Over the coming months The Art Life will be talking with some of Australia’s most respected artists – we’ll be chatting with the celebrated conceptual painter L.J. Smith as he approaches a late-mid-career retrospective at The Art Gallery of Contemporary Art and rapping with emerging video artist Salo Viczxnecz as she makes her debut appearance on the cover of Top Art Market Magazine. This week we offer an exclusive interview with one of Australia’s most celebrated senior artists, John Cuntish-Browne.
Cuntish-Browne was born in Bowral in 1940. After attending boarding school in Armidale in rural New South Wales, the budding artist moved to Sydney where he studied painting and life drawing at The National Art School. His early student work – figurative and still life studies – were well received by fellow students and teachers but it was his break out abstract painting sequence The Seven Circles of Hell completed in 1967 that put him on the artistic map. While working as a commercial illustrator and exhibiting in group shows at One Central Street, Cuntish-Browne took part in the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition The Field in 1968, one of just a handful of artists from Sydney to be included. In 1969 he joined the Lloyd Caruthers Gallery. After winning a scholarship, Cuntish-Browne spent time in New York and London. After returning to Australia he began teaching painting at the Sydney College of Fine Arts in 1978. Cuntish-Browne’s personal life has seen its ups and downs with five marriages and eight children since the early 1960s. Although somewhat lost to view since the early 1990s, the artist’s early abstract painting has attracted collector interest in the secondary market. We spoke to Cuntish-Browne over whisky and fine Havanas at the Cigar Bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel in The Rocks.
The Art Life: You live in Orange now. What brings you to Sydney?
John Cuntish-Browne: I have a… show. Yes. A show. With that gallery. The one in Woollahra. [Snaps fingers] Can’t think of it…
TAL: The Secondary Market Gallery?
JC-B: Hmmm. They’ve got together a few of my old pictures and made a catalogue with an essay by that writer woman. I wasn’t too keen to tell you the truth but Barbara [Dawson-Jones, his fifth and latest wife] was all for it. Get my name out there again. I said to Barb, ‘what do I need fucking publicity for? But she knows best I suppose.
TAL: How long have you been married to Barbara?
JC-B: Five years… Five glorious years… This isn’t going to be one of those “lifestyle articles” is it?
TAL: We were just wondering how being married to a publicist has affected your career?
JC-B: [Snorts] Is that what you call it now – a “career”? [Long sigh] See, I’m a painter. That’s what I am. If Barbara has a few bright ideas to bring in a little extra dosh, I say, why not? And God knows I need it, what with all the alimony I have to pay, it seems I have hardly enough time to scratch. [Pause. Takes long sip on his whisky.] Shall we talk about art?
TAL: How did you first know that you were going to become a painter?
JC-B: Colouring in books, actually. Outside the lines. Of course, I learned later that drawing outside of the lines is some sort of psychological indicator of creativity but at the time I think I was starting to understand the full potential of one’s eye and the relationship between the hand and the paper.
TAL: How old were you at that stage?
JC-B: I was two or three.
TAL: And later?
JC-B: Influences? [Thinks…] Books mainly, comic books, illustrated stories for children. The pictures on Saturday afternoons. Ice creams for a penny! And then at boarding school, more… shall we say – “adult material” I suppose you’d call it now. But it was all quite innocent, I can assure you. And I was quite popular with the other boys as I could draw my own pictures. That’s how I got started.
TAL: And then, after school, you went to The National Art School – what did you learn there?
JC-B: That there was a grotesque amount to learn in a very short time. [Laughs].
TAL: Donald Friend became something of a mentor to your early talent.
JC-B: You could put it that way, yes. He was very helpful to me, introducing me around to whole range of people, the type of people that one doesn’t normally get to meet at such a tender age.
TAL: Your student work was figurative and technically celebrated by your fellow students but after you left art school you abruptly changed direction into abstraction. What happened?
JC-B: I was working in the day for commercial illustrators in Pitt Street and it was a drab existence I can tell you. I could hardly make enough to eat. I was drawing fridges and washing machines and God knows what else so when I got to my studio – which was really just my front enclosed verandah – I tended to let rip. Of course, there was a lot of interest in abstract painting at the time and so it seemed very natural to be exploring something that was freer and little more, you know [flicks wrist] from here… than from here [wiggles fingers].
TAL: Tell us about the art scene in Sydney in the mid-1960s…
JC-B: Well, there was a lot going on. People like [John] Olsen and [Stanislaw] Rapotec and [Tony] McGillick who were all doing there own thing in terms of abstract painting.
