Abstraction: different interpretations

foam abstraction, Waitpinga

This exhibition features the photography of Adam Dutkiewicz and Gary Sauer-Thompson. The work in the exhibition builds on the Monash Gallery of Art’s 2012 exhibition entitled Photographic Abstractions; two earlier abstraction exhibitions curated by Gary Sauer-Thompson at the Centre of Creative Photography in Adelaide, South Australian (2016 and 2017); the photographic abstraction tradition constructed in the Abstract Photography book by Adam Jan Dutkiewicz and Gary Sauer-Thompson published by Moon Arrow Press in 2016; and Gary’s minor photography in Thoughtfactory’s abstraction blog.

The first 12 images in the exhibition are by Adam Jan Dutkiewicz; the second 12 images are by Gary Sauer-Thompson.

There is some confusion about what counts as abstraction in photography: art theorists class very different kinds of photographs as abstract, whilst the common or orthodox view of photography, backed by analytic aesthetics, if true, causes us to doubt the very possibility of abstraction and photography. So it is worthwhile to explore abstraction in photography.

The exhibition breaks with the modernist interpretation of abstraction as understood by the art historical narratives of modern art. Breaks in the sense of both becoming aware of different interpretations of abstraction to Clement Greenberg’s formalist modernist interpretation of abstraction, and making a return to the root form of abstraction. To abstract means to draw away or remove (something from something else) and this is broader than the view that the development of Western art tends towards ever greater formalism—in the sense of a preoccupation with “pure” form, understood as without content.When we say that abstract painting is formal, we ought to mean that it has only itself, or painterly possibilities, as its own content.

seaweed abstraction

We need to start this rethinking of abstraction in photography because the photographic image has become the networked digital image in informational, surveillance capitalism. Rubinstein, Golding and Fisher in the Introduction to their On the Verge of Photography: Imaging Beyond Representation (p.9) describe the networked digital image this way:

In today’s visual regime an image can be uploaded to someone’s Facebook stream in the morning, “liked” and tagged at various points of the network and by the evening re-emerge as part of diverse and varied series, search results and image-sets that have no linear connection with the event of the original upload: it is trending on twitter, it is siphoned into image mashups, remixed into palimpsets and aggregated with other bits of information to form new images, texts and sounds, all of the time drawing from an infinite stream of computer data.

Their main argument is that the digital-born image is composed of a field of data that has the appearance of an analogue photograph only due to convention. As data, images are no longer defined by their mode of recording or their geometric construction, but by the algorithmic structure which gives them their particular appearance.

white abstract

For computers digital photographs are calculable information that is continually combined and recombined with other information circulating on the network to produce new and diverse connections. In the process the calculable information changes from being a discrete unit to a fluid entity characterised by instantaneity, simultaneity, multiplicity and the indeterminacy that is the result of the agency of code itself. Against the traditional conception of photography as a two-dimensional reflection of objects that exist in the real world (the reflective surface of mirror resembling/reflecting/depicting whatever is placed in front of it) the photographic image becomes  movement and flow.

This is a different world to that of the canonical art histories of the 20th century painting that played the leading role  in the development of modernism in the other arts in the sense of the tendency to abstraction. Abstraction as the privileged non-conceptual term in modernism was premised on several assumptions: a rejection of representation and realism, the avant garde’s turn to non-figurative abstraction, a concentration on the act of painting itself, a Euro-American perspective, and the equation of this “universalist” canon with Western values and works. Freeing painting from literature becomes painting about painting — painting concentrates on its own sphere of materials and signification becomes self-reflexive.

quartz abstract

We need to rethink photographic abstraction in a world of the networked digital images that begin their life as binary data, are developed algorithmically, and then driven to various points across the network not as individual pictures but as packets of data. These packets of data that proliferate and self-replicate appear as conventional analogue photographs that are approached visually.

Gary Sauer-Thompson is a photographer and blogger based in Encounter Bay on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. Gary  has an M.Com in economics (Canterbury University, New Zealand), studied photography at the Photography Images College in South Melbourne, and has a PhD in Philosophy (from Flinders University of South Australia). He has published a number of books and he exhibits regularly. He has worked as an economist, a tramways conductor, an academic, and a political and policy advisor.

Wellington, New Zealand, 2020 photo by Sally Jackman

Gary left full-time paid work in Canberra in 2011 to become a independent photographer. He runs the poodlewalks and Mallee Routes websites, which explore different approaches to contemporary photography.

Adam Dutkiewicz is an art historian, abstract painter and photographer based in Adelaide. He comes from a family of artists, with two uncles and his father, as well as a brother and sister, all creative practitioners. He has a PhD from the South Australian School of Art, his dissertation a history of abstract painting in Australia.

