Slave Pianos, Foreign Knowledge, Archival Material (Correspondence)
Slave Pianos, Foreign Knowledge, Archival Material (Correspondence)
–3 May 2000-
Dr Brian Kennedy
National Gallery of Australia
Canberra ACT 2600
Hello again from “Bonzaview”.
The most recent painting of mine in the collection of the NGA was painted in 1980.
The NGA’s representation of my paintings between the years 1974 to 1980 is a reasonable one but beyond that, except for a few prints and so on, many of which have been gifted by me, there is a 20 year blank.
My work has been constantly developing since 1974.
I do not understand why for two whole decades the NGA has so ignored my work. (Even your recent, publicised, purchase of SLAVE PIANOS material has no SLAVE GUITARS material to properly contextualise it.)
I did hope, when you saw that large work of mine at Anna Schwartz Gallery in 1997, that that might have appealed to you as a focussed (sic) way of part-updating my NGA representation. (It is still available.)
Meanwhile my work continues, and I currently have another exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery. I enclose some material related to this and hope, if you are in Melbourne between now and 20 May, you will have a chance to directly experience ‘the go-between’.
With best wishes
Peter Tyndall I Have Made A Heap Of All That I Could Find, Tension, June 1990
I Have Made A Heap Of All That I Could Find
When I first went to school it was to Saint Monica’s at Kangaroo Flat in 1956. My mother tells me I cried a lot and didn’t want to go.
I thought the name of our teacher was Mrs School. Every morning she would say, “Good morning children” and we would reply, “Good morning Mrs. School”. Somewhere along the way I found out that her name was, in fact, Mrs Gill.
Our grade, which was called “Bubs” had a time set aside for rest in the afternoon. We were supposed to sit in our desks, fold our arms, put our head into folded arms, close our eyes and try and go to sleep. I was never able to go to sleep at this time. I used to close my eyes and say to myself things like; “I think that I’m thinking”, and I felt that I understood the situation. Sometimes I would peek at the others, all with their heads down on their desks. I used to wonder if they too were “thinking that they were thinking”
Many in our grade were seriously engaged in collecting things. From Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate we collected cards showing modern jet planes. To properly display our various collections we needed special books known as “albums”. Some of my mates began working this word into their conversation all the time. Saying things like “Have you got your al-bum?” and “Show us your al-bum”. Unfortunately I also began to phonetically divide this word, knowingly and unnecessarily.
Kangaroo Flat in the 1950’s was an Australian Town and we were all Australians - that’s all we knew. One day, in Grade 1 or 2, Eugene Scwiezski announced that his parents had changed their names to Mr. and Mrs. Ross.
When I was seven I joined the Kangaroo Flat First Cub group. I lasted only one meeting. There was a huge fuss brought about when I told my parents that before we began to learn knots and play hoppo-bumpo we’d all had to say the Our Father together and, instead of saying, “Our Father Who art in Heaven…” which we always said at home and school, we’d had to say, “Our Father Which art in Heaven…” I wasn’t allowed to go again. Instead, I had to travel into Bendigo each week to join the Seventh Bendigo (Catholic) Cub Group to learn knots, play hoppo-bumpo, call Miss “Ar-ka-la:, say”We’ll dib dib dib. We’ll dob dob dob" and “Our Father Who art in Heaven…”.
My father had trained to be a priest at St. Francis in Melbourne, opposite Myer’s. Because my he had given up his priestly vocation to go to war and then to marry my mother, I was named Peter Julian, after Blessed Peter Julian Eymard, the founder of the Sacred Heart Fathers. I became an altar boy and my father helped me learn the Latin Mass.
I can remember going in five different painting competitions when I was young:
There used to be a brand of petrol called C.O.R. They had a colouring-in competition - to colour-in a line picture of one of their C.O.R. delivery tankers. The problem was “What colour do I paint the bumper bar?”. I asked my father to buy some silver paint from the hardware shop. I thought this ingenious solution would clinch it, but I never heard from them.
Radio 3BO had a competition to do a picture of Willy the Wireless Bird who used to be part of the show. The trouble here was that in order to enter the competition you needed to include with your entry a label from some item of Stamina clothing. After much pleading my mother bought me some grey Stamina shorts, I did the picture and won the cricket bat that was the prize for the Junior Boy’s Section.
As a member of the Sunbeams club, overseen by “Corinella”, I sent pictures to The Sun newspaper and received various points and colours in return.
To a show on Channel 2 (the one with Mr Squiggle) I sent a painting of two party-hatted children blowing streamers at each other.
