Dick Watkins—A Life in Paint

In November of 1943, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Clement Greenberg encountered Jackson Pollock’s Mural for the very first time. The hard lined extremist and Bronx-native, essayist and author of oft-quoted, Marxist-sloping ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, soon became a champion of the self-determination in abstract expressionism, and possibly one of Pollock’s greatest and most vocal enthusiasts. Greenberg—who has since been largely credited with veering the centre of the art world from Europe to New York City in the mid-20th century—would later pen his infamous retort to Pollock’s Mural for the Partisan Review: “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced.”

At the time, Australian painter Dick Watkins was just a boy—worlds away and utterly enthralled with a little reproduction of a Picasso printed within the pages of a gifted one-volume encyclopaedia. And now, many years later on a warm September afternoon at his home and studio in a leafy gully in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, an older Watkins peers at me across his dining table and over thick-rimmed, circular spectacles. “I never felt it was strange or anything,” he says of the Picasso from his childhood. “I just felt it was right, I reacted strongly towards it. And so it went on from there—in a jerky sort of way, bouncing around from thing to thing.”

In 1968, New York’s great Greenberg, at his most authoritative perhaps, paid a visit to Sydney. By then, Dick Watkins was a skillful abstract painter, and a part of Tony McGillick’s exciting and experimental, sort-of subterranean Central Street Gallery cohort. And arguably too, an avant-garde painter working earnestly, triggering change, and stretching out the scope of Australia’s homegrown artistic panorama. Watkins was also on the board of the Contemporary Art Society and met Greenberg during his ’68 Sydney visit. “We took him to dinner and everything that night,” he recalls.

Decades later, at lunch at the Art Gallery of New South Wales with Adam Cullen to celebrate his 2000 Archibald triumph, Cullen queried his older peer as to whether it was true that Greenberg had once identified Watkins as the greatest painter Australia had to offer. “I had no conception of it, he hadn’t said it to me,” Watkins admits, barely smiling. “But then I’d heard it from other quarters—so that must have been true.”

“I just got engrossed in painting,” he says of his earliest penchant for brush and canvas and colour. “As soon as I understood what being an artist entailed, I knew that that’s what I wanted to be.” He tells me about the day he saw Kirk Douglas in the 1956 Van Gough biopic, Lust for Life and was entranced, bought some paint and “did a still life straight off”. Like McGillick, Watkins attended the Julian Ashton Art School, and later East Sydney Technical College – but sparingly. Watkins is, for the most part, self-taught—though he doesn’t seem to be especially proud of it. “That’s nothing to boast about,” he says. “He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.”

Watkins found the earliest days of his practice very challenging. “I wanted to paint abstracts, but I didn’t have any feeling that what I was doing was pertinent,” he remembers. “I destroyed everything that didn’t look like something I had seen in a book. I had no faith in my own ability to produce a painting.” He travelled extensively, to Europe and to New York, and saw a Picasso in the flesh “probably somewhere in Paris.” Then, in the early 60s, through his stepmother, he acquired an old shop in Balmain and turned it into a painting studio. “I started going then; I was producing work that I thought was pretty good. Then was The Field exhibition—have you heard of that?”

Watkins is matter of fact, modest, and soft-spoken—a quiet master, privately perfecting and re-perfecting his craft. It was in The Field that Watkins celebrity came into the light. Now held in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Watkins’ La Mooche was labelled as ‘the outstanding painting’ in the exhibition in Royston Harpur’s accompanying catalogue essay. Named for a Duke Wellington jazz tune, the diamond-shaped canvas freely bleeds colour and movement, expelling the rhythm of its age. The shape recalls Mondrian, and there is Cubism, Pop, so-called ‘hard-edged abstraction’ – and Australia’s earliest plunge into Colour Field.  

“I was called a cult figure in the 60s, then someone turned around and said, ‘You’re un Australian’. Maybe that was a compliment, I don’t know,” he laughs. “And they said, you’re derivative—I suppose I am derivative in some manner.”

Watkins is deeply enamored with 20th-century masters, he always has been. “In about ’58 Time Magazine came out with a four-page colour spread, ‘New American Painting!’” he says. “There they all were, all of our idols. Motherwell, Pollock, and Rothco – the whole gang. That was a sort of shrine, that little insert.” For now, though, it’s Pollock who is his greatest resource. “I think he and Picasso are the two greatest painters of the last century. [Jackson’s] paint handling is without peer, it is incredible.” The assumption that Watkins' oeuvre is less signifivcant in art canon than other established greats overlooks the artist's thorough exploration of genre-defying movements.  

Watkins has never sought out the spotlight, preferring paint to press, and research to worldwide recognition or stardom. He tells me about his on and off friendship with Brett Whiteley. “I was quite intimidated. I’m a reclusive, introverted type – and Brett was the opposite. He was amazing, a marvelous artist. Pity he ended it all the way he did.”

To finish, I ask how he likes to think about the evolution of his practice, over the waves of 60 years. “I don’t like the theory of evolution, but it’s happened to me I think,” he says. “I feel now that I am getting to the crux of it all. All the really muddy, nitty-gritty stuff – and the next things I do will be impelled by that sort of thinking.”

He is working now, fervent and tireless as ever, in his downstairs studio. There will be a new exhibition at his gallery, Liverpool Street Gallery in Sydney, early in 2018. For Watkins, he feels he is yet to reach the boundary of his practice, yet to feel out the pinnacle of the paint somehow. “After 60 years, I think maybe I am beginning to get the hang of it,” he grins. “I did have a show a couple of years ago, and I thought that was the best I could have done. But then, that feeling wore off within the next two weeks.”

This piece first appeared in VAULT Magazine's 20th anniversary issue, October 2017. 

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Image, Dick Watkins, Skin Deep, 2015.