Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction

Newcastle Art Gallery
11 May – 21 July 2019

Virginia Cuppaidge, Mauve River, 1972, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist
Virginia Cuppaidge, Mauve River, 1972, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist

The forty-year chronology traced in Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction begins with Mauve River (1972) and ends with Bee Map (2012). This survey is a coup for Newcastle Art Gallery and curator Sarah Johnson, with nineteen paintings and a single vitrine of archival material occupying the ground floor of the two-level gallery. Opened in 1977, the brutalist building was the first custom-designed regional art gallery in Australia and its internal spaces were conceived for exactly the kind of big painting that Cuppaidge dreamed of in her youth. In a sense the exhibition is a homecoming, an archive repatriated, as Cuppaidge has made Newcastle her home after half a century in New York.

The flat-deep Mauve River has the opaque might of a tropical stream, lantana reflected. Because these otherwise formalist works are accompanied by poetic and personal epithets, we know it was inspired by memories of the Mary River, but it could also be the Brisbane River, which snakes through Cuppaidge’s first home town. Gifted to the Queensland Art Gallery, Mauve River is emblematic of her early colour field style, but leaning to the smaller, darker register in a shade-scale relationship that operates throughout the score of paintings, many never shown before.

Installation view, Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery
Installation view, Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery

Contrary to this are big high-key paintings such as Lyon (1972), included in the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Abstraction: Celebrating Australian Women Abstract Artists which toured five regional venues (including Newcastle) in 2017–18. The green-and-gold Sasafras (1972) was recently installed with the organic Estuary (1971) at the National Gallery of Victoria opposite The Field: Revisited in 2018. Both these curatorial gestures exemplify the revisionist, recuperative actions of museums to enrich contemporary art’s narrative and showcase women artists who have been historically neglected. For the record, Cuppaidge was not among devotees of the Antipodean variants of American abstraction in The Field: she didn’t see it, though she admired the abstract paintings of Sydney-based Janet Dawson, one of only three women in The Field.

A third of the survey is devoted to Cuppaidge’s 1970s Geometrics. Warm tints, horizontal structures and a central painterly space defy the vertical metropolis of Manhattan and evoke the sensorium of the country she left behind: “in Australia, you can step outside and grab space.”[1] This landscape essentialism gently contradicted Cuppaidge’s ambition for the universalism conflated with the Western centre, and in particular the [masculine] mythology of abstract expressionism that had attracted her to New York. Although that myth was running to seed by the summer of 1969 when Cuppaidge arrived, light on baggage and high on optimism, it did not stop her grappling with the inbuilt challenges of formalism and creative survival of the fittest. With an introduction to fellow-Australian, sculptor Clement Lyon Meadmore, and the other Clement (Greenberg)’s influence waning, Cuppaidge found herself in the cross-currents of an emerging pluralism.

Looking at her earliest paintings fifty years on, Cuppaidge’s adoption of a dated period style – abstract expressionism – suggests the cliché of peripheral desires to get to the heart of things even after the horse has bolted. Yet there is significant agency in this “post-action” investment, prototypical of  “UnAustralian”  and  post-national art histories in which the margins infuse the centres and invite a rethinking of Australian art in the context of its expatriates.[2] New York art historian and critic Corinne Robins, an advocate of Cuppaidge’s “personal geometry”,  addressed such subtleties in her influential 1984 book, The Pluralist Era: American Art 1968–1981.

Establishing a studio in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen shortly after her migration, Cuppaidge’s first solo show in 1973 at AM Sachs Gallery was preceded by her involvement in Women Choose Women at the New York Culture Centre. The exhibition was initiated by the Women in the Arts Collective who challenged directors of New York’s leading art museums to redress the lack of women artists. Curated by a colloquium of established and emerging women artists who blind-peer-reviewed over 500 submissions, WCW was installed across five floors at the edgy New York Cultural Centre under the bold directorship of Mario Amayer, branded insane by at least one of his peers for supporting the feminist project. Pop artist, playwright and professional wrestler Rosalyn Drexler’s review in the New York Times got to the ambivalent core of WCW: “It is true that, alone in her studio, each artist must still fight the battle for originality, vitality and truth, but how refreshing … that … the withering disregard of people in the arts toward women is changing to one of respectful attention.”[3]

Meanwhile, back in the peripheries Sydney was inaugurating the Biennale of Sydney which similarly attracted protests from women and marginalised “others” throughout the 1970s. In that other Centre, the [men’s] Western Desert painting movement, as Geoffrey Bardon named it, was stirring. Exchanging transcontinental curiosities with Cuppaidge, as we overlooked the global traffic of coal ships on the mouth of the Hunter River, she mentioned “the artist who got Aboriginal art going in the desert”. While forgetting his name, she recalled meeting Bardon briefly in SoHo in her Australia Council Greene Street Studio days. She knew little about him but was intrigued by my summary of his story as the sensitive artist and mediator seeking a centre, and recent art-historical revisions placing Aboriginal agency ahead of his catalytic role. Expressing my view that Bardon’s story is also about extreme culture shock, Cuppaidge said she felt it too – culture shock – returning home after half a lifetime in the USA and missing so much change in Australia and Australian art, so much more change than in New York.

