Engaging the Avant-Garde

Stephen Jones

This essay was published in Peter Kennedy Light Years 1970-71 ex. cat., IMA Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011


In late 1960s, the Australian art scene was engaged in vigorous debate over two linked matters. The first was whether Australian painting should be a national kind of art (a la Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, and many others) or respond to the new kind of work produced by younger artists overseas (especially in London and New York) that was being profiled in international art magazines and beginning to be seen in local exhibitions.[i] The second matter was the political economy of the art world – the politics of the high-end art-market, the role of critics as the guardians of taste, and the function of art as a ‘commodity’.[ii] As Ian Milliss remarked in his letter rejecting the invitation to take part in the National Gallery of Victoria’s 1973 show, Object and Idea:

It is not the real social-cultural value of an object or activity that defines its value as “art” but rather the ease with which it can be commercially exploited or turned into cultural propaganda.[iii]

In the mid to late-1960s, Australian avant-garde artists were producing a local version of the New York formalism, including hard-edge abstraction (Sydney Ball and Col Jordan) and shaped canvases (Janet Dawson and Tony McGillick), minimalism (John Peart and Robert Hunter), and geometric sculpture (Clement Meadmore, Nigel Lendon, and Wendy Paramor). In Sydney, such work was shown at Central Street Gallery, under the guidance and promotion of Tony McGillick. In Melbourne, it featured in the 1968 show The Field, at the National Gallery of Victoria, curated by Brian Finemore and John Stringer.[iv]

In his Power Lecture, Avant-garde Attitudes,[v] delivered in Sydney that year, the visiting American critic Clement Greenberg argued for an ‘art for art’s sake’ and a formalist aesthetic that eschewed novelty, thus backing the continued operation of an art market premised on quality, scarcity, and elite taste. His view was not universally accepted locally or overseas. In Australia this arose to some extent from the art magazines such as Studio International and Art Forum that had recently become available and which featured a far wider range of art work and ideas than had been previously available. With this widening knowledge of what was happening overseas Greenberg’s approach received considerable opposition, and in 1969, in his Power Lecture, Flight from the Object,[vi] Donald Brook strongly challenged Greenberg’s view; articulating the new notions that art should be primarily a matter of ideas, that it might be produced from the wealth of new materials and processes that appeared with the new technologies of the late 1960s, that the “object” might be more than a painted canvas or a sculpture on a plinth, and that it might be participatory and show “a relation with its context.”[vii] He also understood that the object might be presented over time, e.g., as video or performance. Brook’s argument liberated many artists and helped open up a situation in which they could now explore the wealth (x2?) of new ideas arriving from Britain, Eastern Europe, Italy, South America and the United States as well as those being originated here; and Peter Kennedy was one of the artists who embraced this shift in thinking.

Born in Brisbane in 1945, Kennedy had begun painting in his teenage years, and had his first show at the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane in 1964. At the end of that year, he moved to Sydney to study at East Sydney Tech (now the National Art School).[viii]

The courses were dull, prosaic, and conventional, but my great discovery was the library. At age nineteen, I had an epiphany. I discovered art magazines: Artforum, Studio International, and Art International and in them I saw images of Robert Rauschenberg’s screen-printed canvases using mass-media imagery and Jasper Johns’s work. Both had moved away from abstract expressionism. Encountering Rauschenberg, led to my interest in his performance pieces, and onto John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s ideas on that same subject.[ix]


Importantly, the international art magazines exposed Kennedy to pop art, performance art, happenings, kinetic art, systems art, early video art, and even outsider art. In addition to Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage, and Cunningham, he read of Anthony Caro, Kenneth Martin, and Takis, and light artists such as Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier, and the Greek-American Chryssa. Thus Kennedy discovered that many international artists were exploring pathways out from the hegemony of expressionism and geometric abstraction. These new ideas would lead to conceptual art and the dematerialisation of the art object. They offered ideas beyond what in Australia was traditionally considered art, supported the urge to experiment with new materials, and to question the politics of the art market. Kennedy has said that, before moving to Sydney:

I didn’t know that these magazines existed or that the kind of work that I saw reproduced in them existed. It was somewhat startling. I’d grown up on a diet of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Robert Dickerson and Charles Blackman and so on. And it occurred to me then, as a 19 or 20 year old, that Australia never really had what we would consider as being a true avant-garde, which I understood as being a concern with experimentation.[x]

These intellectual encounters led Kennedy to realise that he might work towards a rupture in the then standard conventions of art in Australia.

