Mr Sturgeon: Tributes to Graeme
Peter Timms & Lou Klepac
When I think of Graeme Sturgeon, I think of felt. Blue felt. Acres of it.
It was early 1971 and I had been Assistant Exhibitions Officer at the National Gallery of Victoria for just a few months: naive, inexperienced and somewhat in awe of my brusque, droll, demanding boss.
Graeme had turned the exhibitions gallery into his personal fiefdom, jealously guarding it against the incursions of curators. This barn-like space, as big as an aircraft hangar (or so it seemed), managed to overwhelm all but the most assertive works of art. Furthermore, after three years of wear and tear, the silver foil that had been applied to the walls for ‘The Field’ exhibition in 1968 was in a ruinous state.
With a major Bonnard show about to open, drastic action was called for. So for weeks we laboured until midnight, levering the heavy wooden panels off the walls to cover them with blue felt, armed only with scissors and staple guns. At the time, I thought it was sheer madness, and the effort nearly killed us, but the texture and colour of the felt set the Bonnards off beautifully, and guests arriving for the opening gasped in admiration.
The story is unexceptional, of course, yet it reveals something of the force of Graeme’s personality. While he was always receptive to others’ opinions, once his mind was made up there could be no changing it, whatever obstacles presented themselves. He had big ideas, he was strong-willed and a perfectionist. Things had to be done properly: no compromises, no shortcuts. And he applied the same standards to himself as he did to others.
Graeme’s uncompromising frankness, his impatience with humbug and pretension, and his riotous sense of humour could be confronting to those who didn’t know him. Yet, once he had accepted you, he gave his loyalty totally. He and I remained firm friends until his death in 1990. I was going to say ‘close friends’, but I always felt a certain emotional reserve on his part. Other people’s experience might have been different, but to me he remained someone to be admired and respected rather than confided in. He used humour to deflect intimacy. The last time I saw him, at an opening at Macquarie Galleries, I was shocked at how thin and drawn he had suddenly become. Hating sentimentality, he had never mentioned his illness and I knew better than to ask. His laughter and bonhomie that night struck me as infinitely sad, for I had never felt the distance between us so acutely.
Wangaratta, the cattle town in Northern Victoria where he was born in 1936, was hardly the ideal starting place for an intellectually curious child: the ABC’s Argonauts program was his only lifeline. Nevertheless, he often spoke of his childhood and his parents with fondness. At eighteen he enrolled in printmaking under Kenneth Jack at Caulfield Technical College, then went to RMIT University and Melbourne Teachers College before making the almost obligatory pilgrimage to London, along with so many of his contemporaries in the sixties, where he attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts and Goldsmiths College.
Graeme succeeded John Stringer as Exhibitions Officer at the NGV in 1970, after some six years as a secondary school art teacher (he always struck me as a born teacher). There he would remain for a decade, putting his personal stamp not only on the installation of temporary exhibitions but on the entire building. At a time when the display of the permanent collections tended towards the encyclopaedic and scholarly, he introduced a fresh visual flair which transformed the public’s experience of the gallery.
At the same time, he was involved in a range of extramural projects: lecturing, curating, advising the Visual Arts Board on its acquisitions program and serving on a number of boards and committees. He also exhibited his own paintings and prints and, while he was never going to become a professional artist, he very much enjoyed making them and the results were characteristically bold, colourful and arresting.
But the most fruitful and public of his activities was his critical writing, which included three books and a four-year stint as art critic for The Australian. When he wrote, it was almost as if he adopted a different personality: a more subdued, respectful and dispassionate one. While not shy of voicing strong opinions, he was never bitchy or destructive; never scoring points at an artist’s expense. It was a sign of his deep respect for artists of all stripes, even those whose work he did not fully understand or warm to. The regret is that he didn’t write more. There were of course, numerous catalogue introductions, art magazine essays and other occasional pieces of high quality, but that sort of writing quickly fades from view.
His best-known work of scholarship, The Development of Australian Sculpture 1788–1975 (1978) remains the standard history of the subject some thirty five years after its first appearance. Although covering a lot of territory in less than two hundred and fifty pages, it is informative, even-handed and eminently readable.
Graeme’s experience as a writer, curator, administrator and teacher, his extensive network of friends in the Australian art world and his proven record of support for contemporary artists, made him the ideal choice as inaugural Director of Artbank in 1980. He immediately grasped the organisation’s important role in fostering artists by purchasing their work and renting it out to public and private sector clients. His admirably eclectic purchasing policies, and his strong personal presence (it seemed he was at every exhibition opening: he was hard to miss) quickly overcame the inevitable suspicions of many in the art world.
That Artbank has such an important role today is largely thanks to his dedication and enthusiasm during the early years of its existence — what his partner and co-worker James Kenney refers to as the pioneering, ‘log cabin’ period. So many of us owe him a great debt.
Author’s Note – My thanks to James Kenney for providing important factual information.
"He had big ideas, he was strong-willed and a perfectionist."
To those who knew him personally, the name Graeme Sturgeon means that tall, upright, tidy, witty, somewhat reserved, warm and caring friend. He enjoyed the occasional irreverent bit of humour when it was warranted, but this emphasised the seriousness of his passion and devotion to art.
He was one of the friends one was always most pleased to see. It is tragic that his voice has been silenced at a comparatively early age. It is sad to think that one will never again run into him on a Saturday morning doing his shopping and talk, not of art, but how to cook some fish he was buying — never again to repeat those mundane but precious moments of friendship. Something tightens inside. How easily life can extinguish a fine and generous spirit. A friend has left without us.
The tribute I wrote for Graeme’s book of Australian sculpture, published after his death, has reminded me of our friendship. We had many friends in common, such as Michael Shannon, on whom Graeme published a book.
Graeme was also interested in James Gleeson and acquired a large painting, the stunning Black Truce (1986), which his partner Jim Kenny has since donated to Heide Museum of Modern Art. I recall that when the painting first arrived at their home and went up on the wall, the canvas was floppy because they had a problem with rising damp. We had a great dinner to celebrate the occasion and we drank a toast to the artist.
Graeme had included a painting by Nora Heysen in his book The Painter’s Vision (1987). Nora was then still neglected and lived in ‘comfortable obscurity’ (her words) in Hunters Hill. I was busy arranging a retrospective and a book on her work, but it was Graeme who had the idea that she might be proposed for the Australia Council’s distinguished artist award. Graeme wrote the proposal and sent it in. When this was successful, Nora went to Canberra to receive the award and the cheque. It gave an enormous boost to her confidence as well as to her finances.
I shall never forget Graeme’s last act of friendship. When he went to Europe for the last time and came across a large Morandi retrospective, he bought the massive catalogue and posted it to me with a note. He knew of my long standing interest in this painter.
It was so long ago!
Klepac, Lou. “Tributes”. Sturgeon, Graeme.
Contemporary Australian Sculpture.
Sydney: Craftsman House, 1991.