THE INTERVIEW
Ian McKay



Ian McKay photographed in 1983

 

Ian McKay (1936-2007), began his career as a carver after studying under Lyndon Dadswell at the National Art School in Sydney. In 1960 he completed his first commission The Man From Snowy River, a bronze sculpture installed in the city of Cooma.

In 1961-63 he travelled in Spain, Greece, United Kingdom and Switzerland, seeing for the first time sculptures by Matisse, Lipchitz and Degas, which deeply affected him. In London he attended the St Martin’s School of Art for a short time where Anthony Caro and Phillip King were teaching, but he didn’t come under their influence. He returned to Australia in 1963 and was invited by Dadswell to teach part-time at the National Art School from 1967.

In 1967 two events really registered with him, the exhibition shown in Sydney, Two decades of American Painting, and Rodin. Both exhibitions left a lasting impression on him, but it was the humanist approach of Rodin that deeply affected him.

He continued with his carving but in 1969 he began making fabricated wood sculpture in an attempt to marry carving and construction, but soon moved into welded steel sculpture. To achieve his ends McKay was never dictated to by his material, in fact steel became just another material, which he used for all its expressive qualities.

After a visit by Philip King to Australia in 1976, King invited him to teach at St Martin’s. Once there his meetings with Caro and Michael Bolus boosted his confidence and he made contact with young sculptors exhibiting at Stockwell Depot.

In 1978 he was selected to participate in the Commonwealth Sculpture Symposium at Edmonton, Canada. In 1979 he met the art critic Clement Greenberg in Sydney. This meeting prompted him to move to New York with his family in October, 1981. He was invigorated by an exhibition of Gaston Lachaise work at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery.

In 1984 he attended a sculpture symposium with 11 other Australian sculptors at Canberra School of Art and was given a career survey show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

From 1985 to 2005 he lived at Kurrajong where he built a studio and a house. Most of his sculptures were made outdoors, which gave him the freedom to work without space restrictions. He considers this to be one of his more fertile periods during which he made some of his best sculptures. Most of the work from this period is large scale and includes pieces like Reef (1985), Fourth Stairway (1986, collection National Gallery of Victoria), and Lady on Horseback (1986, private collection, Sydney).



Cossack 1973
Steel 157 x 44.4 x 113 cm
Collection: Art Gallery of South Australia

Harvey Shields: Your sculpture is always categorised as being formalist, which appears to be a knee jerk reaction to the fact that you work in welded steel.

Ian McKay: Terence Maloon wrote quite eloquently as far back as 1983 about formalism, and why it raised the ire of so many people in the art world.
Ed. note: Terence Maloon was art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. Read the full article here >>>>

…and in writing up one of my sculpture exhibitions he said of me that I was considered a formalist by the Sydney art world, but then in subsequent conversations on the phone and in discussions he came to the conclusion that I was no more a formalist than anybody else. What he was trying to say was, why is a Mondrian or a Rothko more difficult because it has formal qualities? Anyway, the conclusion of the article was that it was unjust to create a label to diminish a person’s work.

So the label becomes a dismissive label?

Yeah. It’s a way of biting you off and spitting you out.

It’s a very simplistic attitude. A painter like Sean Scully, who paints in the genre of a Rothko, wouldn’t want to be seen at all as a formalist.

Yes, I would hate to be seen as a formalist in that sense too. I’m not ashamed of it in a more important sense. As Maloon pointed out in his article, it can mean so many different things to different people. It can be the whole of the Western tradition or it can mean just narrow design exercises. It’s been the main source of prejudice that I’ve noticed with my work, the fact that I’m seen as a formalist.

We are living in a period now that is called the “death of formalism”, which is how Jed Perl* puts it, but with the death of formalism how thin everything now looks.
* Jed Perl, “What Happened to Taste”, Oct, 2005, The New Republic.

I find it very interesting that Jed Perl said formalism itself did more than a little bit to contribute to its own demise. The fact that it probably placed too much emphasis on the autonomy of the object and not enough emphasis on the psychological…but then you have to ask, if you are trying to achieve one thing do you always necessarily have to carry the other, that’s a Mondrian question. You can never make any advancement unless you are prepared to drop something…but that may be where formalism failed to answer its opponents. I would be the first to agree that maybe it didn’t pay enough attention to the psychological.

