Ken Unsworth is one of the great maverick figures in Australian contemporary art. He became an artist almost by accident and never developed a template style. Although he spent much of his life teaching, he has been generally scathing in his assessment of art schools. Throughout his art practice, he has walked a fine line between the more esoteric art forms embraced by the biennale and triennial art circuits, rich in cultural capital, and more democratic art forums, such as Sculpture by the Sea, characterised by its mass appeal and huge audiences. Unsworth’s suspended river stones, Suspended stone circle II, 1974-77, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, remains a great crowd drawcard and one of the most popular works in the gallery’s collection.
This is the first major book to be devoted to the art of Unsworth and is characterised by the lavish production standards of Eleonora Triguboff’s ARTAND Foundation with its large format, attractive binding and numerous foldout plates. The text, edited by Tony Bond, a former curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a long-term supporter of Unsworth’s art, consists of a couple of interviews with the artist and a series of short essays by Daniel Thomas, René Block, William Wright, Felicity Fenner, Anna Johnson and Jill Sykes, as well as by Bond himself. The book lacks a bibliography, an index or a listing of the artist’s major works, even those in public collections, and is more in the form of an anthology devoted to the artist rather than a comprehensive critical and analytic monograph.
Ken Unsworth describes himself as a child who was thrice adopted, finally settling with the Unsworths, a family who lived in the Mallee country before moving to Hamilton in regional Victoria. Unsworth describes his stepfather (Unsworth refers to his adoptive parents as step-parents) as a communist and a Methodist, a returned digger from the first world war, who was allotted a useless bit of land in the Wimmera Mallee. Unsworth spent his childhood and adolescence in the Mallee and Hamilton areas, where he found refuge in reading and in music. In one interview, he recalls:
When I was nine my step-parents had a piano in the front parlour and I was very keen to learn how to play. There was sheet music on the piano, including Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. I was very attracted to the idea of that and set about trying to teach myself to play it … My stepmother discovered me in there playing and came in, furiously slamming the lid of the piano down and forbidding me ever to enter the parlour again. She was able to play herself, in fact she played the organ for the Methodist Church, but she refused to teach me; consequently I never did learn proper fingering that is essential to playing well … Still, you would have thought that she would have been interested in my love of music and tried to help.
Unsworth persisted with his love of music, playing wherever he encountered a piano, while he drifted somewhat aimlessly, trying a couple of years of study of architecture at the Gordon Institute of Technology in Geelong, then he worked at Ford Australia as a spot welder, and he also studied at the Melbourne Teachers College, which included a course on painting.
Unsworth’s decision to become an artist was less a conscious vocational choice than a ploy for courting an attractive woman. In 1955, at the age of 24 while visiting Hamilton on a holiday from his teaching position at a school in Dimboola, he heard someone playing the piano. This was Elisabeth Volodarsky, a widow from North Africa who spoke French and was of Russian extraction. She had come to Australia with her infant son John after the death of her husband in an aeroplane accident. She had been employed by the ABC as a piano accompanist for visiting soloists and subsequently found employment as a French language teacher at the Alexandra College for Ladies in Hamilton and privately taught the piano. On first encounter with Elisabeth, Unsworth was smitten:
At that first meeting Elisabeth asked me what I did, and I did not feel I could say I was a teacher, so I just came out with it saying, ‘I am an artist’. She immediately asked me to show her what I was doing. I had to go back to Dimboola, and get out the watercolours and head off into the Wimmera Mallee to make some really awful watercolour paintings of the landscape that I then proudly showed to Elisabeth.
She decided that his piano playing was worse than his painting and suggested that he should cease trying to be a third-rate pianist and try to become a first-class artist. The two were to remain together for the following 53 years, until Elisabeth’s death in 2008.
An encounter with the painter and printmaker Robert Dickerson in Geelong saw Unsworth decide to try out the East Sydney Technical College (subsequently renamed the National Art School), where he found that it ‘was a terrible place at the time, where a house style prevailed that was a very dull kind of post-impressionism.’ However, in his two years at East Sydney Tech, Unsworth did get to know quite well Godfrey Miller from whom he received the sage advice not to bother going to too many exhibitions, but to follow his own course by working in a solitary manner.
