Una Rey_After an illustrious career in New York, artist Virginia Cuppaidge chose to make Newcastle, Australia, her home. I was privileged to see her amazing survey show The Nature of Abstraction in 2019 at Newcastle Art Gallery. I've been watching her work and had been exposed to it prior [through the University of Newcastle collection]. It’s a great opportunity and a privilege to speak with you today, Virginia. My first question is about this work here, Cytheria, the major work from 1977–78. As many of you here today will be aware, it's undergone a major restoration at the Grimwade Centre at the University of Melbourne. And it has been 30 years since you saw this work, Virginia, perhaps longer. Tell us just what the emotional impact was of seeing the work when you stepped into this space a few days ago.
Virginia Cuppaidge_Well, it was just sort of a relief in a way, because its had a long, long journey from being very badly damaged. It was the first painting I did in my Soho studio in New York. I painted the brick wall white, stretched up a thick canvas and then had to work out a way to do these undulating colours, which have many layers underneath and why it gets a sort of a glow to it. It was bought by an art collector and he donated it to a college, and unbeknown to me they hung it in the student cafeteria. There it sat for 30 years, getting lots of dirt and grease and graffiti on it, and a slash at one end of the painting. They didn't want it anymore and they said they wanted to return it to me. I was devastated when I saw the condition the painting was in, I didn't know what to do with it. I wrapped it up and put it in storage. Then an Australian came by New York and said “Why don't you donate it to the Melbourne University, where they have a teaching program there of restoration?” But it was a bit of a long journey to have them agree to that. Then Nicholas Thompson very kindly said, “Why don't you house it in my gallery and they can just pick it up from the gallery rather than transferring it straight from New York to the university.” With his help they finally got the painting. Over the past five years, the students have been working on it as a learning experiment, they got a lot of the graffiti and the dirt off and cleaned the whole thing. It was an incredible relief to see it hanging here in all its glory.
UR_Did you cry?
UR_She’s very tough, Virginia! There is a terrific blog that Lily Bennion has published on the Grimwade Centre’s website that has a lot of detailed technical information. Lily describes the inherent vices of the work as a large-scale acrylic matte medium, a Liquitex colour field painting with water drips, mechanical cracks, tears and graffiti covering the composition, and I’m drawing attention to, some of these so-called flaws or scars in the work for good reason. Because there’s a history in this work of some trauma, if you like, and of repair. We can see that as a scar. There are also circular marks called impact cracks. But the fact that it’s endured such a tough journey and now it’s here being celebrated in its glory, alongside its sister works here, which are in immaculate condition from the same period, I think is worth reflecting on. The painting continues to tell a story. Virginia, these works are really your second major series that you made in New York, the Skyspace series. Can you describe the process of making this painting [gestures to Cytheria] as you remember it?
VC_I wanted to get an undulating colour across the big canvas. You couldn't buy canvas this width in Australia at the time. So, I was going to try my hand at doing a big one. I had a lot of experiments which didn't work out but I ended up doing it by mixing a lot of little pots of paint that I placed along the floor underneath the painting. And I had a stool, which I'd stand on and sweep the colour up and down with my hands with sponges and brushes while the paints were still wet, because acrylic paint, as you probably know, dries very quickly. Then I'd have to wait for at least a day or more for it to dry, so that when I put the second coat on it wouldn't pick up the undercoat. It just took a lot of mixing ever changing colours along with little pots of paint, which is a bit difficult to do if you're trying to get the same tonality. But I worked it out and I sort of invented a technique for myself that I used on recent works as well.
UR_And hence the incredible challenge for the conservators to work with those 20, 30, 40 layers of paint.
VC_It’s really hard to restore that colour because it’s not just one colour, it’s many colours underneath.
UR_These works came following your first series, the Geometrics, which you first exhibited in 1973 in your first solo show [at ABE Sachs Gallery] in New York. The transition is quite dramatic from the Geometrics [1970-1976] to the Skyspace series. Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened with the MacDowell Colony Fellowship in 1975 and the grass drawings?
VC_I had a fellowship to MacDowell Colony, an artist's colony in New Hampshire, where there's so many creative people, they can be poets or composers or artists and they go there for a period of time. I was actually there for eight weeks, now they only have two to six week residency spans. But I was getting interested in the open area and the Geometrics paintings and eliminating the rectangles on the top and bottom. I became more interested in the actual space because my work is really about the horizon line. The gravitational pull of the earth on the horizon line fascinates me. I was working like that in the Geometrics series, but I just wanted to open up, create an open space. I started to do some drawings of grasses. Every morning on the way to the studio, I'd walk past a big field and I'd pluck a piece of grass, and draw the grass and an abstract shape with it. And it got me with this idea of opening up the canvas and I became more interested in that middle space, which ultimately became this undulating colour middle space.
UR_It hints at the fact that while your works are large, late modernist, abstract paintings, they all have their origin in nature and landscape. The poetics of place really infiltrate your work, not least of all your titles, but a sense of Australian space and light and landscape.
