When the National Gallery of Australia purchased Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for $1.3 million in 1973, every major newspaper, every radio and television bulletin led with the story.
Alas, Thursday’s manoeuvrings up at Parliament House might relegate this story to the back pages, but 45 years on the controversial painting, now estimated to be worth $350 million, is still considered the piece that put the national collection - and Australia’s emerging place in the arts - firmly on the global map.
Blue Poles takes pride of place in American Masters 1940-1980, an exhibition gathered from our national gallery's own collection, open now in Canberra until November 11.
NGA director Nick Mitzevich, who has only been in the job for seven weeks, says the exhibition is testimony to 40 years of collecting by the gallery.
“It also pays tribute to the extraordinary vision and bravery of James Mollison and looks at how he assembled the national collection,” Mitzevich said.
“Many of the works here were collected before the gallery even opened. Blue Poles was purchased in 1973, the gallery didn’t open for another nine years.
“This work was part of the building blocks of the national collection. American Masters charts the course from the 1940s through to the '80s - 40 years that changed art history.”
Mollison was director of the NGA from 1971 to 1990 and embarked on an unprecedented vision to build a national collection, securing some of the finest works of modern and contemporary art for Australia. More than 75 per cent of the 150 works in American Masters were purchased before the gallery's 1982 opening.
Many of the pieces have not been on display for a long while. Sol de Witt’s Wall Drawing no 380 a-d has not been on display for 31 years. Taking up a whole wall in the gallery's entry foyer, it's one of the most ambitious, conceptual works in the collection.
The work took eight days to install and every time it is shown it is “realised” to fit the space, following a set of instructions from the artist. An extra portion of the work was created specifically for this event to fit the 19-metre wall on which it is displayed.
American Masters is about more than Blue Poles. Opening with Willem de Kooning’s Women V 1952-53, the exhibition takes you through abstraction, minimalism, conceptual art, soft sculpture, light installations and video works.
Andy Warhol’s Campbell's SoupCans will be familiar, as will his two-metre tall shooting Elvis. Seventy artists feature including Mark Rothko, Robert Mapplethorpe, Yoko Ono, Eva Hesse, Chuck Close and James Turrell, to name a few.
The tabloid headlines screamed “Drunks did it!” back in 1973 when the Blue Poles purchase divided the nation. Perhaps the front page headlines will be the same today.
American Masters 1940-1980 at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until November 11. Free.