In his pronouncements on art throughout this book, Unsworth constantly reiterates that he saw very little art, read very few art magazines and arrived at his own conclusions – whatever parallels seemed to be apparent were simply happy coincidences and fortuitous parallel trajectories. At least, that is the position adopted in this book, where the artist’s voice is omnipresent and the intentional fallacy is not a consideration. Despite Unsworth’s disillusionment with the Sydney art school, he was to remain a Sydney-based artist for the rest of his life, except for teaching spells in Bathurst and Tasmania and frequent trips and residencies mainly in Europe. His longest term of teaching at a single institution was at the Sydney College of Advanced Education between 1972 and 1988.
Again, following the artist’s own narrative, a major turning point in his life occurred when his wife Elisabeth saw that he was struggling with painting and pronounced, ‘This looks like you are painting some object, so why don’t you make it rather than just painting it?’ Unsworth took her advice literally and made his first sculpture, Kinkeebird in the drawing-room, which he entered into the Alcorso-Sekers Travelling Scholarship at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1967. Although he was not awarded the scholarship, his work was noticed by curators and art critics and his public art career commenced at the age of 36. He did not join a commercial art gallery until 1983, aged 52. For many artists today, it would be deemed a failure not to be taken up by a gallery within a couple of years of graduating from an art school.
Unsworth’s Kinkeebird, in Daniel Thomas’ memorable turn of phrase, ‘was a conspicuous provocation. A near life-size, highly coloured doll figure, of stuffed and painted leather and cotton, displayed herself on a tabletop, legs and arms widespread.’ Lacking in the raw provocative sexual energy of the Annandale Imitation Realists, who caused such a stir in the Sydney art scene a few years earlier, Unsworth’s funky polychrome pop art tapped into many contemporary prevailing concerns with assemblage, baroque exuberance of colour, variety of materials and extrovert passionate expressionism.
In 1971, an Australian/American Education Foundation Grant saw Ken and Elisabeth Unsworth travelling to New York. This was the first of a long string of grants for international travel and residencies that included Residency at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris (1979), Residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (1980), daad Scholarship, Berliner Künstlerprogramm, Berlin (1987), delegate to the UNESCO Conference, Florence, Italy (1990) and the Japan Foundation Grant (1991). Unsworth was also invited to participate in the Venice Biennale (1978), at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (1980), MoMA, PS1, New York (1984), daadgalerie, Berlin (1987), National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan (1988), Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen (1989), ‘Magiciens de la terre’, Centre Pompidou, Paris (1989), Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany (1999), plus numerous appearances at the Sydney Biennales, the Sydney Perspecta and at various incarnations of Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi.
In some ways, it is difficult to explain how Unsworth, a self-proclaimed self-marginalised provincial artist, found himself at the centre of the art world and was invited to represent his country at some of the most prestigious international exhibitions, attracting the respect and patronage of some of the most distinguished international art curators, including René Block. The simplest explanation is – despite the artist’s protestations – that his art practice tapped into some of the most contemporary developments in international art thinking – Fluxus, arte povera, earth works and body art – and followed in the footsteps of major artists including Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Nam June Paik, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt. Notwithstanding Unsworth’s quirky individualism, rampant diversity, his refusal to adopt an immediately recognisable template style, his art does adhere to popular and well-established conventions and trends in international art.
One curious hallmark of his art is its Eurocentric nature. In his interview with William Wright, a highlight of this book, Unsworth spoke of his childhood obsession with the Russian classics, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and observed, ‘My interest is much more in Europe, the history of Europe, the history of the art of Europe, than perhaps America or even our own short Australian history. There’s no explanation for that, it’s just that I was drawn to it. But it did become very problematic because, literally, when I was at school, I remember I was absolutely itching to get out of the classroom and go home and keep reading this book that I was on about.’ Later, in the same interview, Unsworth continues, ‘I loved New York, it was the most stimulating, exciting place in America … But when it came to what was being done, it seemed to be happening in Europe … So that period in 1971 and trying to work along that way, which had been suggested by arte povera, quickly led me to realise the human body was a natural material and you could use it in structures.’
