WATKINS, Dick; The Mooche
In the 1968 catalogue for the landmark exhibition â€˜The Fieldâ€™, Royston Harpur identified The Mooche 1968 by Dick Watkins as â€˜the outstanding paintingâ€™ in the exhibition.(1) Curator Brian Finemore and exhibition officer John Stringer brought together the latest in Colour Field and hard-edge abstract painting and sculpture for â€˜The Fieldâ€™, which was held at the newly built National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road in Melbourne. The exhibition attracted huge publicity and attendances, with around 100 000 visitors in its first weekend.(2) Critics at the time were particularly harsh, but today â€˜The Fieldâ€™ is acclaimed as one of the most important exhibitions in Australian art history. Testaments to this are the generous amount of literature on it and numerous exhibitions revisiting the theme since the 1980s.
Early in his career, Watkins looked to the work of North American abstract expressionists and Pop artists working in a narrative manner, and in 1968 attended lectures given by visiting influential art critic Clement Greenberg. Watkinsâ€™s travels between 1959 and 1961 played a key role in shaping his practice: he lived in London, visited continental Europe and stopped off in New York before returning to Australia. Created during the Central Street Galleryâ€™s halcyon days - the gallery was a hub for young artists working in a similar direction during the late 1960s - The Mooche hints at lyrical abstraction and what was to come. Indeed, in his catalogue essay for â€˜The Fieldâ€™, Patrick McCaughey (then art critic for The Age) predicted that with The Mooche, â€˜. . . the opening of the field and the loosening of the paint promise a view of the future . . .â€™(3)
With undercurrents of Cubism and early Russian Constructivism, The Mooche is a vibrant mix of Pop meets Colour Field and hard-edge abstraction. With soft-edged forms and a rhythmic movement of shapes traversing the picture plane, this jazz-titled work oozes 1960s cool and vitality. Its lozenge-shaped canvas (4) adds to the workâ€™s dynamism and alludes to Piet Mondrianâ€™s losangiques, first painted in 1918.
The Mooche has passed through some significant collections. Until 1988 it was owned by mining engineer Jeremy Caddy before entering the prestigious Laverty Collection (Dr Colin and Elizabeth Laverty) of Indigenous and non-Indigenous art. Gifted to QAGOMA by Brisbane collector and Gallery Trustee James C Sourris, AM, it strengthens our existing holdings of mid-twentieth-century paintings and early Australian abstraction. The Mooche joins three other works in the Collection that were exhibited in â€˜The Fieldâ€™: the large, modular Colour Field painting Arbitrator 1968 by Central Street frontman Tony McGillick, Dale Hickeyâ€™s Untitled 1967, and Nigel Lendonâ€™s Slab construction 11 1968. Along with these are examples in the Collection that closely relate to other works in â€˜The Fieldâ€™, such as the influential American James Doolinâ€™s Artificial landscape 1967, Robert Rooneyâ€™s Kind-hearted kitchen-garden I 1967, and two untitled white/off-white paintings by Robert Hunter (such as No.1 untitled painting) from 1968.
Many of the artists in â€˜The Fieldâ€™, including Watkins, lived or travelled overseas in the years preceding the exhibition, and this undoubtedly helped to shape its content. A time of huge political and cultural change, North American popular culture was rapidly filtering into Australian life. The Mooche embodies the lively and fast changing period that has become synonymous with this chapter in Australian art.
Emily Gray, Artlines no.4, 2014, p.42.
1 Royston Harpur, then curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, artist and former manager of Sydneyâ€™s Central Street Gallery, in The Field [exhibition catalogue], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and The Aldine Press, 1968, p.93.
2 The Sun, Victoria, 26 August 1968.
3 Patrick McCaughey in The Field, p.90.
4 This was also a format used by Kenneth Noland for his paintings Go 1964 and Stand 1966, which were exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and the Art Gallery of New South wales, Sydney, as part of the hugely popular and influential 1967 exhibition â€˜Two Decades of American Paintingâ€™ from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.