Sydney Ball

Sydney Ball was our cover feature for Issue 21. Ahead of an upcoming exhibition of works from his estate at Sullivan+Strumpf, we revisit Artist Profile's 2012 interview with the artist. Our interview took place in Syd’s Glenn Murcott-designed home (Ball-Eastaway House) in Glenorie, New South Wales. It was a beautiful spring day, with Syd regaling then-Artist Profile Editor, Owen Craven, and Gillian Serisier with tales of bushfires, snakes, and the glory of living with nature.

One of Australia’s most respected artists, Syd Ball has been developing colour painting since the early 1960s when he set off to Manhattan to study under abstract expressionist painter Theodoros Stamos. His work, executed in series, has variously explored colour through modular arrangements, expressionism and structural form, with a tendency to revisit the modular as with his most recent body of work, Infinex.

Syd moved back to Australia in the mid ’60s where his work was applauded by the likes of John Reed who showed him at the Museum of Modern Art Melbourne. However, the general population was a little slow to catch on and, as Syd tells it, his exhibition “went down like a lead balloon” with critics refusing to review. Some sixty solo exhibitions later, Syd is undeniably the elder statesman of colour painting in Australia with work in every major collection.

As a young man in Australia were you interested in Hans Hofmann?

Pre-1960 I wanted to go somewhere outside of Australia to study. I thought it was the only way to really get on, to see major works for myself without getting them secondhand from somebody else or reading a book about it; to see it firsthand. And at that stage I wasn’t sure whether to go to Europe or to go to America, because . . . when I was reading the Art Since 1945 book I thought that the American painters had a little bit more life to them than the Europeans. I hadn’t formed any philosophy of art or what I believed but that sort of appealed to me . . . and at that stage I saw that Hofmann had something that seemed much more interesting than the other American painters at the time.

What settled you on studying at the Art Students League in New York?

It was probably more central to everything, I think. It was right in the middle of Manhattan. For me it was important not just to study at the Art Students League – that was the base to venture out and see the museums, see galleries and everything.

And I got the syllabuses from the Art Students League. Stamos had a good reputation there – a member of the Irascible 18 Group . . . I chose Stamos.

Stamos couldn’t get over the fact that I travelled all this way to study with him. It was through Stamos that I met up with Mark Rothko. I knew a little bit about Rothko’s work but it wasn’t until I saw the exhibition of his work both in Marlborough and also other museums that I really sort of started to see what it was all about. I was fortunate enough to see Hofmann’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art when I first arrived. And it was just a very exciting period of seeing things in the flesh. To look at a painting and say, “Why is it so good?” To strip it back to its base, to a skeleton and see that whole build-up of the idea coming forth.

How has your New York experience affected your career overall?

It gave me the impetus to really treat it in a very professional manner. Not just something which, oh well, do a painting today and have a rest tomorrow and another one the following day. It was the ongoingness. I needed to expand what I did from working on one painting to how it developed into a whole group of paintings, and that was an interesting part for me, too, to see that artists worked in that serious situation.

What is the advantage you see in working with a series?

It gives me the opportunity to take on a specific problem, to investigate it. Is there going to be enough mileage there for me to warrant a whole range of thirty, forty, fifty paintings? What do I need in the way of how I go about it? The whole epistemology of it and the theory of the method of it?

The series you painted in America are quite different to the ones you painted here. How important is landscape or environment?

Working in Manhattan, for whatever reason at the time it clicked with me. Stamos wasn’t a colourist as such. He wasn’t interested in colour. He was interested in all that virtuosity painting that was going on. As a lot of the abstract expressionists were.

So it was a tentative start and I started to enquire from other artists who were involved in that area as to what I should be looking at and the way of developing that theory of colour. I started to work with colour. Just broad swathes of colour. I still felt there was something I needed to use as a vehicle to take the paint; to use it in much more depth. And I thought why not try the band? Did it. Oh, that looks interesting. What about another band? Terrific. What about that space? Architecture started to come in. Open up the space. Started to look at other artists, people like Rothko and [Barnett] Newman; especially Newman. The space. Bloody hell! I can’t do a painting if I’ve got nothing in between. But he had. And I started to realise there was a geometric space not that dissimilar from an architectural space. So right. That was the instigation for me to really kick the bands off.