VC_My environment influences me very much. A few years after arriving in New York [in 1969] I showed a work in a very important group exhibition called Women Choose Women, which was all women artists. We took over a building in the centre of Manhattan, the New York Cultural Centre [now the Museum of Arts and Design]. It was five floors of women choosing other women artists in the show. I helped curate that show. It was very important in terms of the feminist movement. And just doing those [grass] drawings, it inspired me to open up the space. I became interested in a sort of ethereal sense of something very tranquil to combat the New York hustle and bustle. In New York, it's very important to have a serene home that you can go home to at night with all the sirens and noise of the city. You just need that break. And I wanted to make paintings like that.
UR_That’s a nice analogy with the art fair, Sydney Contemporary with all the chaos and noise and activity. You step inside this Skyspace room we are in now, and it’s a very immersive and tranquil experience to be with this work. You said that was almost therapeutic for you. A Guggenheim Foundation fellowship gave you a year off teaching to really develop this body of work, in particular. But you also had to do some hard yards on the floor at the gallery of Max Hutchinson, who was an Australian who moved to New York after you in 1970 [Virginia moved from Sydney to New York in 1969]. Tell us a bit about your role as a “shop girl” in the gallery.
VC_I was a shop girl in the gallery doing odd jobs and everything. And I wasn't very good at that! I think my mind was a bit in the clouds. Max was showing American artists occasionally. The only abstract artist or Australian artist he was showing was Clement Meadmore, the sculptor. Max was very ambitious. He had me sitting on the front desk for when people came in. One day he was out of the gallery getting a coffee and a man came in to see Max, with a group of about six people. I asked him to spell his name, so I could tell Max he'd been in. His name was Henry Geldzahler and he was the then Curator of 20th Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Max came back in and I told him, he said, “You asked Henry Geldzahler to spell his name?!” [Laughs]
UR_To be fair, though, if Nick Mitzevich, Director of the National Gallery of Australia stepped in here, you might ask him how to spell his name as well! It's worth reflecting on Max's ambition because he was a real entrepreneur, wasn't he? And, very committed and had great plans to bring together that vein of Australian and American artists, but ended up staying in the US. I guess he's most well known in Australia for facilitating the sale of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles  to the National Gallery of Australia in 1973. I will just point out that Cytheria is bigger than Blue Poles, not by much but, nevertheless. And Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Big Yam Dreaming  is bigger than both! When we think of your work now, where do we position you? You were an Australian working in America for almost 50 years and now you've repatriated a great deal of your work to Australia. Could you tell us a little bit about that process? Of course, many of them sold, but what were you thinking in bringing them here?
VC_Well, Nicholas Thompson has put on two shows of my work, and they’ve been earlier works. They are works that have had a life again, they’ve been in storage for years some after having been shown, some that I didn’t ever show. Giving them a second life has been absolutely wonderful, you want the paintings to keep living on. You don’t want them in storage or hidden away.
UR_There was a very near miss with Hurricane Sandy in Manhattan. It's quite an intuitive, saviour story.
VC_I stored the paintings in this huge factory storage warehouse, which is a city block in size. When I went to organise it with the owners, I told them "I’m not going to be coming into the storage. It’s going to be there forever until whenever, so I don’t need to access it a lot." They were going to put [the paintings] on the ground floor and something just said to me "I think they’ll get a lot of dust there with people coming and going." They said, "…well we do have a room for the same size but on a higher floor." And they gave me something on the third floor. Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and this warehouse was right near the Hudson River going into New York Harbour, and it was a catastrophic storm and completely flooded out the ground floor of the storage building. All everyone’s things were just lost to this flood. Had my paintings been there, I would have had all that work just abandoned. But as it turned out it wasn't. It was totally well preserved, and I could bring them over to Australia. Nicholas Thompson, who represents me here, has been so helpful with helping me get these works over and storing them in his gallery and really facilitating getting the works out and showing them, which I'm forever grateful for.
UR_It’s a great benefit to us as well, to be able to see how your work developed abroad. You’ve often said that growing up in Brisbane that you dreamed of going to New York and for your works to be part of a discourse, and paint these huge, large-scale abstract paintings. And I thought, how did she even know there was such a thing? But, Virginia, you grew up in a very cosmopolitan household in Brisbane...
VC_My mother [Judy Cuppaidge] was a botanical artist and she had a studio in the back of the house. And from a very early age, I can remember since I was six, I wanted to do that. I wanted to have a very quiet space, working with paint and paper and canvases, and I just loved it. It's inherent in me. My parents had a contemporary art collection, including Ian Fairweather and John Molvig, and I grew up with that. I definitely knew I wanted to be an abstract artist, but I don't even think I knew the word abstract, I just thought that way. And when I saw de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in the American magazines that my parents read, I totally identified with it. I thought, I've never seen paintings like this before. It made sense to me, it just talked to me completely. So, I thought I'm going to go there as soon as I can. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I made it to New York.