It’s wonderful that Perl said formalism was the most democratic form of art. It made insiders of outsiders, because really, for the first time, it gave people access to the artist’s working process. The mysteries of the so-called creative processes were revealed without ambiguity.




Umber 1974
Painted steel 100 x 115 x 40 cm

How important was the dialectic of Greenberg to the progress of formalism, though he never called it formalism?

No, he didn’t. I think he understood what those people were saying. He was the American connection to the Europeans, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee; the first abstract school of painting. Forget about sculpture, we might as well not talk about sculpture.

Except when we come to someone like David Smith.

Yes, but it’s hardly possible to see David Smith except in relationship to Picasso, Léger and Mondrian.

So Greenberg first took up the cudgel on behalf of European art?

Yeah, his first writings were about European artists but he could see that European art was starting to lack vitality. The Americans may not have had the spit and polish of the Europeans, but they had the vitality. I think he did place, in fact I know he did place great value on vitality as a way to crack the European spit and polish. The school of Paris had sunken to a point….I think he is talking about people like Soulages who came just after Picasso and Matisse. Some of the names escape me at the moment….the guy who was friends with Picasso, Pignon…none of them were able to break out with a real voice of their own.

Abstract Expressionism…sure it’s untutored, but at least they were being honest, that was more important to them…and they were looking for subjects, instead of doing just paintings. Certain painters, like Barnett Newman, were certainly pretentious if you look at their overall philosophy.

They were looking for a transcendental subject.

Yes, there must have been a need for it. Clifford Still, Pollock…although Greenberg would have made an exception for Pollock….he knew him better for one thing. Even there, there was a rawness, which the Europeans would have seen as a little bit lacking in cuisine.

In what?

In cuisine, good cooking.

A little bit short in the taste department.

Yes, in the taste and refinement department. Perhaps that’s the main value of the American post war school. Greenberg was very much that sort of man, a meat and potatoes man. He wasn’t for French cooking, although he was a great admirer of French art. He said American art couldn’t do better. Whether you are British, Australian or Icelandic, you can’t do it. I had a hunch about that when I was younger, when I tried to do Rodins, you can’t do it. You can fake it, sure, but you can’t do it. You can do Rodins or Brancusis, you can do them, but not with those means. You have to use, in our case, steel; you have to use steel to do a Rodin. You can’t do it in clay today; a lot of artists give up when they realise they can’t do it.



Marionette IV 1974-84
Steel 168 x 78 x 150 cm

It’s a bit like aspiring to be an elite athlete; you’re just not going to make it.

People go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or wherever to see the Rodins and they ask themselves, what is there behind that? They then go back to their studios and they say, I can do it better, and they try to do the same thing.

In other words you never try to make a Rodin.

If you’re really sophisticated you can do it in steel; it won’t look like a Rodin, but it will have the authenticity that a Rodin has. It’s possible to do that in steel, in fact it’s a game one plays. I’m trying to articulate something…gee…part of that articulation is like Rodin did, but then you’ve got to get it going through the whole thing. If you can get it going through the whole thing, you’ve done a Rodin, and nobody can argue with it.

So it’s about achieving that authenticity; you can’t just be derivative. You can’t just say well that looks nice, I will take that; you are never going to get there without actually working through the process.

It’s like a signpost; it’s why one appreciates sculpture in a universal sense, if you can get that signpost happening, it’s hard to argue with.

You were telling me you saw an important Matisse exhibition of sculpture at Waddington galleries when you were in London in the early sixties. You said that for you, it was a summation of what sculpture is all about.

At the time, just being six months out from Australia, I had had no exposure to Matisse, and this was an eye opener. I had been exposed to quite a lot of Henry Moore….and I don’t want to knock old Henry.…but we do come from a monarchy. Sure, when you get to London you see the Henry Moores, rightly so, he was their best sculptor, but something made me feel uncomfortable with his sculptures, mainly because I couldn’t see my way around them.

