Robert Dickerson (1924-2015) is perhaps best known as a founding member of the Antipodeans, an irascible group of seven Australian painters and one art critic (all male) who staged an exhibition in 1959 as a protest against what they saw as the pernicious imperialism of abstract expressionism.
Dickerson never wavered. He continued to paint figurative scenes into venerable old age, and Off the Canvas, a survey show at Newcastle Art Gallery, features 40 of his later artworks (from 1995 to 2011, donated recently by the Dickerson family) alongside a range of highlights from the preceding four decades – 93 paintings, pastels and drawings in all.
In the early 1940s, long before he became an artist, Dickerson travelled to Newcastle during his short stint as a teenage professional boxer, and Lauretta Morton, director of Newcastle Art Gallery, explains that he maintained a lifelong affection for the city.
The feeling, it seems, was mutual. “Robert Dickerson is quite well loved in Newcastle,” Morton says. “Visitors will come to the gallery and ask to see Guy, a portrait of his son held in our permanent collection, or a Whiteley, or a Margaret Olley.”
At 18, Dickerson joined the Royal Australian Airforce and he started drawing during World War II. He began painting in 1947, self-taught, and a commission from The Australian Women’s Weekly magazine in 1957 financed his move to full-time artist. Morton describes Guy, which was painted that year, as “a solitary figure with those big almond eyes that just draw you in.”
The sense of isolation and introspection that permeates this work would go on to become part of Dickerson’s signature style. “But,” adds Morton, “even though he is known for melancholy solitary figures, there are moments of connection in his work too. He was obviously a keen observer of people.”
Off the Canvas
Newcastle Art Gallery
24 August — 3 November
This article was originally published in the September/October 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.