This material that I encountered in 1965 [and after] was clear evidence for the possibilities inherent in breaking away from those conventions. And I thought about this for a long time, not knowing quite what to do with it and I guess it was in the late ‘60s and most particularly in 1969 that I thought that the opportunity was emerging for me to actually strike out into some new territory.[xi]

It took Kennedy until around 1968-69 to discover how he might do this. While his work extended into video, film and performance when he became involved in Inhibodress, he initially had a strong interest in colour which was linked to his painting – he was making air-brushed soft-edged geometric abstractions using watercolour – and, fortuitously, to his job as a signage designer at the illuminated sign manufacturer Claude Neon. His initial encounters through the art magazines with the work of the light artists such as Flavin and Sonnier initially drew his interest, and the potential for experiment offered by Claude Neon led him to adopt light and the neon tube as a means for making art.

In a step towards conceptualism Kennedy recognised that light ‘acts on and transforms the environment’,[xii] and in installation ‘activates the space around it’.[xiii] His work with neon and fluorescent light represents a peak in the development of abstraction; light and its colours establish the forms that were now de-materialised.[xiv] The light installations, then, explore the mutual effects of the intensities and colours of light on, and in response to, its context, its ambience.


Neon Light Installations

Kennedy’s first light exhibition was Neon Light Installations at Gallery A, Sydney (17 February—7 March 1970). Planning began in 1968 and ran through 1969, while he was working at Claude Neon. Four months prior to the opening, using a floor plan of the gallery, Kennedy made a set of watercolour studies mapping the positions of the tubes and the effects of the light spill.[xv] Despite his meticulous planning, he was concerned by the remoteness of the manufacturing process, since he could not be sure how the neons would work in the gallery.[xvi]

He talked Claude Neon into manufacturing the eighteen lengths of differently coloured neon tubes, each set into a U-shaped metal channel whose interior was painted the same colour. The channels intensified the light, creating a halo effect.[xvii] (This was based on the technique of ‘channelled lettering’ that Claude Neon used.) Regularly spaced slots, cut into sides of the channels, allowed light to spill out, mixing with light from neighbouring channels.

Kennedy’s show responded to the space and its potential for articulation. The five wall pieces each featured a set of parallel tubes. Two works had three tubes; three had four. The works were each mounted in a different angular relationship to the gallery walls (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally), and were oriented to the edges of the walls (to the floor line, ceiling line, and corners). The sharp, bright neon lines articulated the space, so that

the junctions of the planes, i.e., the floor, the wall, the ceilings, the doorways and so on, became semi-active participants in the configuration of the work in a subtle way. This established a dialogue between one piece and the next, i.e., looking at the floor piece one was then drawn to the piece on the ceiling, or looking at a wall piece one was drawn to the disposition of the light elements on another wall where the design for that wall was in fact quite different.[xviii]

The neon colours took over the space, suggesting that Kennedy saw the idealised gallery space, the white cube, as a blank canvas, which he could fill with pure colour from his neon tubes. The gallery space itself became a pure geometric abstraction, which Kennedy thought of as an ‘environment’. It contained the spectators, they were immersed in the work rather than having to contemplate it from outside. The light spilled from the neons, becoming their environment. As Donald Brook wrote in his review in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The exhibition is stunningly beautiful, with a clean precision and delicacy of colour that makes one feel as if the very air had been washed to preserve the pristine fall of lemon and lime and raspberry light from neon lines to the transformed surfaces of the room.[xix]

And as Barbara Hall noted, Kennedy realised that ‘the basic ingredient of the visual arts is nothing if not light’.[xx]