I don’t know what it was…it’s like the feeling you have with the statues at the front of the Art Gallery of NSW, they’re French actually but they are bad French, men on horses. I sit there and I study the relationship between the Henry Moore, which is nearby, and those French sculptures and they are very comfortable with each other. I then ask myself the question, why are they comfortable with each other, Henry Moore’s not as bad as those guys, but he must be.



Bridal Marionette 1975
Painted steel 165x120x270
private collection

Bridal Marionette 1975


Swimmer 1982-83
Varnished steel 242 x 152 x 114 cm
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Swimmer 1982-83

 


Apollo 1984
Steel 202 x 85 x 82 cm

Because you can see a relationship?

Yeah, definitely a relationship, a sort of a bombast, certainly a bombast.

Concentrating on the heroics.

Yeah you know, it’s not a lack of talent…

…but isn’t that what Rodin fought against, what he reacted against? He didn’t want that bombast.

He didn’t, but he didn’t entirely escape it either.

Is that the problem with public sculpture? We all know the difference between public and private sculpture, with public sculpture you are making something which plays to the gallery, the antitheses of making private sculpture.

Well, it is relevant when you make so-called private sculpture. Matisse clearly made private sculpture. With Rodin, some of his best sculptures are his private sculptures, but in fact, more often than not, he spent his life making public sculptures.

Right, but the Balzac actually crosses over that divide, it is a fantastic public sculpture and a private sculpture.

Yeah. A fellow with his….well, it’s a big word…with his genius, he could transcend it. It can almost be a mistake with Rodin and yet be right. Put on a more everyday level, what you are talking about I suppose, is that it is blown up, pumped up, inflated. This is where I think some of the serious abstract artists have been heroic in their own way, through not being in any way inflated. In fact being a little laid back from that; they didn’t have those kinds of expectations, they were working privately.

You can see with cubist painting particularly, there were a lot of painters who were doing inflated cubism. It’s easy in sculpture to be inflated, my god, I’ve done it myself.

But it is almost inevitable if you’re a latter day cubist or a latter day formalist.

You know everyone’s a latter day, when does the world begin? Yes I understand where you’re coming from when you say that…

How do you make art for our time, that is what I am getting at?

I suppose the trick is not to make art according to what time of day it is. It will be interesting to see what washes off of modernism, what’s going to be seen as being really valuable. It’s pretty clear it’s over, you’ve only got to go to any bookshop where there are magazines to see that it is over. In the sense…

…of it being a defined movement.

Yep, I’ve never seen so much incoherent scrabble.

So what has replaced it? If post-modernism is incoherent, did modernism have a certain logic?

Well I think rational is a word you could apply to it. We’re living in an irrational period. That’s my experience of it, nearly everything I’ve seen. When I go through the magazines you find one thing and it’s usually a relic from the past. It’s really weird, it’s really, really weird.

As Perl mentioned, has aesthetics gone out the window?

As he said, it seems that artists have lost the aesthetic.

…but what have they replaced it with?

No, they can’t replace it with anything. Perl wrote, “What we are seeing is a failure of aesthetics, a failure of artistic judgement…” Art schools won’t help it, I don’t think art schools will help that matter, why should they? I don’t think art schools were ever part of the modernist equation anyway. People went to art school way back at the beginning of modernism but if they were any good they always acted strongly against what they were being taught. But how does taste go so bad, that is the real question.

But if you have to think about it, if you have to quantify it, then really there is no point is there? It can only come from within, and in most cases there is some form of necessity. What we have now is artists’ lifestyles being shoved down our throat.

They become notorious.

Yes, then you have people lining up outside your studio clamouring for your work. You only have time to get down a couple of layers of paint before the dealers move in.

Well that’s possibly true, but they must get disappointed on a couple of occasions. What you’re talking about is notoriety, personalities.



Plunge 1977
Natural steel 111 x 101 x 122 cm


1974-5
Lost or destroyed
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But we’re turning artists into monkeys and monkeys into artists.

Yeah, well you know, when I was showing with Rudy Komon, I always felt we were trotted out like show ponies; there was a marked sense of unreality about it all.
(Ed. note: The Rudy Komen Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, operated from 1959 – 1984)

Rudy used to lay down the law about certain things, like, don’t be around when the critics come, don’t even show your face on critics’ day. Nowadays, they want you to be there when the critic arrives and they want you to help explain the work. We were told to get out, stay away, which was great, which was absolutely great. Now they want them there…

…to give them the one minute grab.

