Castlemaine has many links with the artist John Nixon, who died in August. In 2017 CAM presented John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop, curated by Emma Busowsky Cox; CAM has three Nixon works in its collection; and many of Nixon’s colleagues and friends live locally. In this tribute, fellow artists Melinda Harper, Clayton Tremlett and Justin Andrews, and curator Busowsky Cox share their memories of John Nixon, each writing with affection, respect and a profound sense of loss. Here you will learn something of the artist, celebrated not only for his work but also for his generous contribution to the sector through publishing, curating and supporting other artists at all stages of their development. We extend heartfelt condolences to Nixon’s wife, Sue Cramer, and daughter, Emma Nixon, and to John’s wider art family.
John Nixon was a gentle soul and an elegant mind, a great collaborator and teacher, intellectually curious, respectful, worldly and very funny. I was privileged to work with him on a number of occasions, including on a series of performances of The Donkey’s Tail at the National Gallery of Victoria not long after he had established the art/music ensemble. However, the exhibition John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop at Castlemaine Art Museum in 2017 remains one of my most rewarding curatorial projects. Hans Ulrich Obrist has said that the role of the curator is that of catalyst, generator and motivator—a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show. However, in working with John, all of those things flowed both ways. Through my association with him and his mentorship, my capacity as a curator and writer has been greatly extended. I am grateful to him, and will continue to draw upon his influence and the messages of his work.
My thoughts are with Sue Cramer, Emma Nixon and John’s many friends and colleagues around the world.
I met John Nixon over thirty years ago when I was an art student at Prahran Collage. We shared a love for Constructivism and in particular the works of the women artists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. As a young artist he encouraged me to have a strong studio practice, to keep making, and to keep exploring the endless possibilities of abstraction. John curated many exhibitions in which he included my work, he brought artists together and introduced me to many of my peers. We shared many conversations, meals, ideas, and I will miss him terribly. When my son was born John painted him a J, the initial letter of his name. And when my daughter was born he was away and time passed. My daughter reminded him when he had his exhibition at CAM and of course the next week when he arrived to hang his exhibition he delivered a C, for her. Art enriches our lives; John believed that and lived that. His work, life and friendship enriched and contributed greatly to mine.
I first met John Nixon (as an art student, still in my teens) following a journey up many stairs to arrive at his Art Projects space in the 1980s. John was welcoming and generous with his time, while we discussed Art, Music and Abstraction. Etched in my memory of that day, was the contrast of his work and a torrent of water flowing down the wall next to it because of the heavy rain outside. It became clear to my young mind that John was all about experimentation and juxtaposition. This has since proved to be true, when we see the immense body of work he has produced under the Umbrella of the “Experimental Painting Workshop”.
So … it seems, life has come full circle when John has a major exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Museum in 2017 and I bring my VCE art class to engage with his work. Before seeing the exhibition, I had presented images to the class and explained the artist’s standing in contemporary Australian art and his commitment to Abstraction and Constructivism. I recall a couple of students reacting strongly, because they held the view that art should ideally represent something. Suffice to say, after Emma Busowsky Cox (curator) explained the artist’s working rationale, I could see the light bulb moment for those students. The ultimate compliment occurred back in class with one of the previously vocal students painting nothing but circles for the next month.
In 2002 I took a trip to Sydney to see EPW Orange, a solo show of John’s work at Sarah Cottier Gallery. I was struck by the clarity of the colour and complexity of the works on show, double-hung emphatically wall-to-wall throughout the entire space. It’s as if I had been presented with an index of elements to decode a whole practice by – some of them pristinely abstract, others familiarly attached to the wider world with their utilitarian, domestic inference. In that experience John taught me his first of many lessons – art always references life and vice versa.
I had to tell John how much the show resonated with me, so Stephen Bram lined up a meeting. John had us both over for lunch shortly afterwards. From the moment of shaking his hand and then offering my perspective over his carefully curated modest meal, I think John knew me completely. It was perfect timing for me as an emerging artist, as he provided me with a real life example of how a busy, vibrant, simultaneously local and international independent practitioner can exist. John showed me how critical and artistic rigour can be maintained in between all other areas of daily life – not in theory or by instruction, but just by being who he was and doing what he did.
