The Sydney Morning Herald
By Nick Galvin
They gaze intently at the camera from a moment frozen in time in New York in 1969. The three young artists — Ian Burn, Roger Cutforth and Mel Ramsden — were about to stage a show in Melbourne that would stir passionate debate and controversy in the art world.
Some reviewers were even openly hostile to the exhibition, declaring it "anti-art" and an attempt to provoke.
"It was at the Pinacotheca Gallery, which was a pretty anti-establishment gallery set up the previous year in St Kilda," Sydney University Art Gallery senior curator Ann Stephen recalled. "Each artist showed a single work in a single room. It was quite severe and austere, and in a way quite shocking in terms of the conventions of the time."
Now, more than four decades on, this pivotal conceptual art exhibition is being restaged at the university art gallery. "Of course you can't return like a time capsule to 1969 … but what I was really interested in doing was trying to return to the countercultural aspects of the work," Stephen said. "Because the artwork is so modest in terms of the material there is a tendency to put it into showcases as if they are super-precious iconic objects and it loses its immediacy."
None of the three artists could afford to travel to Australia for the original exhibition, so their works were sent by post to Melbourne.
Mel Ramsden sent a work called Six Negatives, which were reproductions of some of the category listings from the index of a copy of Roget's Thesaurus. Each of the positive attributes was struck out, leaving only a list of negative descriptions.
Roger Cutforth's work is called Noon time-piece (April), and consists of a calendar for the month of April 1969 with each of the days struck out, a card with the precise latitude and longitude of New York printed on it and 30 small Polaroids of a section of the sky, each shot at noon on each day of the month.
"Even in the late '60s, the idea of using the camera as a dumb recording device was read as a kind of anti-photography," Stephen said.
The third work, from Ian Burn, is a series of books made up of 100 sheets of paper copied and recopied on a commercial Xerox machine. "The books accumulate a kind of electrostatic layering," Stephen said. "As you go through, the layering thickens. It begins in a sense with nothing and is a work made out of time."
Stephen said the significance of this modest exhibition in a small Melbourne gallery has only become apparent over time.
"Conceptual art is now an extraordinarily important reference for contemporary artists and has almost entered contemporary lingo in a way that would have been remarkable to imagine back then," she said. "After conceptual art the practices of artists changed in huge ways."
Alongside the three works from the original show, Stephen has selected other pieces produced by the three artists around the same time, including the well-known Secret Painting by Ramsden.
A 79-centimetre square black canvas, it is accompanied by the legend, "the content of this painting is invisible: the character and dimension of the content are to be kept permanently secret, known only to the artist".
However, much to the delight of Stephen, the work has given up at least a little of its mystery. "I've known the Secret Painting for a long time but when I was looking at the back of this I suddenly realised there is a secret painting in there," she said. "There is a panel underneath with a secret painting."
Although quite what its contents are will, of course, never be known.
This article was originally published at the The Sydney Morning Herald