In 2008-09 he was Nexus Writer-in-Resident, and curated the exhibition Brothers in Arts: Works by Wladyslaw and Ludwik Dutkiewicz and most recently prepared a two-pronged retrospective exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of his father, Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz, the first at Murray Bridge Regional Gallery and a follow-up in the city at Royal SA Society of Arts. He has also curated exhibitions for the Hilton International Hotel, Adelaide Town Hall, PolArt t Festival Centre, and the Royal SA Society of Arts, where he was President from 1992−94 and for whom he is now Historian. He has exhibited his own art in Adelaide and Sydney, and worked as an art critic, writer and collections officer, and in recent years has tutored at the Schools of Art and Communications, University of South Australia.

His books include:

A Matter of Mind: an Introduction to the Art of Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz (2006);

Alexander Sádlo: Experimental Journey (2007), with Gaynor Sádlo;

Brian Claridge: Architect of Light and Space (2008);

The Birth of Love: Artist brothers Dusan and Voitre Marek (2008) editor & compiler, text by Stephen Mould;

Ludwik Dutkiewicz: Adventures in Art (2009);

Malcolm Carbins: Paintings & Drawings 1947−2002 (2010), with Michele Klik;

Lidia Groblicka; Suburban Iconographer (2010);

The Path to Salt: a photographic essay on the Cheetham salt fields, Dry Creek (2012);

Francis Roy Thompson: Painter of Grace & Rebellion (2014);

Abstract Photography: Re-evaluating Visual Poetics (2016), with Gary Sauer-Thompson;

A Visual History: The Royal South Australian Society of Arts 1856-2016, vol. 1 (2016), editor & compiler;

A Visual History: The Royal South Australian Society of Arts 1856-2016, vol. 2 (2017), editor & compiler;

Andrew Steiner: Sculpting Essence (2018), with Andrew Steiner et al;

Adelaide Art Photographers c.1970-2000 (2019), with Gary Sauer-Thompson.

I have painted in oils since my mid teens in the early 1970s, but I really started seriously after leaving school at the end of 1973. I received a little training in my mid-20s, at the Teachers’ College at Magill, now part of University of South Australia, where I did drawing, painting and printmaking electives as part of my Communications degree. By the time I finished studies at Magill I’d already painted for a decade, experimenting for a while with surrealism but always maintaining an interest in various sorts of abstract painting in oils and acrylics.

In the late 1990s I painted a number of constructivist works and other quite complicated paintings that responded to early – mid 20th century abstract styles, and produced a series of handpainted digital works based on some recent drawings, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. The latter helped me to start to learn more about Photoshop and similar software. 

I held a very successful exhibition of oil and acrylic paintings at Light Gallery in 2003, with work done following my PhD on post-war Australian abstract painting. In the early-mid 2000s I began working with metallic oil paints and broken grids. I kept simplifying my processes, and from around 2010 produced a number of reasonably busy, but mostly flat, acrylic paintings and some tachiste palette-knife driven oils. After 2010 I started to explore the possibilities of photographic abstraction.

Modernism is the “aesthetic dimension” of a particular modernity and it “cannot be separated” from it. A valuable heritage of early twentieth-century European/Anglo-American modernism as the aesthetic or philosophical benchmark by which all other modernisms are understood is the link between the arts and resistance to the cultural logic of capitalism. Modernism is not just expressive of cultural logic of capitalism and its failure to make sense.

 It is well known modern art’s central claims were to autonomy, self-reflexivity and to being an avant-garde as a reaction, rupture, or break with previous periods and forms of aesthetic production. It is the critical potential of modernism around the mediation been autonomous modern art and the social word that is modernism’s valuable legacy– modernism as a self-invented, self-critical, historical form.

One account of this link is Greenberg’s: how painting, threatened with absorption by the mass culture and entertainment industries, retreated (or advanced, depending on your point of view) to the“essence” of painting as such, flatness and the composition of flat surface, an insistence on art’s purity and autonomy as a way of resisting such absorption or colonization by other, especially narrative, art forms.

Adorno’s dissonant modernism is another account of the link. Art refuses the false reconciliations of harmonious unity in the drift of capitalism towards administration and integration. The dissonant artwork openly shows its tensions, contradictions and aporías. And it thereby rebukes capital’s claim to deliver reconciliation in the form of commodified freedom and happiness. An artwork of whatever medium produces effects of disturbance and anxiety through a negative presentation of social reality.

Can a networked digital image inherit this critical potential? If so, how do we make the link in conveying an autonomous art’s relation to the world given the self-sufficient status of the image? How does an abstract digital photo appear social? Can this kind of abstraction as a networked digital image still stand for a world? Is it possible to resist the logic of the networked apparatus? It feels like there is an impasse between inside and outside of the digital image at the level of code.

