Tony Tuckson is widely held to be Australia’s outstanding Abstract Expressionist painter, and his paintings enjoy pride of place in all the major Australian gallery collections. During the past four years, the ANU art collection has been enriched with four small but significant works by Tuckson (two by donation, two by acquisition) and these chart his development from Picasso- and Matisse-inspired figuration to the brilliantly choreographed gestural abstraction for which he is most revered.
Tony Tuckson used to refer to himself as an “action painter,” a term that had been coined by the American critic Harold Rosenberg, and this identification underlined his predilection for painting and drawing as a physically vigorous activity. One of the qualities he most prized was “directness” – meaning: truth-to-materials and an explicit, legible technique. He praised Aboriginal bark paintings, in these terms: “Directness is an important characteristic in Aboriginal art. There is actually no room for mistakes or for alterations. Each stage of the technical process can be seen and appreciated.”
The more Tuckson’s art developed, the more overtly it became “direct” and “performative”. Similar to a jazz musician’s approach, a painting or drawing could begin from scratch and expand into a spontaneous creation. Of course all the artist’s culture, experience, presence-of-mind, taste and critical acumen were necessary to make the performance work.
It was Tuckson’s habit when, returning from his day job every evening, to pour himself a whisky and head straight for the studio. The thousands of paintings and works on paper he produced over several decades may have begun as warm-ups – limbering-up and disinhibiting exercises but, in the blink of an eye, they could turn serious and engage all his talent and artistry.
Faces, figures, still-lifes and interiors in his early paintings and drawings were, little by little, upstaged by flurries of brushstrokes and clusters/choreographies of line which began to function independently, establishing their own abstract discourse. In Cocktails for Two the shallowness and insistent patterning of the composition is reminiscent of the Aboriginal bark paintings that would play an inspirational role in his turn to abstraction.