Kennedy recently said of his light work:

Dan Flavin was a strong influence, but there were differences. I used 9mm neon tubing whereas he worked with standard fluorescent light fittings, so the quality and intensity of the light was different. His works were more imagistic, discrete, and hermetic, whereas I was attempting to use neon light in a more attenuated, spatial way. There were other influences. I was also looking at work by other American artists, including Keith Sonnier (who was doing beautiful work with thin strips of neon) and Bruce Nauman, but at that time I was less drawn to Nauman because he seemed to be engaged in a post-modernist evocation of signage, something I was then doing professionally as a way of making a living. There were also European artists, like Mario Merz, who also was using thin neon strips, Otto Piene, Gyorgy Kepes, and Lazlo Moholy Nagy.[xxi]

While the use of pure neon light emphasises its intangibility and approaches the ideal of the de-materialised artwork, the use of the channels was sculptural. There was also a sound element, foreshadowing Kennedy’s sound works at Inhibodress a year later. The soft hum of the neon’s transformers was amplified, producing, as Donald Brook noted, “a sensory environment [that] has a strangeness like that of SF.”[xxii]


Luminal Improvisations and Floor Piece

In October 1970, Kennedy and Tim Johnson had a joint show of light works, Luminal Improvisations, at Gallery A, Melbourne. Kennedy’s works included a floor piece, X, 2 Vs x 3 I’s (a pair of parallel red neon tubes crossed by a single green tube laid onto wood-wool embedded in a floor plinth assembled from wooden pallets), a piece, untitled, (neon tubes enclosed in metal mesh and placed against a filing cabinet under the stairs), and again, not titled, (a set of tubes from Neon Light Installations now clothed in cotton duck). At the time, Kennedy felt the show should have been cancelled, because limited planning time and the inflexibility of the neon medium did not enable the proposed spontaneous, improvised response he had hoped for. Indeed, he subsequently wrote requesting that his contributions to the exhibition be withdrawn. Returning to Sydney, Kennedy was never certain that the gallery had acceded to his request. Nevertheless, X, 2 Vs x 3 I’s led directly to Floor Piece, which Kennedy presented in a further joint light-works show with Johnson at Gallery A in November–December 1970.

With this discrete and beautiful work—where expanded-metal mesh was laid over and around white and coloured fluorescent tubes—Kennedy returned to material sculptural concerns.[xxiii] Occupying a back room at Gallery A, it filled the room not only with its light but also physically, making the space difficult to enter. Of the work James Gleeson noted, it recalled ‘waves breaking in a surf’.[xxiv] Similarly, Ruth Faerber, art critic for the Australian Jewish Times, described Floor Piece as ‘softly glowing neon [sic] lights overlaid with rolling waves of expanded metal’.[xxv]

In that Gallery A, Sydney show of 1970, Kennedy also presented Luminal Variations, a series of photographs taken at the Claude factory, showing the test racks where fluorescent tubes were left running overnight to burn them in and to check their colour stability. In these ‘sets of coloured postcard-sized photographs’ displaying ‘organised arrangements of neon tube lighting in strips’, he explored the relations between the tubes’ different colours.[xxvi] Kennedy has recently said that, on entering the factory after hours, these intensely glowing racks of lamps in the centre of the gloomy factory made for a vivid experience,[xxvii] although, from the small scale of the photographs, this intensity may not have been evident; Gleeson described the photographs as being ‘rather coldly technical’[xxviii]. Faerber went on to note of both these works that ‘the emphasis is on technical exploitation of new materials and concern with the action of space and light from or on these materials’.[xxix]

Prior to both the Melbourne and Sydney shows, in August 1970, Mike Parr had called a meeting of artists interested in establishing an artist-run space to develop and exhibit experimental, boundary-breaking work. This new gallery, Inhibodress, would embody a radical ‘post-painterly notion of art as a process’.[xxx] Fifteen artists agreed to share the rent of a space at Charles St, Woolloomooloo, Kennedy among them. As well as funding the production of his light works, his income from Claude Neon also allowed him to contribute to the maintenance of Inhibodress, particularly its international program.


