Fred Williams revolutionised the way we see and think about the Australian landscape. In the 1960s, inspired by the landscape of Victoria close to where he lived, he distilled the essence of environment in his paintings and works on paper. However, while the subjects were regional, Williams wanted to convey a wider sense of place. The local was the template for the more general, unifying elements of the continent.
His intuitive sense of unity was confirmed over the years with his growing interest in geology and his broadening experience of diverse aspects of the country, from Erith Island and Flinders Island in Bass Strait in the south to Cape York in far north Queensland to the Pilbara region in Western Australia. For all the differences he perceived in these places, he also grasped underlying commonalities.
As a student in the 1940s, Williams had been interested in a tonalist approach to colour that came from his art training at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. When he returned home to Australia in 1957, after five years living in London, he was immensely taken with the subtle yet richly varied tones of the Australian bush. At the time, John Brack asked him where he was going to focus his energies in his art, and Williams responded that he was going to paint the gum tree. Like many others, Brack thought this might be a retrograde move, but Williams was determined.
He was soon painting the bush close to Mittagong in the Southern Highlands where he stayed with friends. In works such as The Nattai River 1958 (his first painting to enter a public collection), he conveyed his feeling for the subtleties of the bush. He was also mindful of the ways in which the basic forms of trees, rocks and the rivers could become structural elements in his compositions. His approach was inspired by an ever-deepening knowledge of art of the past. Among his favourite artists were Australian Impressionists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton and French Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque.
In the 1960s, Williams often painted outdoors with gouache, subsequently working on his oil paintings back in the studio. The breakthrough came with the You Yangs series inspired by an area of granite ridges and plains of low vegetation scattered across open areas. Compared with the English landscape that was tamed and ordered, Williams recognised that a paradoxically defining aspect of the Australian landscape was the random scatter of elements with no focal point. He was able to conceptualise this landscape from an aerial perspective, the rocks and small trees translated into sensuous touches of paint. In some paintings, such as You Yangs landscape 1963, these notations were painted over golden grounds, which he described as painters honey; in others, he adopted delicate, pale sandy hues, affirming his mostly tonal approach to colour in the first two decades of his artistic development.
Although he was an innately modest man who did not enjoy talking about his work, Williams was ambitious for his art. He saw his work as part of a tradition of Australian landscape painting and was also open to contemporary developments. In the late 1960s, he was interested in Minimalism and Colour Field paintings, which he saw in the exhibition Two decades of American painting that came to Australia in 1967. Part of his brilliance as an artist was the way that he selectively adapted aspects of his sources into works that clearly and distinctively revealed his own vision. For instance, he recognised that tiny, minimal notations with the brush on the space of the paper or canvas could correspond with a sense of the spaciousness of the Australian landscape.
In the 1970s, Williams felt an urgent desire to paint with colour, partly informed by the vibrant Colour Field paintings he had seen and by his need to reinvent his art after going as far as he could with his minimalist Australian landscape series painted indoors. He began painting outdoors in oil on canvas, often in the company of friends. He liked to get to know particular landscapes well, returning again and again and amassing large series of works over several years. The outdoor oils were generally complemented by what he called a summation oil painted in the studio. While the outdoor paintings were generally more spontaneous and representational, the studio works, such as Yan Yean 197273, were more distilled and abstracted, rather like his earlier approach. Only now they were suffused with brilliant colour.
Williamss special talent was abstracting from the real or, as he put it, seeing the world in terms of paint. The paintings that convey the most seamless transition between his minimal works of the late 1960s and the fullness of sumptuous colour of the 1970s and between close observation of the real and abstraction were his paintings of water. These include his evocative seascapes of the Victorian coastline and his vibrant oil paintings of Erith Island in Bass Strait, such as Beachscape, Erith Island I 1974. Painted in horizontal strips, these works both recall early colonial topographical drawings and watercolours and find affinities with contemporary abstraction.
Works like this were shown in the retrospective of gouaches Fred Williams: landscapes of a continent at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York in 1977. He was the first Australian artist to be invited to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Artthe heartland of Modernism with a collection that included many of the great Post-Impressionist artists Williams had admired over the years, including Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Matisses large cut-out installation The swimming pool 1952 was on display at the same time as Williamss exhibition, and a museum brochure linked their passion for colour. Williams was naturally overjoyed at the opportunity of the exhibition. The experience of being in New York (it was his first visit to the city) also confirmed where he wanted to work: I will never paint anywhere but in Australia because I know Australia
I must be inside looking out, not outside looking in.
A few months after his return from New York, Williamss diary reveals that he was in tropical far north Queenslandin Weipa on Cape York Peninsula. Remarkably, this was the first time he had had the opportunity to fly in a light aircraft low over the landscape. It was something he had always dreamed of, and he was not disappointed. His gouaches Weipa shoreline and Bushfire, Weipa II, both painted in 1977, are among his most inventive compositions.