Private Totems

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To find tony tuckson's curatorial legacy, you must take the lift down to the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, "Yiribana," which means "this way" in the local Eora language. Here, under the guidance of Tuckson, the gallery's deputy director from 1957 to 1973, Tiwi sculptures and Arnhem Land bark paintings first made their way into a fine-arts museum, changing forever the way we view Aboriginal art. To find Tuckson's memorial, you must venture outside. Here the 17 pukumani burial poles commissioned by the gallery in 1958 resonate like a force field. "In the phrase of the day," a colleague once remarked of Tuckson, "he had a 'good eye'."

More than that, he had the instinct of a born artist. Tony Tuckson (1921-1973) was a private painter. He produced 740 paintings and 10,000 drawings, but because he was also one of Australia's most powerful art bureaucrats he chose not to exhibit until three years before he died, from spinal cancer, aged 52. He worked fast and furtively, scribbling abstract studies in ballpoint pen at his desk, and using whatever materials came to hand: the Positions Vacant pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, or packets of his much-loved Craven A cigarettes. Now, with the remarkable retrospective "Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson"-at Canberra's National Gallery of Australia until February, before traveling to Adelaide, Ballarat, Sydney and Melbourne-Australian art's best-kept secret is out. Secrecy, says the show's curator Tim Fisher, "allowed him to become more radical and more immediate than probably any other Australian painter."

Along with fellow Anglo-Australian Ian Fairweather, Tuckson produced the region's finest examples of abstract expressionism. Like Fairweather, Tuckson looked north. A few years after the former made his legendary raft trip through the Timor Sea, Tuckson was beginning to journey away from his Sydney art-school influences (Matisse, Picasso, Dubuffet) toward his own compass points: the traditional cultures of northern Australia and New Guinea. As his art grew more primal, so too did his appearance. "English of complexion, his slightly ginger hair went from short back and sides to long grey strands joining wispish nicotine whiskers in a circle around his face like a Sepik mask," recalled curator Renèe Free.

Being culturally unanchored kept his art open and curious. The son of a British pilot, Tuckson was born in Egypt, schooled in England, and flew Spitfires over France during the war. Australia became his home (he met his wife Margaret there while on pilot-training duty) but never properly contained his art. Like Fairweather, Tuckson was drawn to something beyond the horizon. This is what he reached with White over Red on Blue, c. 1971. Painted with hypnotic force, it shows a white totem or temple hovering above an ocher field across a sea of blue. In one beautiful gesture, the Pacific and its cultures seem summoned together.

The turning point for Tuckson came with his 1958 trip to Melville Island to oversee the progress of the pukumani poles, and to northeast Arnhem Land the following year to record the creation stories told in local bark paintings. "A sense of scale, of proportion — must be felt intuitively by the artist," he wrote. "I believe this is apparent in all Aboriginal art forms." It began to be felt in his own work, with an increasingly restricted palette, experiments with cross-hatching, and a non-European sense of authorship (he rarely signed or dated his work). Later, after collecting Melanesian art for the gallery, his work took on the graphic red and black markings of New Guinea shields. Around this time, cryptic symbols and letters began to adorn his art. Does the "BB" of his c. 1964 abstract stand for Brigitte Bardot, or a dog he had then? Like the best Aboriginal work, BB doesn't give up its mysteries easily, yet looks and feels exactly right.

Tuckson was no Eddie Burrup, the dubious Aboriginal persona adopted by the late Elizabeth Durack. What makes Tuckson's art so authentic and affecting is his own presence in the work. Paring his oeuvre to just 55 paintings, 42 drawings and three sketchbooks, "Painting Forever" charts an artist's path to self-discovery. The final room is a revelation. Here, on what curator Fisher calls "man-sized" pieces of Masonite, Tuckson painted himself. With Pink, White Line, Yellow Edge, Red Line Middle, c. 1973, his English complexion is caught in the midday sun. Black, Grey, White, c. 1971, bares his anger in a thunderstorm of frustrated lines, while with No Title (White Sketch), c. 1973, we get the calm of a painter's life reduced to a single brushstroke. Tuckson admired Jackson Pollock's "going on forever" paintings, and with these late works he matches them. They are like the most poignant of mirrors.

Tuckson's delicacy, toughness and totemic power are all there in the AGNSW's pukumani poles. But shortly before his death, he managed to erect his own memorial. In White on Black with Paper, c. 1973, the Tiwi form is unmistakable, as is the sense of a soul in transit. Smudged in black at the base of this private totem are the artist's fingerprints. It's abstract expressionism made unusually eloquent.