Donald Laycock

Donald Laycock is one of the crucial pioneers of abstraction in this country. Yet, he remains an enigmatic figure in Australian art history, even as the artist turns ninety-two in April 2023. The Charles Nodrum Gallery is presenting a mini-survey exhibition that charts the artist’s early production of the late 1950s and 1960s, circumnavigating to his more recent cosmological paintings of the 2000s. The exhibition seeks to reappraise Laycock’s significant contribution to the development and expansion of abstraction.

This article was originally published in Issue 62 of Artist Profile.

The sociopolitical context Laycock was working in, from the post–World War II period onwards, witnessed Australia’s shifting alliance from England to the US. Laycock was one of the first Australian artists to take up the American influences of abstract expressionism, gaining a direct influence via the American artist Charles Reddington, who settled in Melbourne in 1959 and electrified the situation with his immediate encounters with the New York School. By the late 1950s, Laycock produced a home-brand form of local modernism. As Patrick McCaughey observed: “Donald Laycock was one of the first painters to accept the stylistic challenge of post-war American painting and put its great formal innovation to a personal use.”

Born in 1931 in Melbourne, Laycock studied at the National Gallery School from 1949 to 1953, and soon rose to prominence as an artist of promise, “a force to be reckoned with” in Gary Catalano’s estimation. His work was lauded and selected for a string of important international exhibitions including Recent Australian Painting, 1961 (Whitechapel Art Gallery); Biennale des Jeunes, Paris, 1963; The Australian Painters 1964–66, 1967 (the Corcoran Gallery of Art); and São Paulo Biennial, Brazil, 1969.

The two main art centres of Melbourne and Sydney were on the cusp of no-turning-back changes of the sixties milieu. A burgeoning avant garde were rapidly superseding the previous generation of artists, causing tensions. Nationalism in art was at the forefront of the debate, with divisions split by the two main centres – Sydney abstractionists pitted against Melbourne figurative painters. Laycock was a key player in the new wave of artists that questioned local traditions, at a time when publication of the Antipodean Manifesto further exacerbated the so-called “abstraction-versus-figuration” divide. When it comes to re-examining the impact of Laycock’s oeuvre, the realisation of the Melbourne/Sydney divide is not easily discernible. It appears that commercial galleries did work cooperatively in the exchange of exhibitions, aligned with innovative marketing strategies and the rise of professional practice.

In 1972, the University of Melbourne audaciously staged Laycock’s mid-career retrospective, an early model of linking an artist’s production with scholarship. “It honours a living painter whose work has mirrored many of the central arguments and discoveries of Australian painting over the last twenty years,” wrote McCaughey of the show.

Fifty-one years later, audiences privy to this rare survey exhibition at Charles Nodrum Gallery, which covers a diverse richness of Laycock’s practice, will be immersed within the artist’s “sensitive appreciation of the absurd,” as exclaimed by McCaughey. In an account given by Frances McCarthy and Daniel Thomas, Laycock once compared his methodological approach to the scene in the movie The Hustler, 1961, when Fast Eddie says to Minnesota Fats, “Okay Fats, let’s shoot pool.” This directness, explicit in Space Seas, 1963, renders a primordial vision. Enmeshed into the work’s surface are particles of vividly coloured forms zooming downwards diagonally at lightning speed. Metaphorically, this descension is cosmic dust that has fallen into an ocean of colour field painting.

The earliest painting in the exhibition, Oriental Dancers in an Underwater Garden, 1956, preludes Laycock’s first abstract painting In the beginning, 1956, held in the National Gallery of Victoria collection. A sustained moment of abstract expressionism spatiality blended with recognisable forms, encompasses a raw energy of movement in the treatment of the surface. Reminiscent of Willem de Kooning’s merging of the figure with abstraction, the painting flows with viscosity and vigour.

Then there are the comparative works Lady Galaxy, 1971, and Cosmos, 1971, with the latter included in the artist’s 1972 retrospective. The works create an elusive and intergalactic perspective modified for abstraction, through Laycock’s distinct treatment of the painting’s surface. As Margot Lethlean described it, “The canvas is first prepared with two coats of white acrylic, then with a single coat of red and blue, depending on the effect wanted, either cool or warm. Oil paint is then applied and the surface worked until no sign of the stroke is left and a strong sense of luminosity is gained. The image is partly derived from what is suggested within the ground.”

The burning orange-yellow brightness that pervades Oracle, 1977, and Untitled, 2006, brings us full circle into Laycock’s practice. The hovering and levitation of forms and colours bring us into the realm of deep time; gravitational pull and expansion are given expression in these remarkable paintings.

Laycock is an artist of distinction who has merged international and local idioms in producing some of the most seminal paintings of late local modernism. Surveys of this kind continue to bring into question the validity of relegating abstraction as purely non-objective and unrelated to the real world. Laycock’s dialectic conversions of abstraction have redirected us into new ways of looking at and of understanding abstraction as symbolic, and as being able to mirror aspects of life and the cosmologies we wish to understand more.

Perhaps Don Laycock can now partly answer his question of “what we are all doing here,” given his stately position and career-long willingness to experiment in his quest to comprehend the world amid the vastness of the cosmos.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62. 

Donald Laycock
29 April – 20 May, 2023
Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne

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