We saw Grace Crowley: being modern, a major retrospective of her work, showing Crowley’s transition from traditional Australian styles in the early 1920s, through Cubism to abstract painting in the 1940s and 1950s. I have little understood abstract painting, beyond the general idea that form, color, texture, etc. are used to convey idea without representational depiction. A highlight of the show, Abstract painting 1952, demonstrates this very powerfully.
Elena Taylor, NGA’s Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture, notes that throughout the 1940s, Grace Crowley’s avant-garde geometric abstracts
were poorly received in an environment that strongly favoured the representational and narrative work of artists such as William Dobell. It was not until the 1950s, when Crowley was in her sixties, that a public gallery exhibited her abstract works. Yet Crowley’s geometric paintings from the early 1950s are arguably her finest achievement. They show her superb understanding of colour to create extraordinary lively and sophisticated abstract compositions. Abstract painting 1952 is one of her most ‘hard-edge’ geometric works, a series of overlapping rectangles in a shallow pictorial space jostling against each other, the forms appearing to be in continual movement yet anchored by the pink square at the front of the picture plane, and the dense black rectangle that lies behind. Crowley’s late abstracts can be seen as the climax of her long journey to realise a universal art based on the harmonious relationship of colour and form.
Crowley’s long artistic journey over five decades from painter of traditional landscapes to avant-garde abstracts was extraordinary. While Crowley is still best known for her cubist paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, Grace Crowley: being modern includes works that have never before been exhibited and reveals the full extent of Crowley’s contribution to Australian art.