Do we say goodbye to the critical perspective of the modernist heritage? Does modernism confront us as a landscape of ruins on which to dream? Is it a body of authoritative works out of which to construct a critical ethos? Can we retain this critical perspective if we consider the ways that photography mediates our experience and knowledge of the world in unconscious ways? Is it possible to explore how the technological processes of photography could reveal aspects of existence that elude our conscious grasp?

One way to address this is through Walter Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious, which can be understood as referring, among other things, to the hidden dimensions of a place—an idea Benjamin expands in his discussions of Eugene Atget’s photographs of Paris. He held that modern camera technology can allow us to access unconscious ways of seeing that are actively disavowed or otherwise unavailable to consciousness.

We live amidst a world of abstractions: money, commodity, society, state, capital, market, finance, community, family, individual, freedom, private property, human rights, etc etc. A global capitalist society in modernity has a culture of abstractions that we live within in our everyday lives. Abstractions, such as the commodity form, take on a real existence and operate concretely in capitalist society.

Can this culture of abstractions in modernity begin to help to account for why traditional representational art came to be experienced as inadequate–a kind of historical relic rather than a living presence?

The troubling thing is that in societies based on generalized exchange, certain kinds of abstraction (money or finance being the most famous example) are in fact real or actual in a manner that does not correspond to the ontology of empirical realism that governs ordinary- language use of the term ‘real’. Consequently, there is the disjunction between the actually very ‘real’ economy of finance capital and everyday individual perceptions of the ‘real’ economy. Though the most real–finance– appears unreal these actual abstractions are the medium of social experience in capitalist modernities.

We live within the abstraction of social relations that is characteristic of societies based on relations of generalised exchange, where there is no necessary relation between use-value and exchange-value. In these societies exchange is made possible by the abstraction of value from use.

Might not the digital image (photography is within the generic field of the digital image) be an equivalent visual form of the infinity of exchange  made possible by the abstraction of value from use? Could not contemporary art as a form of representation be a critical reflection on the way we make this world intelligible, given that representational art cannot adequately make sense of who we are now.Is there a possibility that a reflective art (premised on the principles of freedom and subjectivity) could conceptualise components of sensible meaning that we traditionally do not see, understand and treat as a given.

Could the critical reflection as visual art’s way of responding to a modern reflexive culture involve thinking about art, the practice of art and its social relevance? The art work is a form of intelligibility that is not just individual self-expression, but it is reflective practice that helps us to make sense of the world we live in.

The word ‘abstract’ comes from the Latin abstrahere, which means to draw away. There are variations on what abstraction means, but all of them involve “withdrawing,” “separation,” or “removal” — that is, abstracting from something.

quartz abstraction

For instance, Clement Greenberg in his essay “On Abstract Art” (1944) held that abstract art is the pinnacle of the medium because it has succeeded (according to Greenberg) in stripping away other media such as narrative and literature.   Greenberg called the mixing of media kitsch, or the art of mass consumption, which he placed in opposition to an avant garde culture in the earlier essay entitled “Avant Garde and Kitsch” (1940).

On Greenberg’s account Jackson Pollock’s paintings, for instance, move away from, or  react against the figurative tradition in painting. There are no recognizable images in Pollock’s work after 1948, no replication of reality, no constructions from the imagination, but only paint. Pollock’s abstract expressionist work, on Greenberg’s purity account, can therefore be seen as a double moving away: moving away from figural representation and moving away from other media.   Flatness is highlighted with this process of purity.

granite abstraction

The trajectory of this medium specific modernism creates a wall between the arts of vision and those of language to the extent that this wall was mostly successful in walling the visual arts into a realm of exclusive visuality, and then defending the modernist image against the intrusion of speech, literature or discourse. Abstraction moves away from narrative, and thereby history, toward an image that is located wholly within itself, free of reference to time or location.  Painting must be removed from all that is not painting ( ie., figural representation and narrative) in order to arrive at an idea of what painting is.

Modernist art practice, therefore, is a process of negation (resistance and refusal) that pushes the medium to its limits –to its ending, or to the point where it breaks or evaporates. The big fear of modernism is that abstraction as a process of self-containment and self-legitimating becomes mere decorative wall paper. To avoid this end the series of marks in a picture need to be seen as standing for something beside themselves. One account, that of T.J. Clark, holds that the marks need to be construed as metaphor, for without metaphor we cannot think representation. Metaphor within the visual arts opens up meaning, and so it is the mediation for the social context and modernist image; or the mediation of the inside and the outside of the picture. Abstraction, therefore, is connected to the world of things, despite the attempt by some to see abstraction as an escape from this world.