UR_And that was a real exodus. But you did stay longer than many. Virginia, you had a very successful print fabric textile business for a couple of years as well…
VC_I had a little business in Sydney for five years, doing textile design and turning them into clothes. It was successful for a while, but then it wasn't. We didn't handle the business side terribly well. [Laughs]
UR_We already know you weren't very good in the gallery! [Both laugh]
VC_I was really wanting to be a painter, to tell you the truth. So, in a way, it was a good thing that it failed and I moved on when I got to New York.
UR_You talk about the fact that you imagined these paintings very much in the spirit of Australia, and as we've already suggested that landscape orientation of horizons, space and light keeps coming back. But you said you could only make these paintings in New York. Tell us a little bit about landing in New York as a young woman and how you pitted yourself against that extraordinary environment and created works at this measure and scale.
VC_Well, it took me about a year before I could do anything. I was so overwhelmed. I met up with sculptor Clement Meadmore. And we became partners. Every Saturday, we'd go around all the galleries and see all this modern art. It was fantastic. And I felt overwhelmed. I didn't know if I could put my hand to painting again. But Clem was very wise. He'd been living there for ten years. He said, "Look, the thing about New York is that no matter what you do, no matter how the paintings look, there'll always be at least one person who will agree with and appreciate them." [Laughs] And, that's very true. That held me over until I was ready to start painting again, because when I rolled into New York, Clement Meadmore was the only telephone number that I had. It was a miracle when I called him and we got together, and we really hit it off.
UR_You can really see that in the Geometrics works, that others have noted and as you said yourself, there’s a real sculptural element, those two heavy blocks of the rectangle—there’s a tension. I often think of them like magnets, but they’re repelling rather than attracting. So, there’s very much a formal relationship, and I suppose you were like each other’s muse in that respect.
VC_We were. We used to talk all day about art, except when we were listening to jazz. He had an incredible jazz collection, Clem, and I happened to love jazz at that time. And funnily enough, my mother introduced me to jazz. She bought a record when I was sixteen, a jazz record, which I loved. That gave me a love of that kind of music. Clem and I went around to jazz clubs a lot and the galleries and talked art all day long. I loved it, it was a wonderful time.
UR_And there was a very rich community of peers in that time and period—this is where the [purpose of] art magazines comes in!—about a discourse with people who understand what you’re doing or trying to do or wanting to do, and there were audiences for your work, and feedback about your work and a commitment to your work in a context that many people said was just non-existent in Australia at the time— or very limited.
VC_At the time, minimal art was very much the thing in New York in the 70s, and I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. I think I was influenced. You reminded me of an earlier interview where I said I wasn't influenced by it, but I think I must have been. When I had my first show, people said to me my work looked very Australian, and I was so annoyed by that. I didn't want it to look Australian. I wanted to be international! But then I realised that the Australian land had influenced my work tremendously, I couldn't ignore it. So now, of course, I'm very proud of the fact that it is Australian.
UR_Well, miraculously, you can make paintings like this in Australia now, although at a much smaller scale. Tell us how being in Newcastle has reinspired you to make the sorts of works that you’re making now.
VC_Well as I was sending these early paintings back [to Australia] I was looking at them for the first time in years. When I came back into Newcastle, the light is phenomenal. Being right by the ocean and harbour, I have a view of the ocean from my home. The harbour has these huge tankers come in to pick up coal every day, and they come in with the plimsoll line above the waterline. Then they fill up with coal and go back and they're sunken down, the plimsoll line right on the waterline. And you get this shifting of spaces. I see them as just forms going in and out of the harbour and this incredible light. I think it's really influenced me again, with these new works.
UR_You talked about being reacquainted with your own archives because you've been looking at earlier works and with Nicholas's help, placing them into public collections. So, you're visiting things from many years past.
VC_Exactly. I’ve been looking at those works. And there’s been works that I didn’t want to exhibit at the time. I didn’t think they were good enough. But I see them now and they’re not that bad and I wonder what was wrong with me! [Laughs]
UR_I just want to finish by saying you've sort of been picked up as a feminist and female artist–a female abstractionist working at a time when there was a lot of conceptual art going on in New York. But your paintings are the things that have survived. Sometimes they've come through the wars. They've been shown. You were shown in Know My Name in 2020 at the National Gallery of Australia and New Woman in Brisbane in 2019, so there's been a curatorial effort. And Laura Nichols curated a great touring show for the National Gallery of Australia Abstraction: celebrating Australian women abstract artists in 2016, so you're kind of being labelled. But it's not a bad thing!
VC_It's not a bad thing. It really isn't. It is bringing attention to the work.
UR_Well, I think we will leave it there. I will just share the quote that Virginia made when she came back to Sydney for a show at Gallery A, where she had several exhibitions and was interviewed by Geoffrey de Groen [in 1976]. Just before going back to New York, before this work [Skypace series] was made, she said, "I can feel my style is about to change." But she was emphatic it would not be inspired by minimalism whatsoever. [Both laugh]. So, I think that proves not to be the case. Nevertheless, painting has sustained you and I’d like to congratulate you on an amazing and very long and celebrated career. I think you’ve got many years in you yet!
VC_Thanks Una know, I hope so.
This Sydney Contemporary “Art Talk” was held at Carriageworks on 10 September 2023.