The Field | Hard-Edge Abstraction in Australia

In 1968 the National Gallery of Victoria christened its new premises with ‘The Field’, a radical exhibition that not only announced the gallery’s arrival, but also the arrival of a new generation of Australian artists. Bold, bright and unabashedly abstract, these artists included Alun Leach-Jones, Robert Jacks and Sydney Ball.

 

Sydney Ball - 'Canto no XVI'

 

It’s hard to impress just how ground-breaking ‘The Field’ was. For an audience accustomed to art about people, places and objects, this exhibition was baffling. In lieu of figurtism, hard-edge, geometric, colour and flat abstraction prevailed; styles which were only then breeching Australian shores. As art historian Ian Mclean says, 

“In a way, the legacy of The Field is contemporary art… you could almost pick any artist today and find echoes of The Field or what The Field stands for.” 

In his role, Ball imagines shapes that are impossibly precise, while Leach-Jones melds colours brighter than projected on television and Jacks's razor-thin lines seem to move like music. This is not art plucked from reality; it’s art that defies reality. It stares into the very concept of image-creation and extracts its essence - shape, line, colour and plane. 

 

Alun Leach-Jones - 'Music of Colours II'

 

‘The Field’ ushered in a new kind of art – but is also declared a different kind of institution. Mclean describes it as a step away "from the past into something new, into the future. They were announcing a brave new world.” Despite criticism from onlookers, ‘The Field’ asserted itself in a still coming of age Australia, one where the new was finally breaking from the old. 

Fifty years later in 2018, the NGV restaged the exhibition, fortifying its iconic place in Australian art history. Like the original version, Ball, Leach-Jones and Jacks are present - one foot in the past, one in the future and hung brilliantly on a silver backdrop.

 

Robert Jacks - 'Lake Botanical'