In philosophy (understood as a critical experience of objects) abstraction in modernity is deemed to be double coded: in its modern psychological form abstraction is associated with a withdrawal from the reality (or particularity) of the object of experience and hence a certain epistemological inadequacy; and, secondly,  that of a focusing in on the essence of an object (a separation out of the contingent and inessential) as a condition of the possibility of knowledge. Abstraction is both a condition of knowledge, of thinking the object; and abstraction is, also, a loss of the sensuous particularity of the object. 

However, we now live in a world where photos are bits of calculable information  and computers, not humans, are the ones who process, sort, store, archive and distribute images. Does this digital environment for photography – in which images have become just another form of data – change the way we have traditionally understood abstract photography? Are our conventional ways of thinking about abstraction in photography challenged by a networked photography?

These questions open up several possible pathways for photographic abstraction in the form of a digital networked image. One pathway is to explore the possibilities of metaphor; another is to emphasise sensuous particularity in opposition to the abstractions of the identity thinking of an economic reason. A third pathway is suggested by W.J.T. Mitchel’s idea of the borders between art and language being porous. This pathway leads to composite works based on the inter-relationship between, and the intermingling of word and text. On this pathway words and images interact with and reinforce each other..


Clark,T.J., Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999

Clarke, T.J., “Jackson Pollock’s Abstraction“, in Guilbaut, Serge, Reconstructing modernism: art in New York, Paris, and Montreal, 1945-1964, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1990, pp.172-238.

Mitchell, W. J. T., Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986

Below is a precis of Adam Jan Dutkiewicz’s unpublished PhD thesis: Raising Ghosts: Post WW11 European Emigre and Migrant Artists and the Evolution of Abstract Painting in Australia c1950-65, University of South Australia, 2000.

Abstract painting in Australia was a marginalised activity in its initial decades, emerging here after World War One through the Sydney Synchromists, Roi de Maistre (1894–1968) and New Zealand-born Roland Wakelin (1887–1971). Like their counterparts in Paris from 1913 (expatriate Americans Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright), the Sydney group sought to bring together the abstract qualities of music into visual art by associating notes of the musical scale and colours of the spectrum in painting. De Maistre was the driving force, but he left Australia and became an established modernist in London, working mainly in a cubist style; while Wakelin slipped back to more conventional post-impressionist approaches, and worked as a commercial artist.

The pre-eminent modernist vehicle of this period in Adelaide outside of the CAS was Dorrit Black’s Group 9, which held six exhibitions, from 1944 until its founder’s death in 1951. Shirley Cameron Wilson noted that these exhibitions showed “only limited evidence of Modernism, with the exception of Black’s in more advanced style.” Her observations might indicate that the artists themselves, like the Synchromists in Sydney in the 1920s, had participated in a kind of censorship of their art, by showing work that might appeal on commercial grounds to a local audience. Nevertheless, the cultural environment was also attractive to one exile from the Communist influence on Victorian contemporary art, Francis Roy Thompson, who exerted influence as a landscape and still life painter from 1948, and later, as an Expressionist and by the end of the 1950s, as an abstractionist.

Stimulated by innovative activity in the area of stage design by modernists established, emerging and recently arrived, and exciting and challenging visual art exhibitions by refugee and migrant artists, the city of Adelaide began to regenerate culturally.  The cross-fertilization of émigrés and local artists, and the ongoing intermingling of literary, performing and visual arts in a community small enough to accommodate them all without forming damaging factions, led to great friendships and a sense of purpose in their cultural activities. The overriding emphases in the 1950s were creative expression and diversity. A number of educated and culture-conscious people, most of them attracted to the intellectual orientation of the CASSA and theatre scenes, responded to the émigré artists’ ideas and cultural enrichment. 

Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz, Blue Lake, 1972

While Constructivism and Futurism were lively aspects of modernism in Sydney in the 1940s, in the early years of the following decade there were unique developments in these areas in Adelaide. Firstly, there was a non-objective form of abstraction based on geometric principles, distinct from the type of abstracted Expressionism associated previously with the mostly Polish émigré artists in Adelaide in the early years of the decade. Secondly, in the art of Czech-origin Alexander Sádlo, there emerged a distinct form of Futurism that fused his interest in expressing movement in figure painting with folk art origins and was the basis of explorations in avant-garde Optical Art in that city.

Evidence that identifies the Neo-Constructivist activity exists in a newspaper photograph associated with the awarding of the third Cornell Prize in 1953. In it, the two Dutkiewicz brothers are presenting their award-winning paintings. Ludwik, the winner, is showing Boats after Storm, while older brother Wladyslaw (my father), the runner-up, is showing Composition. The first is Expressionist and Tachist in style, while the second demonstrates an intersection of expressive drawing and geometrical, Constructivist inspired abstraction. It was one of the first examples of a type of work that W. Dutkiewicz was experimenting with at the time and showed a shift in emphasis from abstracted Expressionist canvases based in landscape and the figure.

Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz, Vibrato, 1962.