Was coming back to Australia at that point the right thing to have done?

Looking back, probably, in a sense. But with a lot of the people that I knew, younger artists who went on to do some great work and really made a name for themselves, and international artists showing all over the place . . .  I mean, in Australia at the time you didn’t get any international shows to show over there. You were stuck in Australia. But it had its other benefits.

Like sitting out here in the bush.

And getting good studio space and whatever. I had the first show when I got back and, as I say, I had to toss in my life insurance policy to buy all the stretchers and paint and whatever. And it went down like a lead balloon. They thought it was a bit of a joke. I was told by a person who was looking after it at the time that Bernard Smith had come and refused to write it up. I thought, well, that’s the name of the game. Can’t do anything about that.

What is your process?

Well, it starts from the idea. The noumenon. In those early days I used little colour swatches . . . to give me an idea of a colour range that I should use; the weight of the colour that I should use; whether it’s going to be strong lighting or whether it’s going to be a deep colour process. From there I start to do little sketches and [to decide how I could] sustain it over a whole range of work.

Do you plan up the whole series before you begin?

I have a pretty good idea of how I want it [but] that would change once I put the first coat of paint on. I may not have anticipated that it’s going to be just slightly lighter or darker or whatever. I need to just change that gradually . . . I work with a lot of notes; things that have interested me. Just ideas. Just jotting down everything. Not that I’m going to use them but it’s there, and perhaps at a later stage as reference material.

Do you just do a pencil sketch?

Yeah. I just do the vehicle that’s necessary. What is the strongest vehicle I need to hold all that colour?

With the modular Infinex works, do you make the sections individually and put them together or do you create them with your map first?

I paint them first and join them up last. I start off with these little thumbnails. Everything has to be visualised. I have to visualise how big it’s going to be; what type of proportions I’ll need . . . and the important thing of this particular series, as it was in many of the early module works, is to bring that whole negative space into play to make the negative part of the ground as a positive shape in itself.

It’s interesting that you were originally studying to be an architect and here you are activating the architect with your paintings.

Yeah. It’s just sort of a natural thing to get the space that I wanted. Well for me the holy trinity of colour planning is colour, space, and light. Once you’ve got colour and space you’re well on the road to getting a magnificent light. You really are. And I guess, as I keep saying, for me it was important to include that space. Being from an architectural background it was something that just came naturally. I could work in space. I could visualise the space that I wanted. Visualise the proportions of things.

Your sketches are very much like blue plans.

Yeah. It was interesting to see the survey show, especially in the Samstag, it was magnificent lighting . . . the colours just glowed there. The space just reverberated with that beautiful light without being overly Op, as such. I never wanted to be an Op painter. I used to talk about the opticality of colour, which is quite different from being an Op sort of value. Critics or reviewers would never understand that.

When you talk about the speed of a painting, is it how those colours or those shapes direct your eye and the movement of the painting?

Yes. That rings true. It’s the interaction with one through to the next, not just to bedazzle the eye as such but to get that movement, that reading across a painting. Well, I think for me the paintings of Monet are always very close because he exceeded himself in the final Water Lilies series where it comes to the beautiful surface and again this lovely reading across the work. You don’t get stuck in a particular area. It’s that lovely movement through there. [Art critic Herbert] Read always said that Newman and that Rothko never got anything from Monet. I disagree with that. I think it was very obvious that those guys . . . and they had the Monet there at the Museum of Modern Art before I got there . . . they would have known what was going on and certainly Rothko and Newman, to break away from Cubism to open up that space, would have realised that Monet had done that very successfully. It was Monet that set the pace. He was the one and only. Boy, he was great. He was bloody good.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 21, 2012

Colour and Form: Works on Paper from the Estate, 1965-2017
5-21 May 2022
Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

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