Interference Variables

Having become involved in Inhibodress, Kennedy presented, in March 1971, a pair of shows called Interference Variables, one at Gallery A and the other at Inhibodress. He saw them as two ‘phases’ of work, and in her press release, Barbara Hall said: “The idea behind both Phase One and Phase Two is creative and aesthetic use of interference which is normally considered a destructive force.”[xxxi]

The Gallery A phase, Luminal Sequences, involved three different kinds of light source: neon tubes, theatre spot lights, and slide projections. Many of these lights were connected to timers and flicked on and off at apparently random intervals. Kennedy installed the neon tubes on the walls in right-angle and parallel pairs. Into the spaces carved out by the right-angle pairs, he projected “soft-edge circular discs of light” from the theatre spots.[xxxii] Adjacent to one pair of neon tubes slides of photographic images of the lights and of visitors to the show were projected. As the show continued, Kennedy added slides to the carousel, decreasing the number of empty, white projections.[xxxiii] Throughout, the lighting technology was evident, with theatre spotlights on stands dotted about the space and the slide projector on a plinth against one wall.

As the spectator moved about they experienced the effect of different combinations of light, which changed from moment to moment. The ‘interference variables’ in Luminal Sequences, were the effects of the different lighting sources on one another, the random coming and going of spectators thrown up against different moments of the lighting sequence, the slide projections (being partially dependent on who came to see the show), and, presumably, some occasional exposure to external light through the opening of doors.

In his review, Daniel Thomas remarked that the work is meant to be ‘a colour rhythm event’, with systematic timing of events. But for him,

it was the random effects that gave me the most pleasure . . . not the strictly programmed ones. I mean the mixtures of colored light at the openings between the rooms and the variations of colour area that one could compose for oneself by finding different viewpoints for these doorways.[xxxiv]

While Luminal Sequences filled Gallery A with light, at Inhibodress, ‘phase two’, the performance-installation But the Fierce Blackman, immersed the viewer in sound. It would become one of Kennedy’s most renowned works. Kennedy had already worked with sound in a limited way in Neon Light Installations, where he amplified the sound of the transformers, but it was in his Inhibodress works that he began to seriously explore it.

But the Fierce Blackman used media that reacted to participants, both spectators and artist. The gallery was open from 5:30pm to 9pm on weeknights, and all day on Saturday and Sunday. Pieces of then contemporary entertainment technology were installed along the gallery’s centre line. A TV set tuned to an empty channel picked up ‘noise’ interspersed with random taxi calls and provided much of the light for the installation; its ‘rabbit ears’ antenna was hit randomly by wires hung from the ceiling and blown against it by a large fan so that the TV reception constantly changed. A tape recorder played an amplified and heavily cut up (in the manner of Steve Reich’s Come Out or It’s Gonna Rain) tape loop of the phrase ‘But the fierce blackman’. There was also a microphone connected to a PA, which could be used by the audience as well as by the artist. Every thirty minutes Kennedy inserted a loud recitation, under varying degrees of self-imposed duress, of the phrase ‘But the fierce blackman’ into the mix. Kennedy has said ‘ultimately the unbearable nature of that stress changed the quality and nature of the articulation of the phrase’.[xxxv]

In the gallery room sheet for the show Kennedy listed the classes of variables as:

Determinate Variables (tape loop) + Indeterminate Variables (television) + Random human interference (audience participants) + Determinate Interferences (Peter Kennedy repeating a single phrase at 30 minute intervals)[xxxvi]

Donald Brook reviewed the installation for the Sydney Morning Herald, saying:

It is, above all, an inordinately loud noise in a big dark room—at once disturbing and queer and compelling. It is quite the best thing in Sydney, if one interprets ‘best’, at any rate for the time being, as meaning the one that you would be most justified in reproaching yourself for not having seen. Or rather, heard.