While many modernists operated within abstraction as reduction, or stripping back to basic elements, W. Dutkiewicz grew to see it the other way round. In this respect his approach was similar to that of Frank Hinder, who mostly incorporated figurative elements within his Futurist work. Instead of concluding, as did the early Polish “Suprematist” Strzeminski, that a synthesis of Hegelian oppositions was “fraudulent,” W. Dutkiewicz saw it as a logical means to provide possibilities to advance art. He sensed the reductive angle was a cul-de-sac and sought to synthesize, to compose with line and shape (what Strzeminski referred to as “baroque”). He aimed to eliminate the use of restrictive geometry imposed by the frame and the straight line, regarding it as a dehumanising ingredient in art. In short, he sought to humanize and add complexity to geometry in painting.

The principles of objectivity, humanism and bringing art into life were shared by the Adelaide Constructivists, but their ideas on method, instead of remaining fixed to formal geometrical structure, traceable back through Cézanne’s theories to Platonic classicism, were at variance. Instead, they tended to pursue an interest in automatist line and organic, Euclidian (spatial) geometrical and meta-geometrical form. The Adelaide Constructivists were not interested in straight lines, rarely using the shortest distance between two points. Rather they enjoyed the complexity of extending the time-span in space of the journey of a point as line. 


Adam Dutkiewicz, Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz, Moon Arrow Press, Adelaide, 2013

Adam Dutkiewicz, Ludwik Dutkiewicz Adventures in Art: Paintings, Graphics, Photographs & Films, Moon Arrow Press, Adelaide, 2017

Gary Sauer-Thompson & Adam Dutkiewicz, Abstract Photography: Re-evaluating Visual Poetics in Australian Modernism and Contemporary Practice, Moon Arrow Press, Adelaide , 2016

The text below is based on, and a reworking, of a precis of Adam Jan Dutkiewicz’s unpublished PhD thesis: Raising Ghosts: Post WW11 European Emigre and Migrant Artists and the Evolution of Abstract Painting in Australia c1950-65, University of South Australia, 2000. It is edited and reworked by Gary in collaboration with Adam.

If we look backwards over our shoulder to the recovered culture heritage of Adelaide’s modernist abstract painters that photographers were a part of, we can see that it was one in which visual artists operated in a broad field that both abstracted from an expressionist base or fused abstraction and figuration. These artists were not averse to abstracting an emotional essence from a subject. By adhering to abstraction that could operate in both directions, as Kandinsky worked in improvisation and composition, Adelaide’s Constructivists were able to connect with an audience that otherwise might have been alienated by a purely formal method. Their variations encouraged imaginative interaction. In a broader view they also broke down the barriers that had been inculcated in the analysis of abstract art since American art historian and museum director Alfred H Barr had split its manifestation into discreet binaries, the geometrical and non-geometrical.

The disappearance of photography from the walls of the main gallery system in Adelaide in the 1950s may not have been repeated in other cities, but the general prominence of photography in art and culture emerged only gradually in Australia until the revitalisation of art photography in the 1970s. Sydney features strongly in the conventional accounts of this emergence. Adelaide is over looked.

The first signs of change in Adelaide emerged with the experimental films of the early 1950s, made by Dušan Marek in Adelaide and in Sydney over the next two decades; and by the mid-decade collaboration of Ian Davidson and Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, after the latter moved to Adelaide from Melbourne in 1954. Davidson continued to work on his own and with painter and printmaker Udo Sellbach, before he moved interstate, then Ludwik Dutkiewicz in the 1960s, running his small company Arkarba Films. The methods employed in these films relied heavily on photographic montage and even mechanical means of animation, in the case of Translucencies, a film for which Ostoja-Kotkjowski constructed a mechanical device for filming.

Stanislaus Ostoja -Kotkowski, Electronic Composition, 1966.

Ostoja-Kotkowski was already working with still images in Melbourne, but was attracted to the moving image as well, initially making documentaries on the local art scene in colour. Davidson was an art film and photography buff and a lover of black-and-white imagery; he was inspired by Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Cocteau, Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, and brought an essentially European aesthetic to his Australian subject matter.

Stanislaus Ostoja -Kotkowski, Light Composition, 1966.

The colour and dynamism of light fascinated Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, and he sought to represent the many possibilities of light in various aspects of his practice. One way he represented the fluidity of light was through his ‘electronic paintings’. This series of luminous abstract photographs used an old television set with a picture that was specially modified. Rather than being a screen for viewing images, the television was transformed into a source of light for creating abstract patterns, which were captured with the use of a camera. 

The expressionistic ‘electronic painting’ were wrested from the referential domain of photography and placed in a more evocative, other-worldly context of illusion and abstraction.The glowing, swirling forms suggest rays of light radiating from a hidden source and fracturing through prisms. The photographs were enlarged up to 30 x 30 inches for a solo exhibition at the Argus Gallery in Melbourne in June 1964. They were printed in black-and-white by Wolfgang Sievers.

