Faults aside, the new McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art is a mammoth achievement and a must-have for art buffs, writes Sebastian Smee

From the Australian:

Alan McCulloch began compiling his Encyclopedia of Australian Art as a loose-leaf filing system in the 1940s, while he was working as an art critic for Melbourne’s Argus newspaper. The encyclopedia wasn’t published until 1968, but it has been in print ever since.
For decades, anyone who has wanted to know, on a whim, where Betty Churcher studied or how many times Ivor Hele won the Archibald Prize has reached, without a second thought, for the nearest Encyclopedia of Australian Art.

The book is the only volume of its kind and therefore an invaluable resource for libraries, galleries, dealers and indeed anyone connected with the Australian art world.

A second complete edition – like the first, published by Hutchinson – came out in two volumes in 1984 and a single-volume third edition, co-authored by McCulloch’s only child, Susan McCulloch, was published in 1994.

Now, with a blast of trumpets, we have the fourth edition, renamed McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art. The name change seems apt, since this edition is a full-blown, three-generation family affair: the authors are given as Alan McCulloch (who died in 1992), Susan McCulloch (a former critic for The Australian) and Susan’s daughter, 30-year-old Emily McCulloch Childs.

There is something momentous about the reissue of a book such as this, for it offers the chance to register some of the changes in the Australian art world during the past 12 years. The two biggest changes have been the explosion of activity in Aboriginal art and the dramatic expansion of interest in contemporary art generally. Both changes are duly reflected in the new volume’s shifts in emphasis.

The McCullochs are particularly well placed to act as guides to the Aboriginal art phenomenon. Alan was an early champion in this field: back in 1965, he organised an exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Susan has been a pioneering reporter and critic in the field of Aboriginal art for many publications, including this newspaper, where she was a visual arts writer for 10 years and the national art critic for one. She has written a book called Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A Guide to the Rebirth of an Ancient Culture, published by Allen & Unwin. And daughter Emily has co-written a book on Aboriginal female artists with her mother.

The upshot is that for the first time the encyclopedia contains a separate section dedicated to Aboriginal art. This section takes up 187 pages (out of about 1200 pages) at the front of the book. And, like the rest of the encyclopedia, it is beautifully illustrated with examples of individual artists’ work.

Does this new emphasis accurately represent the realities of contemporary Australian art? Probably yes. Interest in Aboriginal art has indeed exploded and so, to meet that demand, has its production in Aboriginal art centres and studios around the country.

Here’s a tougher question: will things look the same when the next edition comes out, a decade or two from now?

The McCullochs would have us believe the Aboriginal art industry, if anything, will continue grow. “Contemporary Aboriginal art has been one of the world’s most innovative and dynamic modern art movements,” they write. “It has also revolutionised the visual culture of Australia and given the country a whole new international status.”

I’m not sure that a reference work should be quite this tendentious. An alternative view may include a more realistic description of the influence of Aboriginal art in other countries (small and getting smaller), and an admission that a great deal about the present level of interest in Aboriginal art is symptomatic of a bubble mentality.

Bubbles burst. When this one bursts, the residue it leaves will be important, cherishable and hopefully marked by continuing vitality. But things are bound to look different when the hype and cupidity die down and more objective ways of talking about Aboriginal art are found. In the meantime, however, this new section is an extremely useful addition to the many books and guides already dedicated to Aboriginal art.

The cover of the new edition reproduces not an Aboriginal artwork but a detail from a large abstract painting by Tony Tuckson called White on Black with Paper. Tuckson, who is eulogised at the start of the book in a single-page essay called A Prophet in His Own Country, was deputy director of the Art Gallery of NSW for many years and an abstract expressionist painter.

He has been singled out by the McCullochs as a presiding spirit over the new vista of Australian art for reasons to do with his activities as a curator and as an artist. He was one of the first curators to make trips to Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands to collect Aboriginal art for a public collection; he organised “the first fully documented, comprehensive travelling exhibition” of Aboriginal art; and his work is seen as sharing with Aboriginal art a “quality of raw expression, space and line”.

Other serendipities make Tuckson’s work seem an apt choice for the cover. The years of the work’s creation – 1970 to 1973 – were the most important in terms of the genesis of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, since it was during those years that Geoffrey Bardon, a schoolteacher, encouraged members of the ravaged Western Desert community of Papunya Tula to paint designs from their culture in acrylics on panels and canvas.

Finally, Tuckson’s painting is in the collection of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, where it was bought – “a brave purchase” – by that gallery’s 25-year-old director Ron Radford. Radford went on to become director of the Art Gallery of SA, where he was an early champion of Aboriginal art, and then director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Unfortunately, the essay eulogising Tuckson is let down by some sloppy writing, a problem that mars other parts of the book, too. “Concerned of abusing his curatorial position,” we are told, “Tuckson only held two exhibitions in his life.” And a little further down, Tuckson’s “writings evidence he had a huge affinity with both Aboriginal culture and the structure of its art”.

This is clumsy, as is a sentence in the essay introducing Aboriginal art that reads: “Carved and painted by the Tiwi of Melville Island, Tuckson and others witnessed their making,” suggesting that Tuckson was an unusually percipient burial pole. In the entry for Emily McCulloch Childs we are told not once but twice in the first sentence that she is co-author of the book. These examples, taken quickly and at random, are indicative of an overall sloppiness that might have been avoided.

McCulloch’s Encyclopedia is a reference work, so a reviewer is bound to try to think up glaring omissions. Let it not be forgotten, however, that there are thousands more entries providing information on people and subjects about which I knew nothing than there are omissions of things already known.

Nonetheless, it is indeed strange to note the absence of any entry for Terence Maloon, this country’s most important exhibitions curator, and a former critic of enormous influence (the omission is particularly odd since he is quoted in the essay on Tuckson).

What I particularly like about the new edition are its brilliant colour illustrations (one or two on almost every double page), its fastidious collation of useful information such as website addresses and its general emphasis on artists over other art world players. There are useful sections at the back of the book devoted to auctions, collections, trusts and foundations, exhibitions, public galleries and museums, commercial galleries, prizes, awards and scholarships, schools and universities.

McCulloch’s Encyclopedia is a mammoth undertaking and, faults aside, an impressive achievement. If you are interested in Australian art, it is more indispensable than ever.

Url: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20650924-16947,00.html