An exhibition to celebrate his 70th birthday Watters Gallery and Legge Gallery May 1999
In 1965 when Richard Larter's paintings were first seen in Australia there was a tendency to define him as a transplanted English Pop artist. His work was abrasive: tough in its open celebration of sexuality, and tough in the intensity of his colour. Even his abstracts didn't fit with the mannered decorations of popular locals. They were hard and sharp shapes, hand drawn, which seemed crude to an arts community that had just discovered the use of masking tape. This was "in your face" art on a big scale.
The reputation of being an outsider seems to have stayed with Larter. He was noticed early by perceptive curators, but he was never a favourite with gallery trustees, who tend to prefer art without the shock value. Perhaps this is why, despite his long and distinguished career, the state gallery system is yet to honour him with a retrospective exhibition. Instead his long time friends and dealers, Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, created two simultaneous exhibitions, one at Watters gallery where he first exhibited back in the 1960s, and one at the satellite Legge gallery, managed by Geoffrey and Alex Legge's son, Jasper.
Because Larter's reputation has been as a figurative artist, it was these works that were seen at Watters, as befitted the more senior partner. But the surprise was in the abstracts. The paintings glowed like jewels all through Legge's unfashionable Redfern space. They moved from the dark, intense, defined paintings of the 1960s to the light filled painterly works of the early 1990s.
One of the marks of Richard Larter's art has been the way he has never considered the hierarchy of painting materials. In the 1960s it was glossy house paint and hypodermic syringes to get the smooth raised trails of paint; in the '70s it was silk screen printing, quoting so easily the popular posters on street walls. But that was when he was painting in the city.
In the '80s, after he moved to rural Yass in southern NSW, Richard Larter discovered the power of the local craft shop with its array of glitters - and the hardware store. The peculiar changing narrow line of his abstract paintings of the 1990s owe much to the hardware store with its clever inventions to help amateur home decorators keep their lines straight. He uses edging tools and miniature rollers, lacing them with different colours to give gradations of tone - the result is sometimes all the colours of the rainbow, shining into light like some superior stained glass window.
Nor all these works are pure abstract. Some clearly quote landscape, especially the backyard of Larter's home with its jacaranda tree all purple against the paling fence.
The second half of the exhibition, at Watters Gallery, was a celebration of female sexuality, especially that of Larter's wife, Pat. He thought of her as the "yeah sayer", the positive creative force to destroy all the "nay sayers"- Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Malcolm Fraser. Larter is a man of his time and in the late 1970s these were equally ranked as evil doers. Their images, silk-screened from the pages of newspapers and magazines, are countered by images of Pat, her legs spread wide in joyous celebration, eyeballing the viewer as she condemns maidenly modesty as hypocrisy. The more recent paintings use computer screened images of working girls from Kings Cross, for they also are wary of cant as they strut their stuff, obligingly opening their legs for the artist's camera.
These are the works most often thought of as classic Larter: and they were the best of his figurative work, dazzling in their audacity, giving a visual king hit to the conventions of a society in transit.
But in their politicised agenda these paintings are lesser creatures than the fulfilled artistic vision of the abstracts.