While the politics of inclusion galvanised women artists globally, feminist critics such as Lucy Lippard were prevaricating over the aesthetic turn of women’s art and its sensibility: Is there a women’s art? … and what is it like? “Inevitably … it is influenced by other art publicly shown” (vis a vis, art by men).[4] In our age of identity as agency, transcendental gender-isms, #MeToo and #WomenAgainstFeminism, Lippard’s inquiries are essentialist but of their time. Still, it is alluring to try her formal coda on Cuppaidge’s rose-tinted abstractions of the 1970s. Certainly “recurrent elements of a uniform density, or overall texture, often sensuously, tactile and repetitive” describe the  paintings, and in an  equivalence of several works in the exhibition, “a new fondness for the pinks and pastels and ephemeral cloud colours that used to be taboo unless a woman wanted to be accused of making feminine art.”[5]

Virginia Cuppaidge, Valoniah, 1979, acrylic on canvas. Purchased 1980, Newcastle Art Gallery collection
Virginia Cuppaidge, Valoniah, 1979, acrylic on canvas. Purchased 1980, Newcastle Art Gallery collection
Installation view, Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery
Installation view, Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery

Such provocations raised defiant responses by “femin-xxx” artists and Cuppaidge has consistently taken advantage of such implied, even literally inscribed, aspects of a feminist aesthetic in painterly terms and “beauty” on her own terms. By 1978 she developed a painting technique of smooth gradations across the canvas, a spectrum of nacreous shifts through pink, lemon, green and aquatic blue. These masquerade as air-brushed surfaces but are built up by as many as fifty skeins of sponged paint, well-dried and rubbed back between coats. The distinctive Skyspace paintings are underpinned by a minimalist sensibility, atmospherics tethered by arcs, signs and arabesque lines – or in Lippard’s words, “a ubiquitous linear ‘bag’ or parabolic form that turns in on itself; layers, or strata, or veils; an indefinable looseness or flexibility of handling …”[6]

Herein lies the critical, curatorial and taxonomical danger of conflating essentialism with feminist interpretation and the artist’s intentions.[7] For art historians, critics and curators, theorising the distinctions between feminine and feminist, women and gender, and the slippage between aesthetics and politics is an intellectual labour as manifold as Cuppaidge’s layered pigments. We may not be able to identify her on formal evidence alone, but the “woman” prefix, which never sits well with artists of the xx chromosome, has not disappeared from contemporary curatorial or critical narratives.

An active member of the populist feminist collective Guerrilla Girls, established in 1984 to call out the continued structural inequity of the artworld, Cuppaidge enjoyed the freedom – and the irony –  of “working without the pressure of success”, to quote from the Girls’ 1988 classic art work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. Modestly financially independent, Cuppaidge was not beholden to a signature style, and she exhibited regularly across the USA and in New York, where she was Associate Professor of Art at CUNY 1992–2008. She had equally enthusiastic audiences and supporters in Australia, particularly Sydney, where she showed consistently at Ann Lewis’s Gallery A until its closure in 1983, and recently with Nicholas Thompson Gallery in Melbourne.

While Cuppaidge achieved critical and commercial success with the Geometrics and Skyspace series, the majority of Australia’s publicly owned works were made through the artist’s recent donations. Among the exceptions are the Newcastle Art Gallery’s Valoniah (1979) purchased in 1981 and the monumental Skyspace (1981) in the University of Newcastle’s collection. These imposing, luminous paintings wax lyrical with the silence of paint, evanescent surface values and floating signs containing a quiet certitude. And then everything changes.

Virginia Cuppaidge, Center of the Beginning, 1988, oil on canvas. Presented in 2002 by Mrs Judy Cuppaidge Newcastle Art Gallery collection. Courtesy the artist
Virginia Cuppaidge, Center of the Beginning, 1988, oil on canvas. Presented in 2002 by Mrs Judy Cuppaidge Newcastle Art Gallery collection. Courtesy the artist
Installation view, Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery
Installation view, Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery

There are transitional works from the mid-1980s in which the ground explodes into fragments from the corporeal to the geological. By the late 1980s, and through the 1990s, fragmentation triumphs: Centre of the Beginning (1988) is volcanic in force, rhythmic, textured, contrary in palette. If the title employs the feminine archetypal origin of creativity and desire, the full spectrum of these paintings also embody a 1980s Zeitgeist. Retro today, her compositions of excess offer a bridge between neo-expressionism sans figure and an emerging ‘90s grunge, or what Christine France called “near chaos”, demonstrating materialist aesthetics and creative risk-taking.[8]

