Inside NAB’s star-studded sale of ’70s art

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 16 February 2022

Two of the year’s most anticipated sales begin in Melbourne next week as the National Australia Bank's art collection goes under the hammer in the first of a series of auctions that will disperse more than 2000 artworks worth around $10 million.

The back-to-back sales, at Deutscher and Hackett on Tuesday and Leonard Joel on Wednesday, mark the first time in seventeen years that such a significant corporate art collection has come up for grabs – not since beer maker Foster’s sold 70 works worth $13.3 million in 2005.

It’s fitting that the NAB collection is being sold in Melbourne where it was conceived in 1975 through the enthusiasm of two of the bank’s then directors, Sir Rupert Clarke and Sir Andrew Grimwade, with eminent gallerist Georges Mora brought on as art consultant. Mora commissioned many of the artists directly.

Deutscher and Hackett is handling the collection highlights, 73 lots worth $4.5 million to $6 million, featuring the stars of Australian art history, including John Brack, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Jeffrey Smart, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Fred Williams.

Leonard Joel will auction a further 130 lots worth $870,000 to $1.2 million, with works starting at $1000, from the historic to the contemporary, with the earliest an 1862 drawing by Nicholas Chevalier of the National Bank of Australasia building on Collins Street, Melbourne. With few exceptions the works are fresh to the secondary market.

While the NAB continued to collect well into the 21st century, adding many living artists to its cache, the collection is known foremost for its focus on the 1970s and was celebrated as such at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1982, in the exhibition The Seventies: Australian Paintings and Tapestries from the Collection of the National Australia Bank.

The collection is a microcosm of the 1970s with a strong representation of abstract, conceptual and Colourfield paintings, exemplified by the likes of Sydney Ball, Janet Dawson, Miriam Stannage, Dick Watkins, Ron Roberston-Swann, Roger Kemp, Asher Bilu, David Aspden, Richard Larter, and early works by Peter Booth and Howard Arkley.

But the 1970s were nothing if not diverse, with artists ranging across styles, such as the expressive landscapes of Arthur Boyd and John Perceval, the exacting realist landscapes of William Delafield Cook, the psychedelic Pop-art of Martin Sharp, the New Realism of Ivan Durrant, and the crisply sinister narrative paintings of John Brack, acute observer of modern life.

Former National Gallery of Victoria curator Robert Lindsay, who organised the 1982 NAB exhibition, describes the collection as a “kaleidoscope or a cross-section” of a specific period of Australian art, worth exploring for its major works and lesser-known gems.

“Enjoy that first reading, but on the second reading, you can find the intricate and different that may resonate with you beyond the major stories,” Lindsay says. “And that’s what’s good about going to the auction, you can walk around and look and things will resonate with you, and sometimes it’s just a harmony between the viewer and the work.”

Whereas museum collections hone in on the high points of an artist’s career, corporate collections don’t need to be so prescriptive and include artists at various stages of their creative path, says Lindsay. 

“You have some artists hitting their classic period and some artists leading up to it,” he says of the NAB collection.

Peter Booth’s Untitled, 1975, for instance, tracks the artist’s move away from his monochrome minimalist paintings towards a more vigorous, gestural application of impasto paint but predates the apocalyptic landscapes with solitary figures for which he will become known.

“The works of the younger artists are really intriguing because you can get a lot of feedback about what they are about to do,” Lindsay says.

While the big-ticket male artists leap out, there are a good number of female artists represented – eighteen, in fact, including Mirka Mora, Deborah Halpern, Rosslynd Piggott, Inge King, and Lesley Dumbrell whose vast Op-art painting Chinook, from 1975, made the cover of the NGV catalogue. Measuring 175cm by 260cm, Chinook has an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000 in the Deutscher and Hackett sale.

But Lindsay can’t go past John Brack’s Through the Window, 1972, as a favourite.

“It’s a very good John Brack, by that I mean that it’s technically intriguing and executed, with multiple self-portraits reflected in the implements … he takes the banal and makes it sinister, he takes the average and gives it a whole narrative.”

The shadow of Brack’s legs loom in the window of a shopfront displaying food utensils and is reminiscent of the artist’s ominous 1960s paintings of surgical windows.