Yes, we were told to stay out of that, to leave it to the experts, not that they were experts, but that’s what we were told. It was quite a different era then.

You can see it with the books that are being produced on art these days; there is so much about the personality, the wankiness of the artist’s personality. I read a book just before Christmas on Douglas Cooper and Picasso by John Richardson*. Cooper and Richardson, two English guys, camp as chloe, who saw themselves as cubist experts, but the way Picasso manipulated them put Picasso in quite a different light for me. This is all voyeuristic stuff; we live in an age of voyeurism.
* The book is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, published by Alfred A Knopf.
John Richardson is the author of A Life of Picasso.

Artists are part of the performance…

Like Velasquez’s dwarves; there to perform.

But Picasso was always up for that.

Well he was when he was young, but as he got older he wasn’t so keen. I think frankly he did some very bad, bad sculpture in the latter part of his career, but that’s just my opinion. In lots of ways Gonzales was a better sculptor then Picasso.

So if you were to draw up a pantheon of modernist sculptors, who would you put in it?

Gonzales certainly, Picasso; you link the two together… and I’m a fan of people from certain periods, Lipchitz from certain periods for example. Despiau, Maillol, Degas, Matisse, Renoir; Renoir was an extraordinary sculptor, he only did a few, his Judgement of Paris is just great, and his Venus.


Auguste Renoir
Venus Victorious  1914
Vénus Victorieuse
Bronze 1848 x 1118 x 775 mm
Collection Tate Gallery, London

All those painters who made sculpture, do you think they made sculpture as some form of release? Did it help them to look?

I think it helped them. In a way their paintings was so anti-sculptural, and there were artistic problems they were interested in which their paintings didn’t encompass, so they made sculpture.

I think Degas had a very intrinsic relationship with sculpture. Impressionism wasn’t a very sculptural style of painting and I think Degas realised himself better in sculpture than he did in painting. The fact that he was dealing with figurative forms was more Renaissance than Impressionist. He made a significant contribution to modern sculpture. Probably the most radical and not a very good Degas was the little dancer with the muslin skirt; shit that must have been way out there when it was done.

You started out as a modeller and carver didn’t you? How does that translate into constructed steel sculpture?

Well, you have modelling and carving and then constructed sculpture, not just steel sculpture but constructed sculpture in general. Constructed sculpture is a branch combining the other two.

Is it a hybrid?

Yes, it is a hybrid.

Because it takes from either or?

Yeah, and there is always that niggling dissatisfaction with it.

Before, you said you can look at a Rodin then go away and make a Rodin in steel, so what you are doing is making a hybrid, something that is once removed?

Yeah. You know there is steel sculpture which, if it is absolute enough, can be seen in its own terms. That is only if you can make the sculpture absolute enough.

Probably one of your more modelled steel sculptures is Wave, which is now in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. I remember seeing an early version of that when it was in the studio at St Ives; it went through a number of versions before it was bought by the Art Gallery.

It went through one, well only one that I ever showed; it had a lot more in it.

It was much denser.

After coming back from a trip to England I decided to pare it back. I don’t know if the first version was better or worse.

It doesn’t really matter; in a way you just made another sculpture.

No, it doesn’t matter. It’s competitive with the first one. It would be good to see it again though, to see how it looks now after quite a few years of not seeing it. Greenberg saw it. He didn’t think it was perfect but he didn’t always like perfect things.

I’ve got a couple of friends who go into the Art Gallery from time to time and ask to see it. It makes no difference; they won’t put it on show. I think there’s nobody at home for sculpture there.


Reef
1985
Steel 135 x 218 x 157 cm
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Reef 1985
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Fourth Stairway 1986
Steel 172 x 320 x 193
National Gallery of Victoria
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You were describing before how you were working outside the studio, making the pieces on the ground, in the field. That felt right for you?

Well yeah, it did, because it didn’t imply boundaries. I think some of the more original sculptures that I made at the time were made in the field. It was only an extension of a way of working that other artists had used.

