Richard Larter Cliché no. 2 (blue Patricia) 1965 alkyd paint on composition board 90.0 x 60.0 cm Laverty collection, Sydney
From an early stage in his artistic life Richard Larter (b. 1929) wanted his work to make an impact. He agreed with the philosophy that art should not sit placidly on the walls of museums but should engage people in a range of ways: be it to provoke, excite, disturb or enchant. He recognised that art is a one to one dialogue with the viewer and that it can incorporate a wide range of ideas and subject matter. For many years his art has been both figurative and abstract (often in the same works). Yet he realised, like many artists, philosophers and psychoanalytical thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s, that the human body in its many permutations provides a sure way of catching people’s attention and involving them in a work of art.
As Richard Larter’s retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia reveals, his work has been inspired by popular culture, music, politics and society, the natural environment and personal relationships – particularly his relationship with his wife, Patricia Larter (1936–1996). They met in 1951 and married in 1953, moving from England to Australia in 1962. Mother to their five children and his best friend until her untimely death in 1996, Pat was his model and collaborator. She also became an artist in her own right. It would almost certainly be true to say that Pat is one of the most painted, drawn, photographed and filmed artist–partners in the entire history of art. When one critic complained about too many images of Pat in a show at Watters Gallery, Larter promptly went and filled single canvases with multiple images of the love of his life. Although there are many sexually explicit images of his wife, revealing their shared interestin freedom of expression and frustration with moralistic censorious attitudes to the body, Larter was also more than capable of depicting Pat’s introspective moods, as many portraits from the 1960s through to the 1990s convey. In Cliché no. 2 (blue Patricia) 1965, he depicts a thoughtful woman, and there is a similar tenderness of expression in later lyrical portraits such as Portrait of Pat 1984. One of the fascinating aspects of Larter’s portrayals of Pat is the way that the works chart the passage of time from youth to maturity, from model to active performer, collaborator and artist. As gallery owner Geoffrey Legge has noted:
I think you can feel in the early paintings Pat is modelling in the conventional way. She would get into a pose and he would paint her. Whereas subsequently through the camera she was able to express herself and the whole thing lifts up a gambit. So she taught Richard something and they discovered something together which he is brilliantly able to apply to his work.1
A sense of Pat as the active performer is apparent in Larter’s striking paintings Page three coffee: TATTOOS 1967 and Yellow eye research 1971. In the former, painted solely in black and white, Pat appears dancing from one pose to the next. This approach of including the same performer in different poses in the one painting came to the fore in his earlier Stripperama paintings in the mid 1960s, which showed the model going from fully clothed to undressed (except for the shoes). While the dazzling Stripperama no.3 1964 was painted in strips echoing the idea of film strips or frames, in Page three coffee: TATTOOS Pat is liberated in space in a more direct, personal engagement with the viewer. Over the years, Richard and Pat developed a quite particular artistic partnership. It is not widely appreciated that Pat Larter was Australia’s main contributor to mail art, an art form that had its roots in the anti-establishment approach of dada and the Fluxus group and came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of mail art was that artists from around the world could send their works through the postal system. Pat’s work was included in all the significant international mail art catalogues from the 1970s to 1991.2 Her contributions were mainly performative self-portraits.
Richard Larter Stripperama no.3 1964 alkyd paint on composition board 91.5 x 122.0 cm Laverty collection, Sydney
Although Richard often took the photographs, Pat chose the poses, the theatrical personae, and the outfits (which she usually made herself). In the 1970s, when feminism was opening up many possibilities for women artists, Pat came into her own. In her work she relished sending up stereotypes, recognising that by taking control of representations of the body, issues of identity and sexuality could be critiqued and enjoyed and celebrated. Other artists who worked with Pat recall her humour and her fearlessness; her belief to ‘say it at it is’, not to cover things up. This attitude came through not only in her mail art but also in her film Men 1975 and her work with male and female models (shown at the Adelaide Biennial in 1996).
An important distinction between Pat’s and Richard’s ways of working is that while the performative photographs constituted her art they were often the source of the poses that he chose for his paintings. The films they collaborated on had a homemade quality that was very much part of the atmosphere of the 1970s. The fluid interplay between performance, film and aspects of home and family life also appears in some of Larter’s paintings, such as Yellow eye research where Pat is depicted as a woman confident in her own body alongside meticulously drawn fairytale images inspired by storybooks they read to their children. Larter has always seen drawing as an important basis for his paintings. In the 1950s, when he was still living in England, he took art classes at night at Toynbee Hall in London, where he drew from plaster casts. Perhaps surprisingly in the light of his later nudes, he was reluctant to progress to the life classes, believing that it was of the utmost importance to be able to attain a likeness.
