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Joseph (Joe) SZABO (b.1932; d.1984

Joseph (Joe) Szabo was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1932. Szabo immigrated to Australia in 1950, at the age of 18. Szabo was part of a new generation of European artists who helped transform Australia’s cultural life in the decades following World War II. Soon after his arrival in Sydney, he commenced work at a commercial pottery. He went on to study ceramics and sculpture at East Sydney Technical College between 1953 and 1954. *

As well as being an artist, potter and ceramicist, Szabo taught with Jon Molvig in Brisbane. Molvig held weekly, very informal, life drawing classes which were central to the Brisbane art scene at the time. Szabo also taught at the Mary White School and Bakery School in Sydney.

Szabo was a colourful character with a lively personality. ** While living on Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, Szabo and his partner Bonnie McDougall were active founding members of the Resident Action Group in the Green Bans movement to ‘Save Victoria Street’ attempting to prevent government and developers from building high rise towers in the areas of Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo and The Rocks. Szabo and McDougall lived in the same building as the group’s leading member, Arthur King. Szabo organised a fundraising exhibition at The Stables, 109 Victoria Street in 1973 with works from artists associated with the area including Charles Blackman, Sali Herman, Brett Whitley, Peter Upward and Stan Rapotec. For the opening, the Fowlhouse Five played Dixieland upstairs. ***

Szabo died in Sydney in 1984 at only 52.

Szabo held three solo exhibitions in Sydney in the 1960s, including at Barry Stern Galleries in 1962, Barefoot Gallery in 1965 and Central Street Gallery in 1966. In 1967, he was included in the Contemporary Art Society interstate exhibition at Farmer’s Blaxland Gallery. Szabo’s paintings Without-within 7 and Without-within 8 were included in the inaugural The Field exhibition of colour-field painting at The National Gallery of Victoria’s new premises on St Kilda Road in 1968.

Szabo was a finalist in the Sulman Prize in 1960 and the Wynne Prize in 1961. He won the Mosman Art Prize with Without - Within IV in 1968. Following The Field exhibition, he exhibited in the Transfield Prize in Sydney in 1969. * In 1972, he won the Blake Prize for Black Friday.

Szabo painted in many styles through his career. His early works were of landscapes in more traditional style. However, by the late 1960s, Szabo had become interested in colour field painting and geometric hard-edge abstraction. His paintings from this era are of large panels of single block colours and geometric shapes layered together or reflected from each other. Elwyn Lynn stated, in his essay for the 1968 The Field catalogue, of Szabo’s works that “Szabo repeats … the mirror image of his shape, but there is no way to determine which image came first; unlike images in traditional painting their creative genius is concealed”.* Terry Smith’s Colour-Form Painting: Sydney 1965-1970 notes Szabo as one of the key members of the Central Street Gallery group which he argued constituted an Australian avant-garde.****

By the 1970s, Szabo had moved on from his colour field abstract period embracing abstract expressionism. Some establishment critics at the time were concerned with his move to become ‘Joe the dripper’. However, Szabo’s works maintained the sense of structure and complexity seen in his block colour paintings with skilfully blended colours and no particular single focus for his paintings, allowing sustained inspection by the viewer. His Blake Prize winning painting, Black Friday, an abstract in green, brown and blue tonings, was typical of this shift. The painting was described as a “strong work” that “had originality and created the appropriate mood”. He created the painting by flicking paint on to a canvas. “I wanted to induce people to feel the tragedy of Christ's death,” Szabo said at the time. *****

Szabo’s works are held in Collections throughout Australia including at the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Australia as well as in other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia.

*Joseph Szabo, The Field Revisited Artwork Labels pp 59 and 133, The National Gallery of Victoria, 2018 ** Strange Brew: The relationship between abstraction and text, Christopher Dean, University of NSW, 2004 ***Green Bans People 1971 – 1975, Green Bans **** No place like home: Australian art history and contemporary art at the start of the 1970s, Heather Barker and Charles Green, 2011 *****Artist flicks his way to win, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 September 1972


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