Not that vision is entirely neglected. There is the hard black and silver flicker of a television set tuned to channel 3, and dramatically interfered with by taxis outside and by fan blown wires impinging on the antenna inside. The stark epileptic raster of the urgently modulated signal illuminates a microphone and a tall fan.

In the background, a small loop of tape repeats hypnotically through the surges of interference sound: ‘But the fierce blackman, but the fierce blackman’. Every half-hour, on the dot, Peter Kennedy superimposes himself, viva voce, through the microphone and a formidable amplifier. ‘But the fierce blackman’, he says. ‘But the fierce blackman’, until the words are not only senseless but incomprehensible.[xxxvii]

Again the rhythm and sequence was randomly interfered with by spectator and other happen-stance and as Daniel Thomas remarked:

Although I suspect that the artist’s main concern was the sequences and the rhythms, and although the final rhythm was simple and powerful and stirring, what the spectator might have enjoyed most was the experience of sculptural sound. That is, an experience of a plain, loft room being totally filled with a given volume of sound.[xxxviii]

While Terry Smith described it as:

an elemental audio-visual experience. It was thus conceptually richer, less easy to assimilate, and more demanding of the spectator-participant than Luminal Sequences. It was, in a word, better.[xxxix]

Although But the Fierce Blackman was primarily a sound installation, it was also a video installation (if you can call a random, snowy raster ‘video’), perhaps the first use of video in an installation in Australia.

With his light works at Gallery A, Kennedy began redefining the avant-garde, but it was with But the Fierce Blackman that he began the work of conceptual art proper. Here, he departed from light work and painterly concerns, moving into performance, video, and sound—that range of dematerialised media that would come to characterise the 1970s non-painterly avant-garde—and into more directly political and community-oriented work.

With the videotapes he produced at Inhibodress in 1971[xl] and the filmed performances of Idea Demonstrations (1972), Kennedy began making ‘models and metaphors for social production’.[xli] Having started by experimenting in ‘the representation of the temporal and ephemeral aspects of performance art through filmed documentation’,[xlii] he then investigated metaphors for social production ‘predicated on language as a prerequisite’[xliii] and, its corollary, the abrogation of meaning and interpretation in the absurd and meaningless. Kennedy explored art’s social and political implications in the documentary film Other Than Art’s Sake (a discussion of the new politics of art making and community engagement, 1973–74), with the film/video installation Introductions (where he explored video making with a non-artist community, 1974–76), and with subsequent installations using video components, such as his collaboration with John Hughes, November 11 Part 1 (1979), and Part 2 (1981) in which he engaged in direct political critique.[xliv] These works would not have been possible without the proto-conceptual works of Kennedy’s ‘light years’, which initiated a watershed in his thinking and in Australian art. From Neon Light Installations on, Kennedy’s work builds a bridge from one avant-garde (formalist abstract painting) to another (post-object art).

The avant-garde changes its spots almost decade by decade. By the early 1980s, the post-object explorations—particularly in video art, performance, and political work—are subsumed into a post-modernism. This postmodernism recognises that the work of interpretation takes place in the observer and is simply triggered by the artist’s work. This leads to reinterpreting and revaluing the importance of the surrounding culture on art, and, for many artists of the next generation, the activity of appropriation. By celebrating the works of Kennedy’s early light works, Light Years 1970–71 returns our attention to a key moment, in which art began to turn from an elite formalism to community engagement, seeking to embed art in the culture at large.

[i] For example, Two Decades of American Painting, from the Museum of Modern Art, New York; shown at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1967; and the 1968 Power Bequest Exhibition, a collection of works purchased by Gordon Thompson for the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, presented by Donald Brook and Harry Seidler at Australia Square, Sydney, February–March 1968.

[ii] Ian Milliss, “new artist?” essay in Brian Finemore & Graham Sturgeon (curators), Object & Idea new work by Australian artists, Melbourne, VIC: National Gallery of Victoria, 1973, 6-7. Exhibition catalogue.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Primarily a painting and sculpture show, The Field included conceptual work by Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden, both of whom were living in New York and becoming active in Art & Language.