So you would back a truck up to it, connect a cable to it, then pull it up…

…pull it up, or pull it halfway up then weld something onto the back to get it to stand. I was working as if the thing in front of me presented no limitation in terms of weight or scale. It was no different to working with something the size of your hands, which you can easily manipulate.

So the sculpture had no top or bottom…

…yes, it’s as if the sculpture had no top or bottom, or weight. It was like free-for-all. Every stage of it was unexpected. When you pull a thing over you don’t know what it’s going to look like. You go back and sit down in a chair for 15 or 20 minutes, and you say; yeah, now I’ll start again. It’s like you are always starting the thing again. I haven’t even started making this sculpture yet, even though you might have put half a week into it.

The lovely thing with steel is you can work like that, there is that facility.

Well it’s not easy, it would be good if it was, but it’s like that old thing, the tail starts to wag the dog, instead of the dog wagging the tail. You understand what I’m saying, don’t let it run away with you. Steel is just steel, a vehicle for expressiveness.

I think what you’re doing there; at each stage you are being very, very critical.

Well you are certainly putting it under the microscope, you are, you are forced to. I believe art is the sum of discoveries, and if you can follow that fairly closely without becoming self-indulgent, you might just make something worthwhile.

So always having an open mind?

Yes, I tried to be open minded, although I’m sure I wasn’t always.

Some of your sculptures are very hard to read, because of the amount of information one is presented with.

They’re probably bad.

Well there is that too, are they bad?

You can defeat yourself. I think with the later ones I started to discover an economy, more instantly readable or something.

But sometimes it’s the sheer intricacy of them that defeats you.

Well, Indian sculpture is intricate. Which ones are you thinking about in particular?

Well I’m thinking about the one in the National Gallery of Victoria* for a start.
* Fourth Stairway

That’s fairly simple, I can get that one, but there is a lot happening between the rungs.

Well it’s obvious it’s a staircase but there is a surfeit of angles. You start to cut sections out in your head to make more sense out of it.

Yeah, I guess it’s the old question of how much of the inside of a sculpture should you show in relation to the outside. I’ll take a punt on it, but I think that one can hold it’s own against the Balzac. I always thought it contained just the right amount of bad taste, and I say that in all seriousness, the right amount of bad taste, along with a certain dumbness.

So there is a balance between good and bad taste, you acknowledge that a sculpture can be too refined?

I think over refinement is a problem. I think it is a bigger danger than being clumsy, especially in modern sculpture.

Do you think the rust of the steel puts people off? Will they say, well that is just a big pile of rusted steel?

With the National Gallery of Victoria piece?

Yes.

Well if they do, then I’m all for the rust. What colour would I paint it, it doesn’t resonate a colour for me.


Bright Prospect
1979
Painted steel 155 x 120 x 191 cm
collection: Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery


Bright Prospect 1979


Lady on Horseback 1986
Steel and Rubber
213 x 288 x 220 cm
Private collection
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Lady on Horseback 1986

 

The only sculpture that I’ve actually sprayed colour on, which I think is one of my very best sculptures by the way, is the one I’ve got in Hobart in front of the Tasmanian Museum of Art. It’s a bright red colour, vermilion red. I call it Bright Prospect. There is where I’ve been able to use colour, but use it symbolically, not as a mood. It’s a bright colour; it looks like it’s attracting insects. It’s a vibrant sculpture, a very straightforward beautiful one.

What is the colour a symbol of?

Brightness. I remember Graeme Sturgeon saying to me at the time when I showed it at the Art Gallery of NSW, god you’ve got awful judgement, but I think I’ve been proven right.

But with many of my sculptures I can’t see an opportunity to put colour on, so I don’t, and I don’t give a damn if they last ten years or a hundred years because that’s the way it is.

So you do count a number of seminal sculptures like that one.

Yes, and I think I’ve been lucky in that the seminal sculptures have all gone to museums, although some of them are in private collections.

With the constructed tradition, as it ended up with Smith and Caro, what essentially changed with the way that sculpture was made?

The best way to put it is that they didn’t make enclosures as you get with a Henry Moore sculpture. Moore dealt with mass and made big enclosures. The main thing with the new sculpture was that they were not making statues like Moore.

So essentially what Caro did was to get away from mass and into much more linear forms?

