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Robert MacPherson. Photo: Mark Sherwood/QAGOMA.
Robert MacPherson. Photo: Mark Sherwood/QAGOMA.

Robert MacPherson (1937–2021)

Australian conceptual artist Robert MacPherson, whose multivalent practice continually yielded iconic work that defied easy description, died in Brisbane, Queensland, November 12 at the age of eighty-four following a brief illness. The news was confirmed by curator Ingrid Periz. In the course of a career spanning forty years, MacPherson used mundane materials and quotidian images to make variegated works conjuring labels from minimalist to Fluxus but almost always slyly placing the contemporary and the cosmopolitan in service of the forgotten and the provincial. “MacPherson’s art is leavened by a humor we might ultimately want to call ‘Australian,’” wrote Rex Butler in a 2015 issue of Artforum. “Self-deprecating, egalitarian, born of a sense of distance from established cultural centers and a feeling that one will never belong.”

Born in Brisbane on Valentine’s Day in 1937, MacPherson began experimenting with expressionist painting as a teen. He dropped out of school to work in a cannery, then moved on to become a musterer at a cattle station. Jobs shoveling coal, cutting cane, working in a foundry, and painting ships followed before, in 1961, at the age of twenty-four, he enrolled in art school. Chucking that endeavor after just a week, MacPherson pursued a career as an antiques dealer, all the while reading about the international art scene at his local library. Having long since abandoned expressionism in favor of a more analytical approach, he received his first solo show in 1973, displaying a group of stark black-and-white paintings. Steadily building acclaim on its heels, he was invited in 1979 to participate in the Third Biennale of Sydney, but his increasing success did not prevent him from retaining his day job as an antiques dealer; he also held on to a gig he had gotten as supervisor as a cleaning company.

Viewing paintings as objects rather than windows onto other worlds and thus eschewing the theme of the landscape popular in his homeland, MacPherson instead took as his subjects a diverse array of the everyday, including dry-cleaning receipts, delicatessen fare, and schoolboy doodles. Exemplary of his oeuvre are the Duchamp-esque Three Paintings, 1981, which consists of three paintbrushes mounted to a wall; the series “Frog Poems,” 1982–, which pairs various prosaic objects with the Latin names of assorted frog species; and I See a Can of Paint as a Painting Unpainted, comprising a chair, a pile of photocopies, and a four-liter can of paint.

MacPherson exhibited widely in Australia, with solo shows at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, among others. A frequent participant in the Biennale of Sydney, he exhibited internationally as well, participating in the Sharjah Biennial and Culturgest Contemporary Art, Lisbon. He engaged in a long-running swap with fellow Australian artist Peter Tyndall, with the pair constantly sending each other mail art. Tyndall in 2014 donated the items he had received from MacPherson—numbering around 13,000—to the Queensland Gallery Art Research Library. MacPherson’s art is held in the collections of numerous local, regional, and state institutions in Australia, including Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.