Australian photography historians have consistently excluded Ostoja-Kotkowski’s work from narratives of Australian photography. The art historians, who traditionally work in terms of medium specificity, view these electronic paintings as not painting and not photographs. However, as a form of light-writing that traversed the ground between photography, painting and electronic image-making, the electronic paintings transgressed the boundaries of the photographic and painting mediums.


Martyn Jolly, Before Carol, Australian photography of the 1960s’.

Martyn Jolly and Daniel Palmer, ‘Networking the Tradition: Curating Photography in Australia’, Photofile, Vol. 95, Spring/Summer, pp. 48-55.

Melissa Miles, “Painting with Light: Beyond the Limits of the Photograph” in Kamila Kuc and Joanna Zylinska, (ed.) Photomediations: A Reader, Open Humanities Press, London 2016

This interview between Adam Jan Dutkiewicz and Gary Sauer-Thompson is in two parts.

Adam, in this interview I want to explore the relationship between abstraction  in the Abstraction: Different Interpretations exhibition at Encounters Gallery and the abstract in painting in the post-war Adelaide modernism. You wrote your PhD on the latter and I want to connect up, and explore, the relationship between abstract photography and this modernist culture.

I am interested in the photography exhibition and book launch of  Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 that had been more or less cancelled by the Covid -19 national lockdown in March /April 2020. Can you tell me a little about that show and book in the context of the history of photography as a medium in Adelaide. Are you able to link it back to your previous book on abstraction in photography in Adelaide and briefly link this photographic abstraction back to a history of visual arts in Adelaide? Or are the links broken or non-existent?

The Adelaide Art Photographers exhibition featured a number of photographic artists who mostly emerged in Adelaide in the early stages of that time frame, and were featured in the book we did together of the same title, and that book was launched at the exhibition at RSASA Gallery. A number of people were unable to participate, or to do so as  fully as originally intended because of the COVID situation that was bearing down on us at the time and prior to that the bushfires people had lost their homes and all their work, so it was a miracle some were able to offer anything at all. That said, the exhibition looked good on the walls and supported the book very well there is a youtube video of the exhibition available on the RSASA website. I was able to offer some works from further back in time, some from the Society’s collection and some from private collections, so one wall of the exhibition linked back to a previous, post-war generation of art photographers, who were uncovered in our previous book collaboration on Abstract Photography.

We chose that lens to view the activities of that time because, as with painting, abstraction was very radical and experimental practice in Australia back then, and there was a lot of hostility to it right across the country. In Adelaide, there was a bit of a time lag in terms of reception to art photography after the war, but most of that was generated because there were almost no commercial galleries here, and the RSASA was just about the only place to exhibit. The local photographic society, which started as the South Australian Photographic Society but morphed into the Adelaide Camera Club around WWI, had a longstanding affiliation with the Society and reguarly held exhibitions there, and even shared their administration space. But in 1944 they went out on their own, and the Society was getting bigger and needed to support not only their own artist members but new affiliated societies like the Contemporary Art Society and groups like Group 9 and Hexagon, two incarnations of modernist inclination apart from the CASSA. So unfortunately photography suffered in terms of exposure. Interestingly one of the stalwarts of both the RSASA and ACC was the photographer Eric Robertson, who held his last solo exhibition at RSASA in 1955, just before his death. Eric’s pictorialist work is covered in the AGSA publication A Century in Focus, which covers art photography in Adelaide up til the 1940s.

So that Abstract Photography book stepped off from there, and looked to profile people not covered by the AGSA: Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski, Ian Davidson, Dusan Marek, Ludwik Dutkiewicz, Jan Dalman, Peter Medlen, John Dallwitz, and Stephanie Schrapel, who started exhibiting as a photographer member of the RSASA in the early 1960s. Most of those artists, except Davidson, Dalman, and Medlen, were painters as well as photographers. 

From what I understand to be your approach to art history and criticism (from reading a precis of your PhD thesis) you recognize that whilst photography is a medium you locate this medium within the broader culture of the visual arts; rather than photography being a stand-alone medium outside the other visual arts — i.e. a minor satellite orbiting the big planet of art (ie., painting). This would suggest that there is a complex relation between photography and the other visual arts.