He didn’t do anything that some of the others hadn’t done. He abolished a priori notions such as line and mass. He developed the idea of the linear, which you could do with this new medium, this new material.

But you didn’t think of sculpture like that did you, you still saw it as a composition, a way of building up material, a way of modelling.

Questions of composition have been foremost for most abstract sculpture, but the 1960s sculpture sort of passed me by in a sense. No, I wasn’t very affected by that, and I hadn’t seen a David Smith at that point.

When was the first David Smith you saw?

The first David Smith was many years later in America, in the late eighties. I think my approach had more in common with Smith than it did with Caro anyway, in that it is more centred.

What were your sources at the time?

I looked at a lot of Rembrandt drawings, not always sculptures. I do like Baroque sculpture but it’s a little academic talking about Baroque sculpture when you are living in Australia. I made some good connections with Leonardo.

What was it about Leonardo da Vinci?

Again the chiaroscuro.

Chiaroscuro is the Renaissance technique of rendering light and dark effects?

Yes. Also Verrocchio. His equestrian monument of Colleoni in Venice, plus his fountain in Florence.

From the 60’s, from what I saw in England, Tim Scott had the most going for him. He was the first English sculptor who told us we didn’t have to make sculptures that looked like Caro or David Smith if you wanted to be abstract.

His sculptures looked very different didn’t they?

Different enough, different enough. After Caro I thought he was the best sculptor in England. They gave me a beautiful catalogue in America on his work. He was making work in plastic and steel, they were really lovely things. He also made some good straight steel sculptures; very influenced by Ceylonese and Indian art.

I remember when he came to Sydney, he said, we don’t want to look like Caro or Smith, we mustn’t be pictorial. I didn’t quite know what he meant, because I always understood the pictorial could mean this or it could mean that. No, with him it was the influence of certain Indian deities; it’s a pity he didn’t keep going with it.

Greenberg said about him, he is so good but so perverse, he won’t do as he is told. Anyone who didn’t do as he was told got on the wrong side of Greenberg.

He didn’t follow the Greenbergian canon?

Tim just stayed in England and avoided America, but he did make a bad impression in the end in America. I remember him coming here and saying, one thing about New York is that it will knock all the bullshit out of people.

When they say he was perverse, well he had the biggest chance of his career with a big exhibition at Tibor de Nagy gallery in New York. He made all the sculptures then couldn’t get them in the door and he refused to cut them down. He asked Nagy to change his doors. Get the architect in and put in two new doors. Get fucked…end of exhibition. That was Tim Scott. He had one big chance and he blew it.

Getting back to your very productive period at Kurrajong, you made a number of important pieces including Lady on Horseback, which was a response to a local girl riding a horse down your road.

Yes, she would canter her horse down Cedar Ridge Road and I made that sculpture largely as a response to that. She fascinated me. It’s about cantering. I never had Caro’s aims.

It wasn’t formalism that motivated you but more the sensation that could be derived from following the movement of a sculpture, getting at it.

Interestingly that riding motive has a lot of wonderful historical precedents. Lady on Horseback is about the size of a horse and rider.

About the same scale?

Yeah. I didn’t consciously make it like that; it just ended up like that. I began to think then about size as an actual viable element in sculpture, as distinct from scale. Sometimes you used to wonder where the bloody hell you were going to finish up.

It was like a journey?

Yeah. The one called Reef, that was a hell of a journey, a beautiful journey. I honestly thought it was going to be titled Shambles right up to the very end. There were so many decisions in that sculpture and yet it came out all right. My concept was that every thought, every sensation could be nailed visually. Every sculpture has its own demands.

So seeing those Matisse sculptures so early in your career gave you a sense of where form and volume could take you?

Yes and I couldn’t put it into words. Why did I think the Henry Moore’s were not as authentic as the Matisse’s, because they were trying to direct the spectator to feel a certain way rather than allowing the spectator to find their own response.


First Light 1983
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Desire 1982
Varnished steel 49 x 31 x 53 cm
Pirvate collection

Moving on to the time you spent in New York, you had a bit to do with Greenberg?

I had a lot to do with him, yeah.

Did you build up a personal relationship?

Yeah.

You would have long discussions about art?

Hell yeah, god…days. He was an art junkie.