TAL: Where did you see yourself fitting into all that? Did you hold much credence to Terry Smith’s formulation of Colour Form painting?
JC-B: I liked [Clement] Greeneberg’s ideas about a shift between the sort of thing you would find in the abstract painting of the 1950s, soft drawing type of style and the harder edge of the 60s, but really I was just trying to navigate my own way…
TAL: You also had some famous critical dust ups with Smith and fellow artist Keith Looby.
JC-B: That’s been blown out of all proportion. I – like many artists – keep my clippings and when I look back over them from time to time I feel they aren’t nearly as prejudicial as they might have seemed at the time. And I hold no grudges. Put it this way – [stabs air with cigar] I never ever entered the fucking Archibald. Haw haw haw! But Keith and I are very good chums and although we haven’t spoken in many, many years I still regard him as one of my closest friends.
TAL: In 1968, your painting Poor Bugger Me was selected for The Field. That must have been very exciting.
JC-B: To tell you the truth it was just another exhibition as far as I was concerned. I was sitting at home eating macaroni and cheese and these fuckers are having the time of their lives in Melbourne, which of course is a complete contradiction in terms. Later on of course it became a very nice CV entry, so I’m not complaining.
TAL: It was at the time you joined Lloyd Caruthers Gallery. How did that happen?
JC-B: Look, it’s no mystery. Lloyd [Caruthers] came around to see me and said, ‘I see you’re doing some interesting things. I’m starting a gallery. Perhaps you’d like to show a few pictures?’ He never actually asked me to ‘join’ as you put it. I said ‘What sort of gallery is this going to be?’ He said it was going to be in Paddington and the place was going to have bare brick walls, leather and chrome couches and copies of all the art magazines. I said alright, and took a few paintings around and a week later Lloyd rang and said ‘You’re never going to believe it old man, but I sold your pictures.’ We’ve stuck ever since.
TAL: Caruthers is a well known bon viveur, racing car driver and jazz enthusiast. His lifestyle and yours are very different.
JC-B: He’s a very talented man in his own way and I say good luck to him. He’s certainly earned his forty four percent over the years.
TAL: Although you were with a major gallery and selling well, you still had a lot of money worries and –
JC-B: Money worries are just a normal part of life. When you get a bit older you’ll find that you simply have to trust people. I soon got to realise that although Lloyd could be off with Sterling [Moss] or Maggie [Tabberer] or touring Charlie Parker in Tasmania, I knew that the cheque was in the mail. Later, I found that it was much more effective to go around to the gallery and wait.
TAL: You won the Women’s Weekly Travelling Art Scholarship and arrived in New York in 1973. Was that an exciting time to be there?
JC-B: Immensely exciting. There was so much to see, and to do. Galleries, of course, public places like the Met and the Modern and The Guggenheim and the Frick, where you could drink your fill of the masterpieces, just sketch for hours, or buy postcards to remind you of the sheer magnificence of the collections. And the private galleries in Soho and the Village and pretty much the whole downtown scene was just burgeoning at that time. Aside from the whole Pop Art phenomenon that had seemed to have taken over, hard edge, gestural painting, colour form, the whole pouring school thing, they were all existing simultaneously side by side. The other immensely exciting aspect of New York in 1973 was the critical context that we in Australia so sadly lacked. Of course James [Gleeson] was doing his weekly 500 words for the paper in Sydney but it just didn’t really compare to New York where you had people like John [Russell] at [The New York] Times and Clement [Greenberg] was still very much around and of course Bob [Hughes] was really coming into his own as the critic for Time, what with his long hair and braided jackets and motorbike I expect he must have been a real sight riding up and down Fifth Avenue going to shows…
TAL: It sounds incredible. How long were you there?
JC-B: Two weeks.
TAL: And then you went to London?
JC-B: Well yes, it was a ‘round-the-world ticket.
TAL: How did London compare to New York?
JC-B: Quite nice. Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly. Changing of the Guards at Buck Palace.
TAL: Back in Sydney you took up a teaching position at the Sydney College of Fine Arts. There was a lot of change there at that time. How did you fit in?
JC-B: I just came in with my cut lunch and taught my three classes a week and then went home. There wasn’t much fitting in as you put it and probably not much in the way of teaching. I sat in the painting class room and waited for the students to ask me questions but they never did. One chap did ask me for some advice once so I gave him the only bit of advice I ever got myself that was any good – look at your palette. But there was no socialising with the students, and soon I just spent class time in the faculty lounge. If the students needed anything they knew where I was. But it was a pretty good life, I must say. There was a lot talent there which one could spend many hours looking at. On my own, I was painting in my studio and writing poetry and working on my memoirs during sabatical.
