Black and White Paintings

17/02/2022 - 20/02/2022

Dick Watkins
Go Down Moses

2016

acrylic on canvas

183.00 x 137.00 cm



Black and White Paintings

Humankind’s first mark-making was executed with the obvious tool on hand – charcoal. Thus, it comes as little surprise that we have a hereditary and somewhat unconscious response to the unyielding and almost brutal black marks on Dick Watkins’ works.

They are rendered with sweeping monochromatic gestures, the sheer physicality of which belies the artists’ age. Now in his mid-80s, Watkins paints with the energy of a man half his age. But with age comes weight, albeit not without wry humour. The rather demented depiction of the Devil in Satan’s Holiday leaves one wondering, what indeed does Beelzebub do when he takes a break? And, perhaps more ponderously, does Satan in fact ever take a holiday?

Elsewhere, Watkins allows his-passion for German philosophy and music to dominate. His ‘portrait’ of Zarathustra in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is, of course, based on the book Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche between 1883 and 1885. Nietzsche’s book is far from a light read and features his concept of the Ubermensch – or ‘Super Man’ and the Death of God. And yet Watkins’ painting – seems to sum-up Nietzsche’s musings stunningly well.

In Wozzeck Watkins takes as his muse the first opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg which was composed between 1914 and 1922 and depicts the lives of soldiers and the townspeople of a rural German-speaking town. Wozzeck carries themes of militarism, social exploitation, and brutal sadism and Watkins’ canvas is suitably brooding.

All of these works are essentially abstractions with only a hint of figuration. But they are abstractions brim full of content, of questions of morality and the black and white world of good and evil. This body of work is undeniably powerful.

When the seer of American modernism, critic Clement Greenberg, visited Australia in the early 1960s he singled out one artist for especial praise: Dick Watkins. In 1968 when Watkins was featured in the ground-breaking exhibition, The Field, the then art critic for The Age, Patrick McCaughey declared that Watkins’ painting promised “a view of the future.” Over half-a-century on, Dick Watkins continues to make good on that promise.

– Ashley Crawford, 2022

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