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Sydney BALL (b.1933; d.2017) - BLUE SASSANIAN

Sydney BALL (b.1933; d.2017)

Sydney Ball was born in Adelaide in 1933.  His early art training was in the 1950s at the South Australian School of Art, where he commenced part-time studies under James Cant, Dora Chapman and John Dowie.  In 1962 he took himself off to New York where he was to enrol for art training at the Art Students League under the tutorship of Theodoros Stamos.  Stamos was a highly influential member of the New York School of Painters whose members included iconic artists, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston - all of whom Ball was to meet and become acquainted with.  During this time in New York Ball saw exhibitions of Rothko's paintings at Marlborough Galleries and several museums.  He also saw the Hans Hofmann retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1963 - this show had a profound effect on him.  He was to say later: "It was a very exciting period of seeing things in the flesh.  To look at a painting and say 'Why is it so good?'  To strip it back to its base, to a skeleton and see the whole build-up of the idea coming forth."*  During his second sojourn in New York from the late sixties Ball was even entrusted with helping to clean up Rothko's studio after the artist's suicide in 1970.**

During Ball’s first stint in New York between 1962 and 1965, Ball held his first one-man exhibition at the Westerly Gallery, New York in 1964.  Ball always worked in series; each marked by a dynamic and monumental change.  He painted his Cantos in New York - these were a series of geometric abstractions that set bars of colour within a circle, itself set within the straight edged confines of the canvas.  These paintings were a result of his attempting to develop a theory of Colour Painting: " I started to work with colour.  Just broad swathes of colour. I still felt there was something I needed to use as a vehicle to take the paint; to use it in much more depth. And I thought why not try the band? Did it. Oh that looks interesting. What about another band? Terrific. What about that space? Architecture started to come in. Open up the space. Started to look at other artists, people like Rothko and Newman; especially Newman. The space. Bloody hell! I can't do a painting if I've got nothing in between. But he had. And I started to realise there was a geometric space not that dissimilar from an architectural space. So right. That was the instigation for me to really kick the bands off" ***

Ball’s time in New York, his exhibition at Westerly Gallery, along with an institutional sale to the Aldrich Museum of Art, Connecticut had won him some currency amongst the more progressive arts influencers and entrepreneurs back in Australia.  So much so that on his return John Reed was to give him a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Heide.  He was hailed as the first Australian artist to work in the Hard Edge manner. **** Although, as Ball himself was to say, "it went down like a lead balloon. They thought it was a bit of a joke..."*****

In 1966 Ball started working on his Persian series featuring large, simple, coloured forms that evoked details in Islamic art and architecture.  Ball had a lifetime interest in architecture, he was even studying to be an architect before the visual arts took hold of him.  Three Persian paintings were to be included in The Field (1968), the landmark survey of Australian contemporary abstract art that launched the National Gallery of Victoria's new space on St Kilda Rd.

The Field, sponsored by Philip Morris, was an exhibition of 40 artists (18 under the age of thirty) purporting to show the new directions that contemporary Australian art was taking - much of it abstract, bold and big. With essays by Brian Finemore, Royston Harpur, Elwyn Lynn, Patrick McCaughey and John Stringer; this was to become known as one of Australia's seminal art exhibitions - heralding in a new age of artistic expression.  The Field came shortly after the blockbuster Two Decades of American Art exhibition which had shown at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1967.  For many Australian artists this exhibition afforded them their first opportunity to see works by these major modern and contemporary International artists in the flesh.  Some of these influences were to inform the works presented in The Field exhibition in 1968.

Ball had seen works by these artists first hand during his earlier stay in New York. He was even personally acquainted with some of the artists presented in Two Decades of American Art. He was therefore ideally positioned to be one of the poster boys for The Field - and in fact he was commissioned to produce a poster for the exhibition. ******

1969 saw Ball back in New York where he was to stay until 1971.  During this period he got to know Clement Greenberg whose writings on art he had long admired - he also became acquainted with Kenneth Noland (whose works had been so controversial in the Two Decades of American Art exhibition), Jules Olitski and Jack Bush.  Under these various influences, particularly Greenberg's, Ball's work was becoming more free and open.  No longer did he need the masking tape, and rather than being applied, the paint was being splashed onto the canvas.  This period saw his Stain paintings come into being - for many - these were to be his most important body of works and one of his most indelible contributions to Australian painting.  Of this time Ball was to say: "The idea that art should be National has got whiskers on it .....There aren't any boundaries to art, any more than there is to maths or philosophy. It doesn't matter whether I am an Australian painter in New York or a New York painter in Australia. The only thing that matters is whether it's good or bad”. *******

Ball always saw himself as a Colour Painter, in 1969 he said: "I'm still on a colour jag ...The shapes and forms are vehicles for the colour - Colour can be as subtle, as personal, as the perfume of a rose. I don't think my painting is depersonalised; there might be more in it than in the surface effect you get with abstract impressionists. That can be quite impersonal in its rawness and crudity..."********

By 1971 Ball was back in Australia which was to be his base for the rest of his life. He was forever though an inveterate traveller - During the seventies he travelled to the islands of the South Pacific where he had a special interest in Polynesian and Melanesian art and artefacts; he also undertook a six month study tour of England, Western Europe, Greece and Hungary to visit prehistoric sites and ethnographical museums.

Throughout the eighties he was to travel to India, Nepal, China and Tibet.  Of special interest to him were Buddhist art and symbols that could be explored in temples and monasteries.

The nineties saw him expand on his Asian travels with trips to Korea (where he lectured on Australian art at the Hong-lk University, Suwan University and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul); Indonesia (visiting Animist villages in Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores); and further travels in China to explore more temples, sacred sites and Buddhist ethnographic artefacts.

As a master of colour painting - from the hard-edge and geometric, to the lyrical and expressive, Sydney Ball helped re-shape and redefine the course and nature of Australian art. His Canto, Persian, Modular, Stain, Structures and Infinex Series paintings have become part of the fabric of Australian Abstract painting. As a passionate adherent to what he described as the Holy Trinity of colour painting - Colour, Space and Light ("Once you've got colour and space you're well on the way to getting a magnificent light")********* ; Ball was to have a stellar career which was to include over 50 solo exhibitions, participation in many important surveys and group shows, national and international representation, teaching positions in Australia and abroad, many awards and commissions, and an honorary "Doctor of the University" of the University of South Australia.

"For me the holy trinity of colour painting is colour, space and light", Sydney Ball, 2012

* Serisier, Gillian. 'Sydney Ball: Life in Colour ', Artist Profile, Issue 21

** McDonald, John. 'believed in colour ', Sun Herald, March 9, 2017

*** Serisier 

**** Ibid

***** Ibid

****** Capon Edmund, exhibition introduction, Sullivan and Strumpf, 2007

******* McGregor, Craig. 'In the Making', Nelson, Melbourne, 1969

******** Ibid

********* Serisier 


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