John was very generous with his knowledge at all times. He was relentless in pointing out areas of my work that he saw as grounds for further investigation, as if they were possibilities that I had not seen and he was usually right. His own example of practice-based research – finding new leads through following previous ones and allowing the evolution of work to direct the artist’s next move – was a major belief of his. John was very open to the intuitive and generative side of making artwork. It’s as if he allowed his world of forms and elements to expand through their own will by gently and strategically introducing new information, references and materials, synthesizing them with previous ones to produce fresh amalgamations. John facilitated that expansion relentlessly throughout the whole time I knew him. His oeuvre has become a whole constellation of examples into a very special kind of material thinking and learning. My friendship with John was built on that shared love of the creative process, of ‘seeing where ideas would take you’, he would say.
His solo exhibition at ACCA in 2004 was staggering in its complexity, beauty, vision and position. Yet he spoke of it in such essential terms. Always eschewing over-complication and consistently tying things back to reality. I’ll never forget the panel discussion event from that show where, surrounded by an intoxicating number of works and ideas, he spoke with the most practical language in the most un-egotistical way. He always used the most appropriate terminology when in conversation. Effortlessly.
As one year rolled into another our association grew to the stage where I was able to invite him into my own projects such as exhibitions and independent publications. He always agreed to everything that I carefully proposed, happily allowing me to nominate work that I knew of, or to peruse the storage facility for something that fitted the bill – to choose one work of John’s for a show was to select a detail of his whole practice. He knew I was aware of that gravitas.
John and I travelled together.
We saw movies, concerts and exhibitions together.
I’ve been his regular chauffeur and art courier.
He and I worked on his house together.
We’ve watched football together, I’ve helped him with his tax.
John and his wonderful family attended my wedding.
John made one of his famous letter paintings for my daughter when she was born.
John and I had a favourite restaurant to regularly meet at in the city.
John employed me as his studio assistant for a period of time when I needed the financial assistance, ‘There’s always plenty for you to do, Justin!’ he would say.
I played an amplified length of fencing wire in his anti-music group, The Donkeys Tail.
I helped him make his abstract films.
I repaired things for him and documented his paintings.
John gave me gifts of different kinds that contained examples of design that he thought resembled my work.
John and I called each other often just to talk, offer updates, discuss new work and follow up on unfinished business.
He and I were such close friends – regardless of the age difference, we both lived our lives through our artistic perspective and we both shared an art-making obsession. It was just understood, it was what brought us together. He returned everything I did for him with his support, insight and understanding.
John and I co-curated three instalments of our Drawing Folio exhibition project over a ten year period – what a beautiful experience that was. John was a major source of guidance and inspiration for my Infinite Loop curatorial project, which has (so far) been held in venues in Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands.
He was so generous and had so much serious fun in the process of making things happen. John was an incredibly charismatic figure whom people were always drawn to. He shone like a welcoming star at the origin of a graph that had location/generation/sub-group axes and countless artists dotted throughout it. John was literally the gateway to an international field of connections, although he would always insist that everything was and should be based on friendship first and foremost.
John championed the idea of the studio as a mindset. He constantly looked at the world through his visual and conceptual vocabulary. Always working, always living and engaging and collecting material to fold back into his EPW. He is, for me, the epitome of the artist and whilst I can no longer have those beautiful and intense yet also friendly and easy conversations with him, I can still benefit from his knowledge by looking into his work as well as drawing on my memories of times spent with him. Which I am so much better off for having.
At this stage, John has me considering the notion of universal transformation of energy, but with a cosmological and constructivist slant. During that period of time when John was alive – as a caring husband to Sue, a loving father for Emma, a strong and dutiful man and a fiercely rigorous artist, he configured an expansive body of work out of opportunities, resources, objects, concepts and ideas. He literally converted his own energy into what he leaves us with now.
That is his legacy.
While that conversion of energy is now complete, he will continue to activate creative and poetic impulses into the future, triggered by all of those incredible paintings, objects, publications and other unique things of his own hands and ideas that he leaves behind to us.
Whether it be as the inimitable artist, or as the good man whom I was incredibly lucky to be close friends with…all that John did and gave is something I will always be aware of and thankful for.
John Nixon was such a good person, truly a man of his time.
Who has now become a great, timeless artist of all time.