TAL: And you taught for ten years? What happened to make you leave?
JC-B: The lesbians took over, that’s what happened. I had known plenty of ladies who were that way inclined when I was at the National Art School – you could tell they were lesbians by their thick ankles and chunky shoes – but these were a different kind of lesbian. They wore leather jackets and had names like Juno or Judo or something with ridiuclous haircuts and were more interested in taking off their clothes and cutting themselves with glass than discussing the whole Sapphic lifestyle. Which I thought was a real shame. I have nothing against lesbians, per se, as I’m a great fan of Henry Miller, but these women were just so angry all the time I couldn’t even say hello without some female glaring at me. Eventually they got into positions of power and started introducing all sorts of ridiculous classes with names like “The Body” and “Post Studio Art” and soon I saw that the writing was on the wall. Eventually this one lesbian video artist started all this fuss about me not actually teaching classes and so I decided to leave.
TAL: In 1989 Journeyman Du Masion published a book of your work called John Cuntish-Browne: A Life In Oil. The author was the feminist writer Margaret B. Braxton [ the Sydney University of Technology academic currently advising Rugby Union referees on contemporary sexual politics]. In the book, Braxton attempts to link your work to traditions of abstraction with theories of perception that in turn link your 70s colour field work back to Cubism and even further back to 17th Century Flemish painting. We were wondering how you reacted to these ideas and whether they had any effect on your more recent turn into figuration.
JC-B: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
TAL: The Craftsman House book on your work that Margaret Braxton wrote…
JC-B: Oh that. I’ve never read it.
TAL: Why not?
JC-B: I paid enough fucking money for it, you don’t expect me to have read as well do you? [Laughs]
TAL: Your eldest son from your second marriage [to former model and David Jones spokesperson Gail Harding-Ponsenberry], opened a successful gallery in Paddington in 1990. The Jasper Cuntish-Browne Gallery is still going and shows someone who many people have described as your rival, the painter Carl Withers. Did it hurt you that Jasper didn’t invite you to be part of his gallery stable?
JC-B: The only thing that belongs in a stable is a horse. [Snorts]. And Withers isn’t my rival. What nonsense. Carl and I remain on good terms although we haven’t spoken for many years. When Jasper opened his gallery he did in fact invite me to be part of it but I turned it down because I have been represented for nearly 40 years, very successfully, by Caruthers. But although I didn’t take part, I did send Jasper a note via his sister [Emily Cuntish-Browne, the noted Sydney furniture designer] and I believe that he has done rather well out of it. Which should, I would imagine, make his mother very happy… indeed.
TAL: Can you elaborate on that?
JC-B: No I can not. Hah!
TAL: So were you happy that the Sydney Glossy Magazine ran that story on you with all the in and outs of your marriages, your children and your relationships and your business dealings?
JC-B: I think it was a lovely story and gave plenty of coverage to Emily and Jasper’s business ventures. They had to be happy about that. They even printed their email and web site addresses so people reading could get in touch. How… sweet. [Blows an enormous cloud of cigar smoke]. That’s the sort of story that’s killing art. It’s all lifestyle and marriages and illegitimate children and tears before bedtime. It’s all the same with all those magazines. That one that’s run by Sherman Galleries is a disgrace – they haven’t had me on any of their Top Australian Artists lists and I have a painting in the collection of the National Gallery! It’s a fucking disagrace –
TAL: – The Top Art Market Magazine has nominated you seven times on their list but you’ve always been pipped at the post by Carl Withers –
JC-B: – and Art and Artists Pacific has nothing but stories on video art! Who the fuck makes video art anymore? No one.
TAL: There’s quite a bit of interest in video art these days actually…
JC-B: Listen, the only decent video art is television. That sheila who reads the news on Channel Seven, that’s art. [Jabs finger] And I tell you what else – performance art is everywhere. All these females taking their clothes off and walking on hot coals.
TAL: You moved out to Orange in 1997 and have been working there ever since. Do you keep in contact with what is going on in Sydney?
JC-B: Barbara keeps in touch with the old crowd and I come into Sydney occasionally to have lunch with Caruthers and pick up my cheques.
TAL: Do you get around to the galleries?
JC-B: No. I do not.
TAL: And do you keep in touch with younger artists?
JC-B: Yes, I have a few young lads working for me.
TAL: Stretching canvases and that sort of thing?
JC-B: No. I employ them to keep squatters off my fucking land.