When the critic is anxious, she looks for influences, and like France I assumed a Lee Krasner retrospective seen by Cuppaidge at MoMA in 1984–85 as one inspiration. Looking harder (for these are hard paintings – both difficult and crystalline), the sensation of Matisse’s papercuts and his late, discordant La Tristesse du roi, (Sorrows of the King), (1952) emerges from Inside the Garden (1994–95). And jazz: the abstract musical score to the Australian artists’ New York love story, memorialised in her Lyon and Meadmore’s monumental Virginia (1970) in the NGA’s sculpture garden.

Virginia Cuppaidge: The Nature of Abstraction has the sweetness of steady triumph, but also demonstrates the waiting game. These canvases temporarily stretched and displayed under the glare of flood-lights were rolled up in storage for decades. In what can only be described as another form of survivalist or maternal intuition, Cuppaidge opted for storage in the upper labyrinth of the building instead of a more accessible ground floor unit, a decision that paid dividends when Hurricane Sandy hit the island in 2012, flooding the street level with mud. This story ends well – but it evokes curator Rosalind Hollinrake’s 1970 discovery of Clarice Beckett’s painterly remains in a derelict shed in rural Victoria. If wilful neglect of modern art and women artists was the cause of Beckett’s tragedy, Cuppaidge’s tenacity and commitment “not just to paint a beautiful field, but to … turn and twist it around,”[9] has been well rewarded in this long-overdue survey.

Cuppaidge’s work is a paradox embodied over the course of her career, split between nations as nationalist art histories were eroding. Before Hoffman and Mondrian, Marden and Rothko, she was absorbing Nolan, Molvig and Fairweather in the cosmopolitan quarters of Brisbane. In Sydney she studied under Orban alongside Olsen and Ogden. In 1965 she created her own textile-design enterprise, a confidence inspired by the progressive “learner-centred” pedagogy she enjoyed at Frensham Girls College. Earlier still, her mother Judy Cuppaidge’s profession as a botanical artist proved that women could turn a tradition to their own expressive advantage – as Cuppaidge senior’s lyrical pen and ink drawings in the collection of the NGA also attest.

Bee-lining for the centre and reperforming Australia’s exodus script, Cuppaidge maps centre/periphery discourse and the remnant “cultural cringe”, her generation’s tendency to see value as conditional, based on recognition “over there” (despite A.A. Philips’ originally more optimistic point reduced to this shorthand). These are compelling stories (and marketing tools), recalling another of the Girls’ sardonic advantages of being a women artist that surrounds “being included in revised versions of art history”. This survey contributes to that ongoing project, but unlike the artist and her well-travelled paintings, the exhibition won’t tour. Newcastle Art Gallery’s priority, yet to be realised, is capital investment for a redevelopment to showcase its collection, including Cuppaidge’s significant gifts. Another strategy could involve institutional collaborations to develop more substantial catalogues and tour exhibitions of national interest such as this one.

Virginia CUPPAIDGE Bee Map 2012 acrylic on canvas 91.0 x 91.0cm Artist collection
Virginia Cuppaidge, Bee Map, 2012, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist

Footnotes

  1. ^ Virginia Cuppaidge in conversation with curator Sarah Johnson and Nicholas Thompson, Newcastle Art Gallery, 12 May 2019.
  2. ^ See Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson, “Against Provincialism: Australian–American Connections 1900–2000,” Journal of Australian Studies 36:3, 2012.
  3. ^ Roslyn Drexler, “Women On Their Own,” New York Times, 1973. 
  4. ^ Lucy Lippard, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art, New York: The New Press, 1995, p. 57. 
  5. ^ Ibid., pp. 57–58. 
  6. ^ Ibid. 
  7. ^ See Susan Best, “What is a Feminist Exhibition? Considering ‘Contemporary Australia: Women’,” Journal of Australian Studies 4, no. 2, 2016. 
  8. ^ Christine France, “Virginia Cuppaidge: Rhythm Colour,” Art & Australia, 39:1, 2001. 
  9. ^ Corinne Robins, The Pluralist Era: American Art 1968-1981, New York: Harper & Row,1984, p. 188.

Dr Una Rey is an occasional critic, painter and curator. She lectures in art history and associated fields in The School of Creative Industries, The University of Newcastle.

Virginia Cuppaidge is teaching a painting master class at Sturt Gallery and Studios, Frensham Schools, Mittagong NSW, 8-12 July 2019.

The Skyspace paintings, SoHo 1980s will be shown at Nicholas Thompson Gallery, 29 February - 15 March 2020.

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