Unsworth also recalls that when he saw Gilbert and George performing their Singing sculpture, the idea came to him that within the general context of using natural materials in his art, the human body could be used as one such natural material for sculptures. Unsworth’s Five secular settings for sculpture as ritual, and Burial piece was performed before a live audience at Central Street in Sydney in 1975. Although very few people saw Unsworth’s performance and most recall the event through photographic stills of the dramatic tableaux, it was this piece that established his reputation as a performance artist. His Australian contemporaries, Mike Parr and Stelarc, who also participated in body art and, whether through faked amputations or real meat hooks imbedded in the body, played with the dimension of actual human pain. Unsworth’s poses pinned with beams of wood or the body involved in a slow burial, may have been uncomfortable, but the impact was dramatic with a strong aesthetic accent, rather than one dependent on the cringe factor of perceived pain.
Likewise, Unsworth’s monumental earth works at successive Mildura Sculpture Triennials were seen by relatively few in the flesh but, as photographic records, became enshrined in the popular imagination. As in so many of this artist’s works, there seems to be an implied narrative or an enigmatic dimension to many of his creations. William Wright evocatively noted this in a conversation with the artist:
There is a sense of narrative in a lot of your work, as if there is a kind of buried story within it, which is enclosed or encased within the feeling your pieces evoke. One of the things that always distinguishes it for me is this very powerful emotional quality, of feelings that directly communicate. It is as if one is experiencing a part of some kind of story, of something that actually happens or is imagined to have happened.
Possibly the most persistent theme in Unsworth’s oeuvre is what could be termed his ‘pianomania’. His frustrated childhood desire to play the piano coupled with his marriage to an accomplished pianist, who to some extent silenced his capacity to perform, gives the theme of the piano a personal dimension. In 1979, while he was on his residency in Paris, he saw for the first time Joseph Beuys’ Homogeneous infiltration for piano, 1966, where a grand piano was covered in felt to be silenced forever. Unsworth’s response was immediate:
From that moment on Beuys became of the greatest importance to my thinking. He shared my interest in natural materials and the possibility of touching on some of the most profound human experiences through the use of nature, and of course the language of music.
For Unsworth, the piano is a powerfully charged metaphor for life, death and human aspiration. The enigmatic narrative is an important element in his work, and attempts to oversimplify a reading and to reduce it to an illustration of biographical events bring to mind a dictum of Unsworth’s favourite artist, Marcel Duchamp, ‘there is no solution as there is no problem’. Unsworth’s monumental installation, Teach three pianos to sing in unison, 1998 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales contains three manipulated, suspended grand pianos that tap into an immensely rich field of associations. In concert, 1983-84 has an encaged grand piano shown meeting a huge circular saw that is in the process of devouring it. The whole scene is witnessed by a large black cockatoo, made of metal, which is shown sitting on his perch. A hat and cane lying on the lid of the piano are the only clearly decipherable emblems, an iconic reference to the attributes through which Joseph Beuys forged his identity. Pianos have punctuated Unsworth’s art for many decades and continue to be his obsessive leitmotif.
Unsworth is an immensely prolific artist who tends to retain much of his work. A visit to his home in Birchgrove, Sydney, results in the revelation that he has literally thousands of drawings and paintings, many of them ideas for projects that could be realised on a monumental scale. The other private revelation that I had was that this artist possessed an incredible visual memory and at a moment’s notice could locate a drawing pertinent to our conversation or a juvenile painting made half a century ago. What is also apparent is that with Unsworth we have literally seen only the tip of the proverbial iceberg and the vast majority of his oeuvre has never been exhibited. At the age of 87, he possesses a great fecundity of invention with a significant survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (Ken Unsworth: Truly, Madly, NGV Australia 14 September 2018 – 17 February 2019) containing new large-scale work as well as a carefully distilled selection of pieces going back to Kinkeebird in the drawing-room, 1967. He is also participating in the 2018 Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi.
Unsworth has the rare ability to make work that is deeply personal, which we perceive on a personal emotional and spiritual level. He observed in 2007, ‘my role … is providing a situation where I might be able sort of to stimulate a response that’s utterly personal and even though it’s not unique to that person because it’s universal, we all fundamentally have the same fears and ambitions and desires, we are not unique in that sense. But the way in which we experience that, interpret it, and the way in which it shapes us is something that is different.’
This beautifully produced book is a first and rare glimpse into the remarkably creative world of Ken Unsworth. Although in many ways it may only scratch the surface of a huge oeuvre, it will become a valuable foundation stone for all subsequent Unsworth studies.