Beyond these classes, his adult art training was limited. This aspect of being largely self-taught is significant to his highly experimental approach with an array of techniques. This included his discovery of the hypodermic syringe as a painting tool. In a ‘road to Damascus’ moment, he saw the syringes through the window of a medical supplies shop in Camden Town while waiting for the bus home and realised they would provide an excellent way of drawing with paint. His abilities in this regard shine in many works of the late 1950s and 1960s, including the intricate, colourful linearity in Stripperama no. 3. By the late 1960s he had stopped using the technique.
Richard Larter Side thrust 1989 (detail) synthetic polymer paint on nine canvases 177.2 x 120.0 cm (each canvas) National Gallery of Australia
Early on in his artistic career Larter was fascinated by pointillism and refers to his seminal paintings as ‘pointillist abstracts’. His fascination with the fine dotting techniques of artists like Seurat and Signac, as well as their interest in the science and emotive resonances of colour, took on new life in his works such as the ravishing painting Exercise 1967. Here, dots of varied sizes flow in curvilinear patterns across the surface. They are layered over vertical bands of colour so pure and vibrant that the combined effect is to dazzle the eye and lift the spirits. Larter’s love of decorative patterning and luminous colour was also informed early in his artistic life by a visit he made to Algiers in 1951 where he was greatly inspired by Islamic art (something he shares with Henri Matisse whose work he admires).
Movement in Larter’s work is often associated with music. From the 1950s to the present, music has been an important aspect of his life and he often listens to music while he paints. The subjects in some of his major figurative paintings include portraits of musicians associated with pop and rock, like Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. Compared with the strident nature of some of his figurative works, there is a lightness and lyricism, and a subtle use of colour in Swingalee no. 4 1986. The experimental nature of his painting techniques is again apparent in the small notations– like grace notes – applied by edgers used by house painters for the finer work. At the same time, there is a feeling of effortlessness in the way the rhythmic forms fan out and rotate and literally appear to swing.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Larter undertook a number of works that were inspired by natural phenomena and the environment. By the time he painted his epic work Side thrust 1989, he had moved with Pat from Luddenham, in the outer western suburbs of Sydney, to Yass, New South Wales, about an hour’s drive from Canberra. This meant that he and Pat became regular visitors to the National Gallery of Australia, enjoying the collection and exhibitions that included works by some of his favourite artists – Claude Monet, PierreBonnard and Henri Matisse among them. For years, Larter had been fascinated by luminosity in colour, both in terms of natural phenomena and in a painterly sense. A feeling for light and colour also informed Larter’s life in Yass, where the changes in the seasons were palpable. As a child, Larter was very excited when he witnessed the aurora borealis, which became the subject of paintings decades later in 1986. In these works the bands of refracted light appear soft and semi-transparent. In Side thrust, on the other hand, the rainbow forms appear more substantial, as though they have become the embodiment of light and energy rhythmically pulsating through the landscape.
Side thrust comprises nine panels and extends over ten metres. It was recognised as one of the most significant works in Larter’s output when it was acquired for the national collection. As John McPhee wrote:
The work is principally a combination of two essential elements, Larter’s mastery of a highly original technique and his love of light and landscape of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. Side thrust should be read as a metaphysical landscape, a distillation of sound, light and emotional tension. The mosaic-like ground and attenuated ribbons of rainbow colour, both made with a paint soaked roller, produce a resonance that embraces the viewer … The ‘view’ is not simply something to look at, but to be part of.3
Richard Larter Farewell my lovely 1996 synthetic polymer paint and glitter on canvas 183.0 x 102.0 cm Private collection, Melbourne
The following decade Larter had to face tragic circumstances when his beloved wife and friend for some forty-three years died in 1996. In the same year, he painted his grief in Into the silence – a dark painting tentatively searching for the light. In contrast to the somnambulist beauty of that work, however, the joy, love and energy that Pat brought to their lives is celebrated in Farewell my lovely 1996.
By the turn of the new century, Richard Larter had moved to Canberra, where he now lives and continues to paint with unabated commitment and passion. In recent years he has captured the local environment, including the Canberra bushfires of 2003. Now in his late seventies, his memory is ever-present and he has continued to paint portraits of Pat for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He also continues to create figurative and non-figurative works inspired by the human form, politics, music, nature, art and culture of the past and present. Along with Larter’s abilities as a colourist, this rich amalgam of interests has informed an extraordinary body of work over the years; a body of work that is recognised and celebrated in his retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture after 1920
Curator, Richard Larter: a retrospective
1 Geoffrey Legge, interview with Deborah Hart, January 2008.
2 These catalogues are in the Pat Larter Papers, Art Gallery of New South
Wales Research Library, Sydney.
3 John McPhee, submission on artist’s file, NGA.
A major book published in conjuction with the exhibition is available from the Gallery Shop. For further information, telephone (02) 6240 6420 or send an email to email@example.com.