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The MCA Collection: The Loti and Victor Smorgon Gift of Contemporary Australian Art

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA)


20 Jun 1995 to 12 Dec 1995


Davida Allen, Howard Arkley, Peter Booth, Stephen Bush, Tony Clark, Juan Davila, Richard Dunn, Robert Hunter, Robert Jacks, Michael Johnson, Maria Kozic, John Nixon, Paul Partos, Steig Persson, Kerrie Poliness, Robert Rooney, John Firth Smith, Imants Tillers, Dick Watkins, Jenny Watson, John Young


Linda Michael

about the exhibition

In 1995, collectors Loti and Victor Smorgon donated a collection of 154 works to the MCA. The collection is a remarkable representation of Australian art from the 1980s and 1990s, focusing on three generations of artists, many of whom have been working since the 1960s. These artists emerged during one of the most prolific periods in Australia’s art history, when artists had unprecedented representation in exhibitions and collections around the world.

This exhibition was the first public showing of the newly acquired collection, and highlighted the value and importance of passionate private collectors to the development of public collections. Private collectors can acquire works free of the restraints faced by public institutions, and consequently these collections reflect an intensely personal, focused perspective on the work of a particular period or place.

For this survey, less than a third of the entire collection was selected to present an overview of the key themes in the collection. Landscape formed a strong theme within the exhibition and the collection, not necessarily through realistic representation, but as evocations of places remembered such as in the abstract works of John Firth Smith and Michael Johnson. Composite images which undercut the mythology of landscape, and works which challenged the traditional conventions of landscape through abstraction were well represented. Other artists used landscape as a tool to express social concerns of a specific point in time, such as Jenny Watson and Robert Rooney.

Abstract painting in the 1980s was considered not to have the theoretical currency of other, more popular, forms of art, however it endured and remained central to the practice of artists such as Robert Jacks, Paul Partos and Robert Hunter. The formal explorations of these artists continued the minimalist tradition, particularly in the work of John Nixon. Others used the elements of abstraction in new, postmodern ways, such as Tony Clark, Richard Dunn, Imants Tillers, and Tim Johnson, combining abstract forms and structures with figurative elements.

The final thematic concern was the conflict between ‘cool’ art and ‘hot’ painting. ‘Cool’ art was identified with POPISM, an exhibition curated by Paul Taylor for the National Gallery of Victoria which brought together artists who consciously referenced pre-existing images from multiple sources, defining the ‘self’ as an accumulation of layers of pre-existing material, and art as the expression of this. The ‘hot’ neo-expressionism of the ROAR studios, an artist co-operative which opened in Melbourne in 1982, was in direct opposition to this idea, and the artists involved in this movement worked in terms of ‘instinct’ and ‘emotion’.

This exhibition was shown concurrently with Power Works from the MCA Collection, providing audiences with the opportunity to consider works from the recent past.