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Robert MacPherson

White/black (Arago)  1975

synthetic polymer paint on canvas

4 parts: overall 214 × 352 × 2.5cm

Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of the Visual Arts/Crafts Board of the Australia Council, 1991

on display

About the Artwork

The four canvases of White/Black (Arago) were exhibited in Brisbane in 1975 at the start of Robert MacPherson’s career. These, and four other works he showed, were sparked by his interest in modernist art theory and formalism, resulting in a minimalist aesthetic which emphasised the search for purity within the art medium. Minimalism asserted that a painting should be concerned with the elements and limits that make it a painting – its flat, two-dimensional structure of stretched canvas, paint, and the application of that paint. Imagery, representation, narrative, emotion and sentiment were all superfluous to the task of exploring the essential question of what makes a painting a painting, which is the query MacPherson sets for himself in White/Black (Arago).

For this work, and the others he exhibited at the same time (Two Black (Norden), Black White (Kilrain) and Two Black (Rove)) – MacPherson restricted himself to a monochromatic palette of black and white. This self-discipline and limit setting has characterised his later works, even when he has permitted the non-minimalist qualities of narrative, language, locality and sentiment to have a place in his oeuvre. The dimensions of the works are all the same at 212 × 716 cm – measuring the furthest reaches of MacPherson’s hand as he wielded the paintbrush. In this sense, MacPherson lets the limits of his body dictate the limits of the painting, and his presence is incorporated into the work as both part of the instrumentality of the act of painting and the final execution of the painting itself.

The four canvases of White/Black (Arago) are variations on the process of refining a painting to its bare essentials in order to uncover its inherent characteristics. Each canvas is a register of different concentrations and mixtures of either black or white, applied in glossy or matt paint, thin or heavy concentrations, with a roller or a brush. This reductive commitment to disciplinary purity was already being challenged in the mid-1970s, when MacPherson made the work, by pop art and early postmodernism. But MacPherson has pursued this early speculation on the inherent character of the medium into his later works, which continue to question the nature of painting and representation through the idiosyncrasies of hand-painted roadside signs.

An awareness of Modern art history, a belief that all good art comes from previous art, my rules are formed within this context.

Robert MacPherson, 1975

Robert MacPherson

– About the artist

Born 1937, Brisbane. Lives and works Brisbane.

<p>Over the course of his 40-year career Robert MacPherson has explored the philosophical propositions of what constitutes a work of art. He often incorporates familiar imagery, everyday materials and visual elements from daily life, honouring the beauty of the mundane. MacPherson&rsquo;s fascination with systems of objects and language is manifested through broad fields of knowledge, including art history and social history, biology and mythology.</p>
<p>MacPherson has exhibited widely in Australia since the 1970s, including a major solo exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane in 2015 and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney in 2001. His many group exhibitions include the Biennale of Sydney (2010, 2000, 1998, 1990 and 1979); Sharjah Biennial 9 (2009); and Culturgest Contemporary Art, Lisbon (2008).</p>
<p>MacPherson is represented in numerous major state, regional and public collections in Australia, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.</p>

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