Canberra Museum and Gallery. Until October 2.
Michael Taylor belongs to the generation of Sydney artists who were born in the early 1930s and who after their initial training in Sydney travelled abroad and returned to Australia with a non-figurative style. Fellow travellers include John Olsen, who is a few years older, and Dick Watkins, a few years younger.
However, unlike Olsen or Watkins, Taylor, after a spectacular splash in the 1960s when Abstract Expressionism was in vogue in Sydney, has subsequently failed to establish a major popular reputation. He has remained an "artists' artist", who is admired by his peers, curators and art professionals, but has never become an art-market darling. James Mollison, as the inaugural director of the National Gallery of Australia, was a great admirer of Taylor's art and today the gallery boasts more than 100 of his works in its collection. At its best, Taylor's work is brilliant, challenging and completely accessible to a broad art public, yet has failed to attain popular national acclaim.
A somewhat simplistic, but not completely irrelevant, explanation could lie with the place of the artist's domicile. To succeed in Australian art, especially in the pre-digital era, you had to be well established in either Sydney or Melbourne and, to become nationally successful, you had to be established in both. Ian Fairweather was the notable exception, whose legendary status and the annual shows at Sydney's leading gallery, the Macquarie Galleries, kept his reputation alive. However, most others who lived outside the big smoke developed a somewhat low-profile existence and many faded from view altogether. Michael Taylor moved to the Canberra region in the early 1970s and has lived in Bredbo and Michelago and, since 1995, in Cooma.
Taylor started to exhibit in Canberra in 1972 with a debut solo exhibition at Canberra's Macquarie Galleries and then has shown regularly in other Canberra commercial art galleries. He has become the region's best-kept art secret. The Canberra Museum and Gallery in 2006 held a large and memorable exhibition of his collages and now has mounted this impressive exhibition of six decades of his paintings.
It is a great exhibition, but far from comprehensive, as his art demands more space – a bigger venue. One could also question the chronological bias of the show for paintings from the 1960s and 1970s. Without doubt there are some wonderful works from this period, such as the stunning Mother and Son (1963), Bluey in the Bush (1965), River (1966) and Diptych (1969), but Taylor is a rare example of an artist with a romantic sensibility who got better as he got older. There is only a small handful of paintings from the past 25 years, yet arguably the monumental Sandfly Point (2010) is the star of the exhibition. It is a showstopper of a painting, free and breathing in its brushwork, bold and luminous in its colour reflexes and brilliantly evocative. The Dock (2015) and Daybreak (2016) are both moody and atmospheric paintings, bold and gestural in their paint application, but they retain a wonderful lightness of touch and an inner luminosity.
This survey exhibition speaks of the enormous consistency of Taylor's artistic vision and his ability to tap into the pulse of his environment. I can think of no other non-Indigenous Australian artist who has managed to paint water and the spirit of water with such evocative power. Mangroves (2004) and Flash Flood (1997) both speak of the beauty and power of a watery environment with all of their subtlety and variety. One leaves this exhibition convinced of the power and validity of the art of painting as a transformative and cleansing experience. Taylor's paintings are a source of revelation and inspiration.
Now in his early 80s, Michael Taylor is one of the major painters working in Australia today. In his art there is a distilled maturity and a highly developed sense of visual intelligence, but there is also a great freshness and preparedness to embrace new challenges and to work with unconventional colour combinations. This is one of the most memorable exhibitions of his work to date.