A major new exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum presents works from one of Australia’s strongest collections of late modernist art.
Light & Darkness surveys art from the 1960s to the 1980s and features internationally renowned artists from the era such as Bridget Riley, Roy Lichtenstein and Colin McCahon, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Robert Rauschenberg.
The free exhibition draws on the University’s Power Collection, established in 1967 after J W Power bequeathed his fortune to the University to bring Australians “in more direct contact with the latest art developments in other countries”. Acquisitions ceased in 1989, shortly before the collection was moved off campus to form the basis of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Established when most Australian museums and universities were taking a cautious approach to contemporary art, the Power Collection is an exceptionally rich collection.
“The Power bequest enabled the University to purchase works, which weren’t being acquired by other Australian institutions at the time,” said museum senior curator Dr Ann Stephen. “As a result, we have one of the country’s rare holdings of major op and kinetic art by artists such as Riley, Victor Vasarely and Takis.
“The concepts of light and darkness underpin this exploration of the collection.”
‘Light’ works were a major theme of the 1960s acquisitions of European-based avant-garde artists who sought to free their work from tradition through alliances with science and new technologies. Such utopian optimism collapsed in the face of the Vietnam War, environmental destruction and racism. Robert Rauschenberg, Edward Keinholtz, Richard Serra and Louise Nevelson are among artists who represent this dark turn in the Power Collection.
In the 80s post-modernists took on the cloak of darkness, said Dr Stephen, “to symbolise the endgame of modernism or to question avant-garde originality.” By then the collection had been re-orientated to include Australian, Aboriginal, and Maori art.
“Many artists had also turned to language, often in search of dialogue or a more collaborative space in which to work,” said Dr Stephen. “Artists as diverse as Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Peter Tyndall, Jenny Watson and Janet Burchill, all in the collection, use words as a significant part of their art.
Light and Darkness will be exhibited in the museum’s largest space, the 420-square metre Ian Potter Gallery until September 2022. A companion exhibition of J W Power’s own work as a prolific cubist, The Human Calculator, is on display on Level 4 of the museum.
The University’s Power Institute, which continues the spirit of Power’s bequest through teaching, research and public engagement, will co-present a number of talks on the collection in upcoming months.