In Grade 6 I won (or was it Honourable Mention?) the Paraclete Art Prize for a boy from a Grade 6 Victorian Catholic School with an entry called Autumn, done on black paper.
When I was very young, in Primary School, I used to buy Jack and Jill magazine, every Tuesday. It came from England. When I was a little older I bought Play-time, which also came from England. In my senior years I bought weekly magazines but by then they were Look and Learn and Knowledge. A magazine called Knowledge.
In Form 2 at Secondary School I began buying TIME magazine every week. From America. About 1964 I remember reading in an issue of TIME a subheading which said something like, “To be an artist today you need to be an intellectual”. Even though I had no plan or idea of “being an artist” I remember feeling quietly daunted by this information. I knew without the slightest shadow of doubt that I was not and could not be “an intellectual”.
I went to a boarding school - Assumption College, Kilmore - for four years: 1965–1969. That’s where I missed the revolution. One day in 1967 two new students from Thailand were introduced to our Class by the head of the College, whose name was Brother Romuald. He was a Marist Brother. Some of these had names like Brother Evangelist (who had gone to school with my father), Brother Paulinus, Brother Columbus and in charge of delivering punishments, Brother Dominus. Anyway, the Head announced to us that these two new students would be known as Frank and James. I later learned that their names were Pratiung Uenqseesawat and Suchitphong Tangsritrakul.
In my final year at Secondary School my friends and I were constantly being ticked-off by the Head of the School for our “ideas” and our “attitude”. When our ideas or opinions weren’t in accord with the Teachings of the Church or of some other code the Head would say contemptuously, “But you’re just rationalising. You know you’re just rationalising”.
No one had ever been an artist on either side of my Family Tree. My mother had been an Arts and Crafts teacher. Of the two schools I attended neither taught Art. Indeed, Assumption was known as the “Football College”. To my recollection there were at least ten football ovals on the college grounds. It was compulsory to go to Mass in the morning and to football training in the afternoon.
In Matric’ when we had to decide What-We-Were-Going-To-Do I jokingly said I’d like to be an artist. No one, not even I, took this as a serious expression of a goal. It was seen to be a “career indicator”. On a Career Guidance Chart we looked up “creative, aristic interests” and that pointed to “Architecture”. So I studied Architecture.
In 1970, at Melbourne University it was considered that Architecture students had the heaviest workload. By memory we had 40 hours of classes each week, plus long hours of designing, draughting, model building and other homework. At the end of First Year I’d passed nine-tenths of the ten subjects but was told that I needed to pass everything to advance to Second Year. I would have to repeat all ten First Year subjects! Stuffing that for a joke I applied to join Second Year Architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and was accepted.
One day in first year one of our class referred to another class member as having a “famous artist for a father”. This was an exciting discovery for me as I‘d never yet met an artist, except Bill Delleca in Bendigo who’d advised me that I shouldn’t do Art as a subject in Matric’ if I hadn’t done it throughout secondary school. Anyway, apparently this student’s father had an exhibition on in Melbourne, so four of us decided to go and see it. It was John Brack’s “Persian Carpet” series at Joseph Brown’s tiny gallery at 5 Collins Street. This was 1970 and the first commercial exhibition I’d ever seen. To this day Brack remains one of my most admired artists.
I remember seeing Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols for the first time in 1970. The text wasn’t important to me but the layout of the book, the generous and stimulating feeling of an all inclusive richness impressed me greatly. It seemed like a demonstration of “seeing the whole world in a grain of sand”. It was immediately clear from this that everything was available to an alert and interested viewer or story-teller as grist to their mill. It took me some years to practise the lesson but the first sighting showed me the pleasure of thinking and seeing inclusively rather than exclusively.
John Cage’s compilations of anecdotes in books like Silence and A Year From Monday reinforced in me the same inclusive attitude. His stories exemplify the unexpected rewards of open looking.
One of the subjects in Second Year Architecture was Philosophy. This was divided into two parts: Logic, of the “if A + B = C then all cats are black” rigorous variety, and Aesthetics. The text for Aesthetics was Richard Woldheim’s Art and its Objects. I gave a lot of thought to this book’s title, separating so succinctly the word (ART) from the thing (ART) and begging the act of fusing the two. This was certainly before Duchamp’s similar provocations worked upon me.
We also had an ART subject, again divided into two. One part was Applied, with Anne Montgomery and Mary MacQueen. It was loose and enjoyable. The other half was Art History taught by Joe Bradley, an American. As I remember it he had studied with Léger in Paris, been a pilot in the war and then studied again with Léger in New York. There he had flown Léger around while he did aerial studies. Bradley was tough, demanding and encouraging. He indirectly influenced my decision to take a year off from Architecture to try being an artist.
