Light and Darkness

4 February 2022
Late modernism and the Power collection

The major new exhibition in our Ian Potter Gallery tracks art movements from the 1960s to the 1980s, via highlightts from the Power Collection.

Why must we paint darkness? We have the most complete darkness when we shut our eyes, we do not need to wait for night; night is only relative, we can run before it, and stay always in brightness … But to praise brightness alone seems to me to be insufficient. I go to darkness itself, I pierce it with light, I make it transparent, I take its terror from it, I turn it into a volume of power with the breath of life …
Otto Piene, Paths to Paradise, 1961

The exhibition Light & Darkness is drawn from the Power Collection, a major legacy of the artist-benefactor, Dr John Wardell (JW) Power, a medical graduate from the University of Sydney. His great bequest challenged the University “to bring the people of Australia in more direct touch with the latest art developments in other countries,” and created the Fine Arts Department and the Power Institute. The collection was launched in the late 1960s, however only now does it have a permanent home at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. The Power Collection appears like a time-capsule, “buried” when acquisitions ceased in 1989, following the formation of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The exhibition takes its cue from the 'light works' that were a major feature of the early Power acquisitions, by tracing the thematic of light and darkness. Several key works by Australian artists have been included, drawn from the University’s other collections. The three decades that the exhibition spans – from 1960 to 1990 – marks the rise and fall of the Cold War and the end of the short twentieth century. Looking at late modernist art today is to recover the memory of a futurist dream of being-new.

Through the decades of the Power collection

People at the time thought, and some people still seem to think, that they were paintings having to do with optical experiment … really they were an attempt to say something about stabilities and instabilities, certainties and uncertainties.

- Bridget Riley, 1988

In 1968, the inaugural Power exhibition of luminal and kinetic artworks was installed in a darkened environment within Harry Seidler’s new Australia Square in Sydney. The international Op and Pop art had been selected by the first Power curator, Gordon Thomson in 1967.

It had a Western European orientation, focused on British, German and Italian neo-avant-gardes, in addition to the Paris-based group GRAV. Highlights included paintings by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedley. The following year, Power acquisitions were made by Bernard Smith who had arrived in Venice as the Giardini’s exhibition gardens were closed by students protesting about the “Biennale of capitalists”.

The influential Swedish museum director, Pontus Hulten subsequently reflected: “There was a general sense of hope that the future could happen only via the necessary destruction of the past.”


If this world can provide us with aesthetic spectacles like the Empire State Building and TV relays from Mars, then is there any need for an art form restricted to similar macroscopic manoeuvres? … Once one understands that art is not in objects but in the completeness of the artist's concept of art, then the other functions can be eradicated and art can become more wholly art.

- Ian Burn, Conceptual art as art, 1970

As the utopian dreams of the 1960s collapsed, many artists turned to language in search of dialogue or a more collaborative space in which to work.

At a time when so-called ‘International’ art came to be seen in terms of the ascendancy of New York, the newly appointed Power curator Elwyn Lynn included America on his biennial acquisition trips.

Painting under the impact of Post-Modernism, pluralism, the perennial 'death of painting', the distrust and sometimes downright contempt of painting ... its association with ‘80s excess, etc. There was a lot for a young artist to worry about.

- Steig Persson, 2019

In the 1980s, melancholic post-modernists took on the cloak of darkness whether to symbolise the endgame of modernism or to signal once again the possibility of an iconic monochrome.

This new generation, with many women artists prominent, drew upon a sophisticated mix of theory, whether psychoanalytic or photo-media critique. Outside the gallery system at the University of Sydney’s Tin Sheds, a dark, femo-punk anti-aesthetic informed posters, which were amongst the final acquisitions of the Power Collection.

In 1983 the University announced a “joint curatorship” for the Power Collection with the appointment of Bernice Murphy together with Leon Paroissien.  Under their tutelage the collection assumed a strong regional character which included Australian, and in particular Aboriginal and Maori art.

The decision to shift the Power Collection off-campus, as the basis for a new Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay was announced in November 1984 and the final Power acquisitions were made in 1989.

The Power Collection is part of a wider endeavour inspired and made possible by JW Power’s vision.

The exhibition includes a range of documents, scrapbooks and posters which bear witness to the intellectual ferment and excitement that Power’s gift made possible, including the Power lectures that continue to this day at the Power Institute and the teaching and research in Art History and theory that have trained many curators, thinkers and artists.