So, late nights drinking and talking?

Yes, talk, talk, talk, but you had to be prepared to accept certain things.

So there was a certain line you couldn’t cross?

Well, you were wise if you didn’t. You could talk about any subject but you couldn’t criticise the artists he liked, especially the ones he loved.

Did you cross the line?

No I didn’t. We were checked out before we left Australia.
(Ed. note: Ian McKay went to New York for an extended stay in 1982 with his wife Barbara, an abstract painter)

Really?

Oh yeah, Clem had his man in Sydney.

So you were kosher before you even left Australia.

Yeah, we were kosher. Passed with flying colours, answered every question.

But Greenberg’s time as a critic was finished?

Yes, I knew that. He would say, you know I’m the kiss of death. All that was sad and true, all the hatchet jobs had been done on him.

Yes, we were put through some very funny tests before we left Australia. We went to this fellow's house, he gave us dinner, he was very charming. His house was full of art, genuine art, Matisse, Picasso, small scale, but there were also some lesser-known artists. The question was, did we know them? Thank god I had some experience. This is what they were trying to find out, has this guy been around or is he just a vertical invader. Had I been around! I knew names that most people had forgotten. When he asked me about one painting, who it was, I knew it was a John Mclean, although it didn’t look too much different from a Noland. This was the test, to see if I could spot the difference between a Noland and a McLean. It just so happened I had done some teaching with John McLean in England, at St Martins.

Then there was the photograph of a capsicum on the wall, a quite famous image.

An Edward Weston photograph.

Yeah, and if you look at it from a distance it looks like a Maillol torso. He said, what’s that, and I said, it’s a capsicum. Yeah, we passed all the tests and I was on that bloody plane. Yeah, Clem had his sleepers; he called them sleepers - in Sydney and Melbourne. In New York we used to see him about once a week.

Where would you meet?

Our place, his place, Michael Steiner’s place, Dan Christensen’s place, at a café, Jack Dempsey’s bar. He was angry…

…because he was seen as a dinosaur.

Yeah, he should have resented it too. All his protégés were after his blood. I’ve got a great deal of affection for him, but I’m not without my reservations.

What would they be?

I love what he said; my position is that I don’t have a position. I think it’s just a wonderful thing to say, but you know, he sure had a position.

What disappointed me was that some of the Australian artists in New York were cowards. They all knew he was no longer a major influence…

… and they ran a mile?

They wouldn’t speak to you because you mixed with Greenberg. They bolted to the other side.

They wanted to be on the winning team.

Yes, you know I just didn’t like it. I tried to talk one of these artists into meeting Clem, I won’t mention his name, but let’s just say he is a contemporary of mine. He was having a show in New York. He had plenty to learn too. He was talented and Clem acknowledged that he was talented and wanted to meet him during the show to talk about the work. Clem asked me if I could fix it, and I said, I think so. Well my respect for this artist just went down the tubes when he said no. Alright, you might think you know it all and you might not gain anything by talking to Clement Greenberg - we’re talking aesthetically now - but I think people who say that, are up themselves. There is always something to be gained by talking to a man like that.

Twenty years before he would have fallen over himself to meet Clement Greenberg because he was the top art critic in New York.

Well, I think he still was the top art critic. Even these French guys like Yve-Alain Bois, they only woke up to Greenberg late in their lives. Even the terminology that they use, it is all the same.

I would put Greenberg on a par with Meier-Graefe the great art critic who introduced the Impressionists to the world. Meier-Graefe wrote books on Van Gogh, Degas, Cézanne, before anybody else.

As a critic, Greenberg could make an immediate assessment…

Well he worked a lot on hunches. He would make an immediate assessment if something wasn’t authentic. He was the first to draw attention to the word kitsch, the German word.

Yes, his essay in Art and Culture.

You had to be fair dinkum with him. You could bluster as much as you liked and if you tried to get smart with him, he would always smell a rat.

When he died, the art world hardly noticed it, in terms of tributes, which said a lot about the New York art world at the time.

With his protégés like Rosalind Krauss et al, there was a lot of over intellectualisation.

Yeah, Clem used to say, spare me a smart Jewish girl with a typewriter. I loved his sense of humour.




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