John Nixon, Untitled (polychrome), 2018, enamel, wood, MDF, 23 5/8 × 17 3/4".

John Nixon, Untitled (polychrome), 2018, enamel, wood, MDF, 23 5/8 × 17 3/4".

John Nixon

John Nixon’s exhibition “Groups + Pairs 2016–2020” opened in March only to be paused due to Covid-19 restrictions. Nixon was suffering from leukemia and passed away in August at the age of seventy. As a gesture toward his legacy, his decades-long gallerist and friend, Anna Schwartz, announced that his final exhibition would remain on display for the rest of the year. A nearly yearlong show is fitting for Nixon—a radical modernist who spent more than a decade, for instance, producing orange monochromes. The extended run affords a matchless opportunity for Nixon’s significant and abiding following in Australia and around the world to examine his curatorial sensibility, for while there will undoubtedly be many more exhibitions of his work, there will never be another exhibition made by him—and the curatorial configuration of relationships between his artworks is paramount. In combination, Nixon’s typically reductive, materially impoverished paintings reveal the sheer expansiveness of his practice—indeed, of the universe he constructed across half a century of artmaking.

Nixon’s milieu was highly social, populated by musicians, curators, and, most importantly, the younger artists whom he mentored. “Groups + Pairs” includes several collaborations with his assistant Jacqueline Stojanovic´. These small abstract geometric weavings were made on a children’s loom that Nixon had found and given her, inaugurating a significant new direction in her practice. The show, which presents more than a hundred pieces made over the past five years, also exemplifies Nixon’s penchant for creating work in volume. On one wall, paintings climb three rows high. Glancing at the installation, we readily sense how one work summoned the next. Four bold monochrome paintings from 2019—in yellow, black, red, and green—command attention. Each is utterly uninflected, executed in smooth coats of premixed gloss enamel. And each is shaped, comprising three small prestretched canvases joined by thin strips of wood painted white. Where the green monochrome conveys stability through its grid, the black and red constructions appear to flare and tremble, courtesy of subtle shifts in geometry and proportion. A group of six white monochromes from 2020 deploys texture to create visual interest, alternating the application of white acrylic and enamel paint onto gritty hessian, raw wood, and canvas juxtaposed with mass-produced ceramic tiles.

Nixon famously preferred ordinary materials to specialist ones and made a point of purchasing at hardware stores whatever art supplies he couldn’t simply glean from thrift shops or his daily walks. For him, paint applied straight from the can broached a kind of pure, unmediated form. Indeed, he constantly used other ready-made materials as something like pigments, affixing everyday objects to his pictorial surfaces to produce sculptural paintings. The striking diptych Untitled, 2018, for instance, includes a band of sheepswool wrapped around its left panel and a patch of multicolored foam springing forth from the plywood support on the right.

In bringing together the ground-zero modernist traditions of the monochrome and the ready-made, Nixon practiced what his artist peer Mike Parr once described as a “devotional simplicity.” Yet Nixon was no slave to self-imposed rules—especially as he aged. As critic and musician Francis Plagne has noted, even his antipathy toward representation wavered in recent years, his compositions beginning to “allude to the traditional genres of portrait, landscape, and still life.” We see this in Untitled (Alpine landscape), 2018: two small black-and-white canvases horizontally divided by a jagged line, one a loose chromatic inversion of the other. Here, the landscape tradition may also be understood as generic, another ready-made fit for appropriation, further frustrating critics who for years have struggled to pin down Nixon’s relationship to the historical avant-garde.

Nixon’s work is always an ambivalent index of its moment. In and out of time, it speaks to its present incidentally, for example in collages incorporating brand logos that betray particular times and places. This final exhibition-cum-memorial, fitted out with benches for extended periods of contemplation, amplifies the timeless quality of his oeuvre—its idiosyncratic marriage of the quotidian and the transcendental.