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Robert ROONEY (b.1937; d..2017)

Robert Rooney was born in Melbourne in 1937 growing up in East Hawthorn. He continued to share his childhood home with his mother, Beatrice, for most of his life. As a child he was very creative. He played the piano and was interested in music and ballet and had an ambition to become a composer. He also loved the colour comics in the newspaper and his mother encouraged him to cut up pictures from magazines and paste different heads onto different bodies. From this, an emerging love of pop art began. Rooney studied at Swinburne Technical College from 1954 to 1957. Although primarily a painter during this period, he was also interested in photography and writing and had a fascination with childhood, creating a book of nursery rhymes and a series of photographs of schoolchildren, known as the Box Brownie photographs, during his art student days. *

Between 1961 and 1966 he “slowly and systematically eliminated the figure” from his paintings. In 1967, he famously used brightly coloured cut-outs from the back of Kellogg’s cereal boxes as stencils for his dynamic hard-edge paintings. He received national recognition when one of his works from his Kind-hearted kitchen-garden series was exhibited at the landmark The Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968, which included radical works by artists who practiced hard-edged, geometric, colour-field art. Soon after, he made his Superknits series, hard-edged abstractions “absurdly” based on knitting patterns. **

In the early 1970s, Rooney predominantly worked in photography, preferring to photograph and structure his imagery in formalist grid-patterns, but did not give up painting entirely. *** He also studied at the Preston Institute of Technology in Melbourne from 1972 to 1973. During the 1980s, he moved away from photography back to painting. ****

Rooney had always enjoyed writing and, from 1980 to 1982, Rooney was art critic for The Age. He was then Melbourne art critic for The Australian from 1982 to 2000. Over the years, he wrote and contributed many articles for leading art journals. ***

Rooney famously lived in the same suburb for almost his entire life, drawing on elements of suburban life as his inspiration. He reportedly only left Melbourne once, in the 1980s, to go to Sydney to review the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, travelling back to Melbourne via Canberra to see the National Gallery. He lived and remained in Melbourne for the rest of his life. ****

Prior to Rooney’s work featuring in the seminal exhibition The Field, Rooney’s work had been included in an exhibition of avant-garde art in Sydney and several art prize exhibitions. Following the success of The Field exhibition, Rooney held numerous solo and group exhibitions of his work. By 1978, his work was the subject of survey exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Monash University Museum of Art retrospective From the Homefront: Robert Rooney Works 1953-88, held in 1990, was accompanied by a catalogue essay by Philip Brophy. In 2010-2011 the National Gallery of Victoria presented Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art, featuring Rooney’s photographs as well as his comprehensive collection of Australian and international conceptual art, much of it gifted to the NGV. ** Another important exhibition of his photography, Robert Rooney, the Box Brownie Years 1956–58, was held in 2013 at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne.***

Unlike the formalist paintings of many of his contemporaries, Rooney’s coloured and geometric works drew from the shapes and patterns of the ephemera of his Melbourne suburban home together with an ironic awareness of Pop Art.***** Patrick Hartigan has observed: “Of importance to [Rooney’s] work is the localness of Rooney’s gaze, made plain by the fact that the artist hasn’t moved since the age of two – from one street in Hawthorn to another. The artist’s claim that ‘during that period [the ’70s] you inflicted boredom on yourself’ is suggestive of the slackening of the brain required to awaken to the things most familiar to us, those that we invariably take for granted.” *

As an avid collector of books and the mundane items of popular culture, Rooney subverted perceptions about the pious philosophies and intentions of international abstraction, making his working process as mechanical as possible. ***** For example, in Kind-hearted kitchen-garden IV, the work that was included in the ground-breaking The Field exhibition in 1968, the main geometric form is derived from the shape created within a clothes peg. The series has been described by art historian Philip Brophy as testifying to “the emergence of a strong conceptual strain in Rooney’s hyper-formalism, in that they are as much about the perceptions involved in defining hard-edge abstraction as they are about the practical means and methods employed in the production of this kind of painting”.*** With hindsight, it has become clear that although Rooney’s work “employs the visual vocabulary of colour-field painting, it is in fact closer in intent to pop and conceptual art”.**

Rooney’s later works include hand-painted acrylic pictures based on illustrations in little-known children’s books or concerned with artworks made by children themselves, though he explained that it was not his aim to draw or paint like a child; rather, his interest was in “modern Art (or Modernism) and childhood, or, if you like, the early childhood of Modernism”. **

He also created a series of French Laughter paintings based on cartoons from the satirical magazine Le Rire – specifically the volumes from the year of his birth, discovered by chance in a second-hand bookshop. The French Laughter paintings have been described as “less rhythmically steady than those from the ’70s; thinking of his earlier activities as a jazz musician it might be appropriate to bring to mind the freer “late work” of musical pioneers of that genre when considering this transition” and as being an example of “the conversational qualities perpetually in and around Rooney’s work”. *

Rooney’s works are held in Collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia. *

Robert Rooney’s out-of-the-ordinary photography, Patrick Hartigan, The Saturday Paper, 27 September 2014 ** Robert Rooney, National Portrait Gallery, updated 2018 *** Robert Rooney, The Field Revisited Artwork Labels, p. 21 & 129 ****Vale Robert Rooney 1937 – 2017, Steve Dow, Art Guide Australia, 30 March 2017 ***** Robert Rooney Biography, Ocula

 

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