In September 1971, I caught pleurisy and was confined to bed for two weeks. Bored and restricted I decided to do an oil painting, my first oil painting. I sent out for some art materials and a big library book on the History of Art. Flicking through the book, looking for something I liked, something that would test my skill I chose to paint a detail, a woman’s face, from a painting by Louis LeNain. To me, then, this was Real Art and it was a proper challenge to match it. I was still fundamentally distrustful of more recent art, twentieth century art. Copying another painting caused me no problem - this was well before the popular problematising of appropriation. For me my finished copy had complete integrity. I was proud of it. I had it framed immediately and then went to the Director of the Bendigo Art Gallery offering the work for sale. Suffice to say they still don’t have any work of mine in their collection.
But, from that painting on I knew what I wanted to do. I took leave from studies at the end of Second Year Architecture and began painting full time.
I had been doing figure drawing at the Victorian Artists’ Society in East Melbourne. I did this because someone told me that the ability to understand and render the human figure was at the base of all art. The V.A.S. had had some interesting moments in the past but in 1971 under the guiding principles of its president, William Frater, it was a very reactionary establishment. It’s not surprising, therefore, that in this context the work of any 20 year old might look (comparatively) interesting. The secretary thought my work was interesting.
One day early in 1972 she rang Patrick McCaughey, who was apparently the art critic for The Age, and persuaded him to come and see my work. This in its apparent randomness and triviality is how things often happen for me.
Of course my work was tentative and unfocused at this time so after a quick look we went down to the pub for a drink and some advice. McCaughey’s advice was simple and served me well. That I pushed it as far as I did caused a lot of irony between us in later years.
He said that as I was young and just starting I shouldn’t try to find a style of my own too early or too easily. That I should look to great works of my own choosing and determine what it was that made them great. That I should always feel free to experiment; that I should see as many different exhibitions as possible and, most importantly, that I should always attempt to remove from a work that part of it that wasn’t truly “mine”.
Another suggestion was that maybe I should go to Art School. I said that as I hadn’t done Art at Secondary School I didn’t think I could get into a course. Besides, I thought Art School might cramp my development and, anyway, I only had one year’s leave-of-studies to prove myself as an artist.
Over the next six months I did hundreds of paintings and drawings, changing style, subject matter and technique seemingly by the hour as I visited exhibitions (I saw 33 shows in three days once) and began reading the History of Art. I sucked in information from anywhere and everywhere. It was just as likely to come from “The Goons” as from a review in The Age by McCaughey.
In September that year an unexpected vacancy occurred in the V.A.S. exhibition program. On the spur of the moment I said I’d fill it. I had two weeks. In this time I did 20 paintings and 30 drawings which I framed myself. I had a catalogue and poster printed and I visited the three newspaper critics - Alan McCulloch of The Herald, Jeff Makin of The Sun and McCaughey - telling them I was having an exhibition and asking them to come and see it. Ignorance is Bliss. Fools rush in…etc.
Reasonable reviews by McCaughey and McCulloch helped me get into David Chapman’s Powell Street Gallery. Within a month or so of my V.A.S. show I was in a Powell Street Group Show with Fred Cress, the rising star of the moment, John Peart, Syd Ball and others. By now my paintings were up to 5´ x 7´ and were Abstract.
In February I was in the Georges Invitation Prize. In March I had my Second Solo Exhibition, at Powell Street. This too was done with short notice - six weeks, maybe less, 13 lyrical abstract paintings up to 12´ x 8´6´´and some calligraphic gouaches.
Things were happening fast. Alan McCulloch wrote of this show: “At 21, Tyndall is painting like a savant who has made a lifelong study of Chinese silks, porcelains and calligraphy. His dilemma in achieving all this so fast is not uncommon. Having arrived at so high a degree of sophistication in painting at the age of 21 where does he go from here?”
To broaden my horizons I decided to hitch-hike to Sydney and get to know first hand those whose work was being lauded most in Melbourne at that time. I stayed with Ron Robertson Swann and visited his studio as well as those of John Firth-Smith, David Aspden, Syd Ball, Guy Warren and others. Also I was lucky enough to see Tony Tuckson’s first exhibition at Watters Gallery. In Melbourne I visited Fred Cress’ studio and generally entered into this milieu. In November, McCaughey wrote in The Age drawing particular attention to this so-called School. Under the heading “Abstract school surpassed itself”: “In some ways the youngest member of the group, Peter Tyndall, suits the term more accurately but his all-over colour glow tied to a roughened textured surface shows a promise and independence well clear of prevailing clichés.”
