confident. Over time she seems to reduce her palette and make more of an investigation into composition and pattern. From this portrait work on Margaret’s work seems to take on the characteristic principles: high colour palette, native flowers combine with geometric pattern.

Gallery 2 [Grace Crossington Smith]

I move with the crowd, shuffling, from Margaret’s works to Grace’s earlier works. Grace pointedly represented her environment and surrounds, which were mostly outside, with lush stylised vegetation and some sort of construction – a road, bridge or building arch. She applied paint in dabs, you can see the bristle imprints from each stroke. She constructs each painting using pure colour to represent light and shade, rather than blending colour or altering the tone. There is a potent rhythm to her works, an intense use of colour and pattern and a complete use of the canvass.

There are two earlier works that strike me: a painting of a young open forest, narrow trunks make for a dense vertical rhythm, the viewer is within the forest. The second is of a hill with a young forest growing upon it. Both seem harsh and chunky up close, very brown and golden yellow (reminiscent of my grandmothers lounge). I glance back, and from a distance realise how Grace uses space, of how subtle the light plays, and how she completely utilised the canvas – right to the edge with colour and pattern. And suddenly these paintings, became incredibly sophisticated.

I enter the adjacent room, it is intimate, cool colours, either side are works of the harbour bridge under construction, dominating, arching up, all canvass is used and the bridge dominates – pastel pinks, purples and greens. These are her prized works. Grace’s preparatory sketches and a book discussing colour are displayed in here. Following are smaller works (about A3) where the canvass is complete with vegetative rhythm shaped into a modernist pattern, and intense colour. One is of a hillside landscape with two jacaranda trees in full bloom. Vibrant purples, blues and greens, stylised trees and lush dappled light. This looks like modernist Eden. The other is an interior looking out, dominated by a sweeping band of tangerine, an archway of a door to the outside.

I spot a flower portrait, it’s amongst the last displayed, and is of a small posy of yellowy flowers laid in a flat woven basket. The pattern of this work is very fine, very detailed, yet colours are still applied singularly. Margaret Preston had awarded Grace a prize for this work.

Gallery 3 [Georgia O'Keefe]

Although Grace, Margaret and Georgia share common subjects, the difference in their execution could not be starker on entering the gallery with O’Keeffe’s work. Instead of composed bouquets, blossoms in situ, patterns or constructed forms, Georgia O’Keeffe completely fills the canvass with magnified flower buds and the vast and sweeping dessert landscapes of New Mexico. Papery Morning Glory blooms, eroded rock formations, and quintessential wind worn rams skulls bleached in the desert sun. Everything is reduced to its minimum, almost abstract form and block colours. Textural details are removed, there are subtle shifts in vast colour applications. Blues, earthy reds. The flowers are reduced to colour and maybe a shadow line; the landscape to bands of earth, mountain and sky.

I reel around attempting a final scan to commit this experience to memory, bump into someone. I can’t clearly see the work for all the people. I choose a few of my favourites and make a bee-line for a final glance. Then out. Up the stairs, past the bustling ticket counter and up into the fresh air and dappled light.

O'Keeffe, Preston, Crossington Smith: Making Modernism

Curators: Lesley Harding (Heide), Denise Mimmocchi (AGNSW), Jason Smith (initiating curator), Cody Hartley and Carolyn Kastner (Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)

12 October 2016 to 19 February 2017

Heide Museum of Modern Art

Georgia O'Keeffe

Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory 1938

oil on canvas

50.8 x 76.2 cm

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe

Gift of The Burnett Foundation

© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe

Petunia No. 2 1924

oil on canvas

91.4 x 76.2 cm

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe Gift of the Burnett Foundation and Gerald and Kathleen Peters 1996

Grace Cossington Smith

Landscape at Pentecost 1929

oil on paperboard

83.7 x 111.8 cm

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide South

Australian Government Grant 1981

Grace Cossington Smith

The Bridge in Building 1929

oil on pulpboard

75 x 53 cm

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Gift of Ellen Waugh 2005

Margaret Preston

Western Australian Gum Blossom 1928

oil on canvas

55.3 x 46 cm

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Purchased 1978

Margaret Preston

Implement Blue 1927

oil on canvas on hardboard

42.5 x 43 cm

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Gift of the artist 1960