Peter Powditch

Ian Milliss remembers Peter Powditch, whose "work fitted simple conservative categories – the nude, the landscape, the still life – and yet he treated those categories with complete originality, as if he had invented them himself and had a responsibility to explore their depths completely."  

There was so much about Peter Powditch that made him the quintessential male Australian artist of the second half of the twentieth century. Born in 1942 he was an easy-going, drinking, smoking baby boomer. He revelled in the summer sun and beach culture while simply portraying what he loved in his surroundings. There was no angst in his work, even if there was an underlying depression in his disposition, no fretting about social issues or national identity or the cultural debates surrounding art itself that would eventually sideline the work of many artists of his generation. 

His work fitted simple conservative categories – the nude, the landscape, the still life – and yet he treated those categories with complete originality, as if he had invented them himself and had a responsibility to explore their depths completely. 

It was an approach that he also applied to smoking, which killed him, but only after he had pushed it to its very end. 

As an exemplary artist of his moment, early success came easily. After studying at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) and then at John Olsen’s Bakery Art School in Paddington, his first exhibition was in 1966 at Gallery A. As its charismatic owner Max Hutchinson became more focused on the gallery he had opened in New York in 1968, Powditch left Gallery A in 1971 for the more establishment Rudy Komon Gallery. After Komon’s death in 1982, he moved to Ray Hughes Gallery, then Australian Galleries, back to Ray Hughes and finally to Defiance Gallery whose owner Campbell Robertson-Swann, with his brother Ron, had been close childhood friends with whom Powditch maintained a familial bond throughout their lives.

Teaching was a more consistent part of his life, eventually becoming head of painting at the College of Fine Arts. Since his death social media has been full of successful students describing him as their best or favourite teacher. His own career, however, eventually languished. His early work sold well, he won prizes, was included in international traveling exhibitions and in 1970 received a prestigious large scale commission for the Sydney International Airport Terminal. As he said, “In 1972 I was probably the most known artist in Sydney. I didn’t know I actually had that power; I didn’t savour it. When it left, I wondered what had happened, what I had done.”

Like many Australian artists who came of age in the 1960s, he was badly served by art history. They were just beginning to consolidate their careers in the 1970s when conceptual art arrived. Sales continued but declined and what might have been the usual mid-career slump became a complete eclipse as their work was ignored for bland conceptualesque art that was to dominate the institutions for the next few decades. 

It wasn’t until a prominent position in Pop to Popism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2014, and in 2017 a long overdue retrospective Coast, at S. H. Ervin Gallery, that he returned to public awareness.

Although his early work is described as pop art there is none of the glorification of modern consumerism’s products that defines most pop art. In fact, Powditch’s work is the classic nude updated. He wasn’t the first artist to paint Australians at the beach, but he captured the dry glaring heat and hedonism of the Australian summer in a way that no others have. The masonite constructions, broken up both visually and literally, were as close to sculpture as painting, often dominated by areas of strong flat colour as in The big towel, 1969. The later Sun Torso series revisited the shallow pictorial space of analytical cubism but with a limited palette based on physical intimacy, not so much pink and brown as naked flesh and suntan, hedonism combined with visual experimentation. It was a heady mix, the male gaze unabashed but loving. These are not classical nudes, these are women you see on the beach, women you live with, the domestic nudity of the bathroom, the drapery of the shower curtain and the bath towel. 

The common description of them as nonsexual is puzzling, when in fact they are gloriously sensual and unashamedly sexual. It is probably the rigorous formalism of the work that gives rise to the misidentification as it overwhelms other aspects of the paintings, and the formalism was to become even more intense and rarefied. After a disastrous court case over his employment at Sydney College of the Arts descended into character assassination, he withdrew, hurt, into works that were smaller, more ethereal, almost monochrome soft pinks with a subtle beauty yet little easy public appeal.

In the early 2000s these works slid almost imperceptibly into landscapes, often distinguishable from the nudes only by their colours. They remain as empty of human life as his airport mural and earlier paintings of Crowdy Head, as if illustrating Daniel Thomas’s dictum that all Australian artists end up as landscapists. 

He moved to Bangalow on the New South Wales north coast to be with family, but kept making art until his final days. Right up until the end he was in the studio from morning until night, recently working with his daughter Beth putting together a selection for a show which will be held in May at Defiance Gallery. His return to greater public prominence in recent years was unfortunately also accompanied by health problems as he aged. Hospitalisation after a brief mental breakdown finally produced a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and appropriate medical treatment. His lifelong asthma and the emphysema caused by his smoking was not so easily dealt with. He died from their effects on February 13 2022, aged seventy-nine.

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