My experience in and research on Adelaide indicated that art photography as an idea was central to its reception in Adelaide from the beginning until post-WWII; but it was a crucial facet of post-war experimental work by a number of significant creatives, especially Dusan Marek, Ostoja-Kotkowski and Ludwik Dutkiewicz. All three made experimental films too, and Davidson and Dutkiewicz made an experimental feature film based on European and Soviets filmmakers like Resnais, Bergmann and   Eisenstein. One of their smaller films was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The moving image continued to underpin a lot of Ostoja’s practice in the 1960s and beyond initially with his electronically manipulated television screen images that were photographed and exhibited in commercial galleries; and his Sound & Image multimedia performances and later laser art “concerts”. At this moment in time Ostoja is probably regarded by curators and historians interstate as Adelaide’s most important late modernist artist, but his recognition has come through his electronic and laser art, and his optical art, rather than his photographs, sculptures, drawings and abstract expressionist paintings.

continued in Interview 2

Christine Nicholls in her review in Asian Art News (Vol. 28, No. 4, 2018) of the 100th anniversary of Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz’s abstract paintings at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery in 2018 implies that there is regional art history of abstract modernism in Adelaide that is different from a national one. What happened in Adelaide was different to what happened in both Sydney abstraction and the reaction against abstraction in Melbourne by the Antipodeans who defended a figurtartive tradition, and whose manifesto asserted that the art of  “Tachistes, Action Painters, Geometric Abstractionists, [and] Abstract Expressionists” was “not an art sufficient for our time … not an art for living men”. It was different because of the European visual art culture and sensibility of the postwar migrant European artists. Was this the case?

Ostoja arrived in Adelaide in 1954 he had been exhibiting in Melbourne with the likes of John Brack and others associated with the Antipodean Group. His drawings from that time show influences of Matisse and Picasso. There are a lot of these up in the collection of the Flinders University Museum of Art, as well as the State Library. I had hoped to do a monograph on the under-appreciated aspects of his career, but could never get the funding or time. Ian Davidson wrote an important document, recollecting his creative activities in Adelaide 1954-1972. It was interesting but needed a lot of reforming to make a good book of it. But in the previous five years a lot had happened in Adelaide, and a lot of that momentum came through migrant artists like the Marek brothers, the Dutkiewicz brothers, Alex Sadlo and Stan Rapotec, who moved to Sydney c.1955. Other migrant artists came but most of them undertook studies here even Rapotec was self taught during his early years in Adelaide, as he had not had a connection with art before the war. My father, Wladyslaw (Wlad), had held six solo exhibitions showing expressionist and abstract work in Adelaide and had shown interstate. in solo and group exhibitions, by 1954. My uncle Ludwik had held two solo exhibitions of mostly abstract paintings here by then, but in 1953 was employed as a professional botanical illustrator for the State Herbarium he continued to paint mostly abstracts for the rest of his life. A number of females made contributions, and perhaps the most individual and modern painter among them was Margarita Stipnieks, who began as an expressionist but became almost exclusively a modern interpreter of the female form and flowers.  The sculptor Ieva Pocius was also a solid contributor and carved a unique path in modern form but she trained at the School of Art. Others came and went; possibly the most notable was Anton Holzner, who from the start showed abstract paintings the first entirely abstract show in Adelaide in 1957.

So, while surrealism had taken a foothold in Sydney and Melbourne, and figurative expressionism held sway with the Antipodeans in Melbourne, Adelaide had a fully formed Ab-Ex movement going on here from 1950, before it took root in Sydney. In Sydney, their own Constructivist group said they felt like pariahs; in Adelaide, the experimental local painters were winning almost all the main prizes.

If there was a regional history, then what is not helpful is to seek an answer to the question of the relationship between photography and art in general — we need to think of the two histories of photography and art in general as intertwined, each impacting on, and influencing, the other. 

Given the outline above, it’s clear that art photography in post-war Adelaide overlapped with the fine art world, as some of the main practitioners in avant-garde art had a foot in both media.  That said, photography was not so easily accepted at the CASSA the first photograph presented for exhibition, by John Walpole, was rejected; the re was much consternation about it and after debate the second work, by Ian Davidson, was accepted. From then on work by Peter Medlen and John Dallwitz, among others, started appearing regularly on the walls, and by the mid-70s group and then solo photography exhibitions appeared quite regularly. In the 1980s we had a photography-specific gallery in Adelaide, and the RSASA was holding group exhibitions of contemporary photography again. In the 1990s photography became very mainstream, and was very common in spaces like CASSA and EAF, and the University art museums now digital means interdisciplinary; boundaries are broken down and multimedia is everywhere. It’s back to the future in a way!

Are you able to indicate this interrelationship in the modernist period in Adelaide say from the 1940’s to the 1970s? I ask because there appeared to be a flourishing interaction between the visual arts (including photography) theatre, music and cinema in Adelaide. Secondly, did this Adelaide modernist culture see photography as a form of art as opposed to it being a specific medium as adopted by and developed by American style modernist formalism? Photography as a form of art would question and reject the assumption that what was called photography displays the unity of a particular medium. 

