John Firth-Smith’s Across No.7 is an arresting abstract image with bold forms and dynamic contrasting colours – a dramatic diagonal line slashed against a flat green surface, grounded by a strong slab of textured paint, red and black, haloed with blue. In much of Firth-Smith’s work, line has played a major role as an organisational element. At the time of this work, immediately following a period in New York, he painted a series of abstract compositions in which he used fields of intense colour with uniform flat surfaces bisected by long diagonal lines. The New York art scene had impressed Firth-Smith, but it didn’t make him want to change to performance or Pop Art; rather it confirmed his belief in painting for its own sake. He commented:
When I finally arrived in New York in 1971 it wasn’t what I expected. The glory days of post-war painting were over. The avant-garde was no longer painting … I saw the first show of people like Gilbert and George, the living, singing sculptures … and a naked man chopping up live goats in his loft with a machete spraying blood over the onlookers … and there was other performance art, video art, earthworks, community art, arte povera and so on. This is when I made the decision to remain a painter – I suppose in a more traditional classic way shunning the Warhol-Pop thing – the avant-garde. I began trying to do something new and relevant with my paintings – getting influences from more esoteric sources. My decision was to keep painting relevant as painting.1
In the ‘Diagonal’ series the diagonal ‘evolved after cancelling out a picture with a big slash of paint’.2 Firth-Smith was concerned with space, mass and movement, and with paint and colour as expressive elements. As he notes:
The diagonal often became a bar floating above the ground of the painting; held in a vice-like grip at the bottom of the picture plane and free to move at the top, this tended to move and alter the space and kind of twist the flat surface of the painting. It also acted like a crowbar, levering the blocks out of the corners. Sometimes, depending on the colour relationships, the diagonal became a slot that you could see through. It also worked like a pole — propping up the top corner of the rectangular picture. The bars never bisected the rectangle of the canvas to create two triangles, always stopping short in the corners. I always felt that these paintings were kind of paintings of sculptures.3
John Firth-Smith (2002) and Anne Gray
1John Firth-Smith, correspondence with Gavin Wilson, 25 March 1999 in Gavin Wilson John Firth-Smith: A voyage that never ends Sydney: Craftsman House 2000 p.74.
3John Firth-Smith, 2002, from notes in the early 1970s.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002