[v] Clement Greenberg, Avant-garde Attitudes: New Art in the Sixties, John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art, delivered at the University of Sydney, Friday 17 May 1968, Sydney (Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1969).

[vi] Donald Brook, Flight From the Object: The Power Lecture 1969 (Sydney: Power Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Sydney, 1970).

[vii] Donald Brook, “Post-Object Art in Australia and New Zealand,” 3, from a collection of sheets constituting the catalogue to An Exhibition of Post-Object Art in Australia and New Zealand at the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, May 1976.

[viii] In 1965, he showed a landscape in the Young Contemporaries exhibition at Sydney’s Farmers Blaxland Gallery. He also exhibited at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art and Design.

[ix] Peter Kennedy: interview with Stephen Jones, 16 September 2010.

[x] ibid.

[xi] ibid.

[xii] Frank Popper, ‘The Luminous Trend in Kinetic Art’, Studio International 173, no. 886, February 1967: 75.

[xiii] Jenepher Duncan and Zara Stanhope (eds), Luminaries (Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Gallery, 1993), 15.

[xiv] The notion of the “de-materialised” as brought to attention by Lucy Lippard in her Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 of 1973, has the same relationship to the material (because of course light is very much material) as Brook’s notion of the post-object has to the object. Of course there were always objects in even the most conceptual of art but they were not the objects that could be bought and sold in the art market.

[xv] Peter Kennedy, letter to the Editor, Sydney Jewish Times, 10 March 1970. The watercolours are now housed in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

[xvi] Anon [Barbara Hall], The Bulletin, 28 February 1970.

[xvii] Video interview, conducted by Stephen Jones before the exhibition Gallery A, Sydney 1964–1983, at Campbelltown Art Centre and Newcastle Region Art Gallery, 2009.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Donald Brook, ‘Exquisite Neon’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February 1970.

[xx] Barbara Hall, Bulletin, 28 February, 1970.

[xxi] Video interview.

[xxii] Donald Brook, ‘Exquisite Neon’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February 1970.

[xxiii] The IMA reconstruction of which is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

[xxiv] James Gleeson, The Sun, Wednesday, Nov 18, 1970

[xxv] Ruth Faerber, “Entertainment and the Arts”, Australian Jewish Times [date not known]

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Telephone conversation with Kennedy, 11 September, 2011.

[xxviii] James Gleeson, The Sun, 18 November 1970.

[xxix] Ruth Faerber, ‘Entertainment and the Arts’, op cit.

[xxx] Donald Brook, ‘Second Floor Utopians’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1970, 12, and Sue Cramer, Inhibodress 1970–1972 (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1989).

[xxxi] Barbara Hall, press release for the two phases of Interference Variables, March 1971.

[xxxii] Daniel Thomas, “Room of Light”, Sunday Telegraph, March 28, 1971,

[xxxiii] Terry Smith “A therapeutic light show”, The Sunday Australian, March 28 1971.

[xxxiv] Daniel Thomas, ‘Room of Light’, Sunday Telegraph, 28 March 1971.

[xxxv] Interview, 16 October 2010.

[xxxvi] Peter Kennedy, But the Fierce Blackman, room sheet.

[xxxvii] Donald Brook, “Hamada’s Pots for the Connoisseur”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 1971, 17.

[xxxviii] Daniel Thomas, “Room of Light”, Sunday Telegraph, 28 March 1971.

[xxxix] Terry Smith “A therapeutic light show”, The Sunday Australian, March 28 1971.

[xl] Produced using Akai 1/4” black-and-white videotape and only recently restored by the author.

[xli] Peter Kennedy, Synopses for moving image works, 1972–2011. Typescript privately prepared by Kennedy and relayed to the author.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] November 11 part 1 was included in European Dialogue, the Third Biennale of Sydney, 1979, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and November 11 part 2 was included in the 1981 Australian Perspecta, also at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Stephen Jones is an Australian video artist, electronic engineer, historian of artists’ use of new technologies and writer. His book “Synthetics Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia 1956-1975”, 2011, is published by The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., London, England.