My father ran his own theatre company, based loosely on his training on Stanislavkian method in Poland (Lvov) he produced several plays with significant actors and writers who later worked for Crawfords in Melbourne he even acted in several of those TV dramas. Wlad had run a theatrical troupe in post-war Germany that toured Polish DP camps in Bavaria. He met Gabrielle Munter in Murnau in June 1945 and was shown the 137 Kandinsky works she had hidden from the Nazis. He brought that intelligence and his experience of modernism in Krakow and Paris (1937) to Adelaide and it underpinned his creative life as a painter. He was first recognised here for his stage designs in 1950. He did several through the 1950s but Ostoja took the baton. Wlad and Ludwik Dutkiewicz both taught at the School of Art and involved themselves in the administration of the RSASA and CAS. Dalman was Dutch, arrived around 1960; he ran his own photographic studio he worked for professional theatre and dance companies as they established after the first Festival of Arts, as most of the activities before then were amateur – he regarded his most important photo series as his portraits of Marcel Marceau, but he did work in other areas as well (shown in the first book).  Medlen tried to run a commercial studio but had the temperament of a bohemian painter – he wanted to do experimental work but there was no respect for it in 1960s’ Adelaide (only in Melbourne), so he did mostly portraits – his most recognised work is a series of portraits of Hans Heysen and other contemporary artists. Ostoja’s photographic practice was a little underground, apart from what he presented in slides at the Sound & Image performances.  He made an enormous impact on stage design here, starting with the amateurs in the 1950s. He was used for Festival productions of science fiction and Patrick White plays, operas and ballets. 

I want now to turn to how this abstraction was understood in Adelaide modernism. I haven’t read Brian Claridge’s texts on how the Adelaide modernists understood abstraction. However, I have a sense that abstraction was understood differently by them to how the American modernists understood it (eg., self–expression of the artist’s feelings) as well as the Sydney geometric abstraction. Abstraction appeared to be more objective, a loose representation of everyday social life. Was it an abstraction from everyday life in this sense, or was it more a representation of a visual, spiritual world behind our everyday world. Can you spell out how Adelaide modernist abstraction was different?

Claridge was a very interesting man, and his wife was an important contributor too. Nancy was a classical pianist who wrote about art and design in the weekend press; she also helped artist and art critic Ivor Francis run his art journal.  Brian’s father was the prominent Adelaide architect Philip Claridge. Brian was an architect too, very well educated, and loved modern art; he wrote about modern architecture and eventually became an academic in the field. He was a Vice President of the CASSA and from time to time Acting President. He helped theorise my father’s ideas on visual art, which stemmed from Wlad’s encounter with Munter and Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter (pre-Bauhaus) ideas. Wlad was seeking a method that could help keep him working creatively, independent of inspiration; he devised a method that I described as “Organic Constructivism”, which derived from curved lines and automatist surrealism, combining expressive or gestural line and colour to build planes of overlapping colours, into which were introduced degrees of texture or negating obvious forms to construct more compelling compositions. These ideas were seen in early mural and large colour-music panels by the artist from 1954.  They were soon employed in 3D for sculptures for the 6th Australian Architectural Convention Exhibition at Botanic Park in 1956. Brian indicated these ideas had been influential on artists in other fields as well as visual art in Adelaide; and Nancy wrote about Wlad’s “cosmic theory of light and line” in her interior design column in an article that spoke of all the murals recently painted in private homes in Adelaide.

Theorising modern art was quite common overseas, especially in early-20th C Europe, but it was not common here by then so it’s very unusual and in a way a manifesto for this broader group of creatives, and imparted a method for the synthesis Wlad was looking for in his abstraction he saw geometric or hard-edge abstraction as uninteresting and an intellectual dead-end. The Sydney Constructivists worked with Platonic forms initially and gradually broke them down; they had a similar agent to Claridge working with them, Eleanore Lange, who theorised their art in the 1940s. Ludwik’s approach was imbued with mysticism and the “fourth dimension” – not time or space-time, but an integrity of form; he tried to work quickly and to complete his paintings in one session, or the feeling was lost (perhaps because he could only work on weekends and holidays). All those early 20th C Theosophical paraphernalia crept into his ideas, and those of Davidson and Ostoja too. But Ostoja was a mechanic, a technician and scientist, so his approach was guided by seeking new horizons for art he felt he had left oil painting in Ab-Ex style behind after about 5 years. Most of the 2D art he produced in the 1960s and 70s was Op art, or colour-field painting, or photo-images of electronic and laser designs; Alex Sadlo had influenced him and set up these investigations in Adelaide from c.1954. He had emerged from a Czech tradition of post-impressionism and Orphism, and his earliest experiments with Futurism and optical painting marginally predate those of international luminaries like Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. So, all in all, so it was really progressive here, and greatly underappreciated.

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