But things are never so simple. As this diary list of August 23, 1973, shows I was, by the time of McCaughy’s “Abstract school” review, already acknowledging my admiration for a diverse gathering of artists:
I ADMIRE THE WORK OF
Clearly the worm was well into the (New York?) apple. However it still took a while for the conflict to become apparent and cause “problems”.
Six months later the problem was clear for all to see. By early 1974 I felt that I had come to the end of any possible development in my painting. Without having heard of such a thing, I had replicated the Reductivist Crisis in one brief career at atom smashing speed (Luckily so fast! … because the momentum caused me to over-shoot the End Point.).
Following McCaughey’s earlier advice I had removed all from the picture that wasn’t truly mine and surprise! surprise! I’d ended up with an almost (seemingly) blank canvas … just as thousands of others had done over the previous few years with their black, white or raw canvas end-game conclusions. And stasis!
For the second time I had lost my Faith. I decided to start again, to throw the whole dead baggage overboard and start afresh. I decided I would go to Art School, where I’d have the time and opportunity to re-think the basics.
After one term at Art School I was asked to leave. A story for another day.
I was now quite free to do whatever I wanted to do. I informed David Chapman, my dealer, that I was giving up painting. That I wouldn’t be doing it again unless I had a very good reason to do so. And that I didn’t expect to find any such good reason.
By this time my major interests were the ideas and implications of Duchamp’s work and twentieth century music.
I read and listened to everything I could find by John Cage. He seemed to be Music’s equivalent of Duchamp. I liked his common sense intelligence and his good humour. Cage’s work is as much about the constructive role of the receiver as it is about the role of the giver.
I liked what I found out about the American composer Charles Ives. I liked the good humour and simple clarity of Eric Satie’s ideas and music. Edgar Varese impressed me. I remember David Ahearn’s A-Z group coming to Melbourne from Sydney to give a one-off performance of all of Stockhausen’s solo piano pieces - a fantastic evening powered by their missionary zeal. On the strength of this night I bought a piano and a book about Stockhausen. I liked the formal ridiculousness of his notating precise applause into one of his pieces. I liked Steve Reich’s double tape-loop phasing “Come out to show them”.
A text that I took to heart and mind was the early section of D.T. Suzuki’s Lectures on Zen Buddhism. It was a comparison of the ways of knowing of the West, the East and Zen. He compared a haiku by the Japanese poet Basho and a verse by Tennyson, both on the subject of looking at a flower.
In retrospect, my own work would seem to be considerably prescribed by Suzuki’s reading of the differences between the two. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it didn’t crystallise so easily at the time. But this is certainly evidence that opportunity knocks more than once.
Suzuki says: “The East is silent, while the West is eloquent. But the silence of the East does not mean just to be dumb and remain wordless or speechless. Silence in many cases is as eloquent as being wordy”.
Given that we are “of the West”, and if we accept the generalised criticisms that Suzuki makes of the Western way, it is not surprising that so many artists, myself included, should have held Duchamp’s “attitude” in such high regard in the early ’70’s.
In coming to terms with the implications of that simple, provocative word, “the readymade”, I’d like to add another word that was “in the air” in 1974 - “the Given”. This word was part of the ideological questioning of “all given things” that characterised the early ’70s. Both words serve to bring into focus and to challenge the stability of all differentiated structures.
I have provocatively married “the readymade”, “the Given”, “the mirror” and “the viewer” or rather “the Given as readymade as mirror to the viewer as Given …” The first formal “readymade” that I encountered was back in “Bubs”. The first question and answer in our Catechism: “Question: Who made the World? Answer: God made the World!”
Before my 1974 “breakthrough” I did a number of things, for my pleasure and for my working-it-out. Taking up the role of the Joker I positioned myself at various pressure points with my Fool’s Word, “ART”.
For a group show at the Ewing Gallery called “When you think about Art what do you think about?”. Answer: Rodin’s The Thinker.
If I saw something, some “readymade” that might or might not be ART - in this case an assemblage in a window at the Carlton United Brewery in Carlton of a skull biting into a bikini top, both framed in a toilet seat - then the Fool recognised and claimed that occasion too.
When I made my own cathARTic breakthrough in November 1974, my purgative was humour. Humour or lightness allowed me to see and accept and understand what the Greenbergian regime did not seem to permit or allow for.
A few months earlier I’d coined my own maxim “If you’re really serious you should be laughing”. At the same time, as part of my music-making, I’d been recording highly structured audio-tapes of my laughter.
Duchamp seemed like Art’s wise court jester. Now I could see the joke, too. And, rather than it being a destructive or cynical force, it was for me a liberation, a regaining of part of my free-voice.
I would compare Duchamp with someone else whose “openness” and rigour has been of interest to me, the quark hunter Brian McCusker formally Professor of Physics at Sydney University. McCusker was involved in the scientific quest to discover the fundamental block of which our world is composed. In his 1983 book The Quest for Quarks McCusker writes: “The first occasion that I can remember when the idea cropped up was my reading a newspaper story about a forthcoming attempt to ‘Split the Atom’ - to divide the indivisible”.
- to Foreign Knowledge -
By the end of the book he is questioning the quest.
His Foreign Knowledge trail (and trial) has taken him from the world of the discrete atomic unit through to the quantum world and then on to consciousness research.
He writes: "The Universe is seamless, but not featureless. If the Universe is one, whole and indivisible, then because you and I are part of it, it is one, whole and indivisible, and conscious.
Duchamp also speculated on matters to do with a 4th dimension and other “experimental” matters, but for me it was his whole or general life attitude that is his most challenging, frontier contribution.
In the mid-’70s I made a number of things with specific reference to Duchamp.
The first of these came about at a time when I was confined to bed for several weeks in 1975. To pass the time, for “something to do” I began doing full-scale drawings of the front page of each day’s newspaper, charting each day’s information “still life”. Recoding it as “drawing”, therefore by the “retinal” limitations still existing, begging whether this “information” should be assessed as “News” or “Aesthetics”.
After a few days of this it seemed more interesting to apply this game a little lighter. I asked a friend to buy me an art magazine, any art magazine to be transformed back into the aesthetic realm. What happened was an exemplary, serendipitous moment of “canned chance”. I was bought a copy of the current issue of Studio International, a special issue on Marcel Duchamp. I then drew each page twice, from the front (with the “back” shining through) and from the back (with the “front” shining through), the intention was to exhibit each “original” page side-by-side with its “retinal” doubles.
Another of these Duchamp-referencing works was also a sort of twisting-the- mask-of-the-double. In this case it was a photo self-portrait after a Man Ray portrait of Duchamp’s alter-ego, his maker of the readymades, Rrose Selavy.
Seeing an advertisement for something called the Tyndall Overseas Fund, that was offering interested parties further information about itself, I detected the presence of a hybrid possibility for a “reciprocal readymade”. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line I’ve lost the letter that carries the Tyndall letterhead that begins “Dear Mr. Duchamp …”.
Duchamp once paid his dentist’s bill of $115 by designing and printing a special cheque for that amount.
About 1975 I made a pen and water-colour impression of a 13 unit banknote which I later gave to someone as a gift. It featured a bust profile of Duchamp, his signature, a section from the Great Glass and the words INTERNATIONAL CURRENCY ART (LTD).
To the legions of Duchamp scholars I declare that what follows is true: This work re-surfaced in late 1987 in Australia, where it was being offered for sale as an original lost work by Duchamp.
In my own work I’ve lately come to feel that I’ve reached the internal, full limit of my questions-of-definition. I feel that my base of understanding has been gathered, that I now have a working vocabulary and a sufficiency of grammar. This realisation marks a certain “end point” (of need) and creates a “new threshold” (from sufficiency to possibility). I have observed that as my daytime questions have been stilled my night-time voice (my dreams) has announced itself …
My practise, always, is to work (struggle, if necessary) through all available information to reach my own synthesis. The counter-charge of the “retinal” brigade is that of “Didacticism!” Their ignorance is their bliss.
On occasions I’ve felt freed, by my base, to return to the traditional craft pleasures of paint, of VOODOO PAINT. In 1985 and ‘86 I did a group of paintings of “fields of viewing”. As I was doing three of these I noted down, from one brush-mark to the next all the moments of my paint-craft that I recognised as coming from my knowledge of others’ paint craft.
By 1986, compared to 1974, the synthesis was larger and the recognitions were too many, too fast, and there was no longer an outside centre. So, in August 1986 I wrote:
In one painting
Brett Whiteley and/or
In another painting
and one of the 3 Cs
and in a third painting
Probably the artist I’ve appreciated most in the last few years is the Welsh born David Jones. Once, as a writer, he was regarded as an equal to Joyce, Elliot and Pound. He is less well-known today. I was first attracted to him through his word paintings, his “inscriptions”. I admire these enormously. From these I went on to read his epic poem THE ANATHEMATA which has been very important to me. Jones was steeped in many Foreign Knowledges: Anglo Saxon, Ancient Greek, Latin, Gallic and more, and clearly knew “the more we know, the less we know”.