|Born||:||23 September, 1925|
|Birthplace||:||Ingham, Queensland Australia|
|Education & Training||:||National Art School|
|Known for||:||Abstract painter, teacher, tapestry designer and printmaker|
|Artworks||:||Tree of Life, Perfumed Garden, Field, etc.,|
|Residence||:||1969 – 1972 France|
|Other Occupation||:||Graphic Designer, Teacher, National Art School [East Sydney Technical College],Darlinghurst, NSW|
In an extraordinary career, spanning some six decades, Coburn’s accolades were many. Most notably he was awarded the prestigious Blake Prize for religious art in 1960 and again in 1977. In 1980 he was awarded Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of service to art. Undoubtedly he is best known by many Australians for his 1970 commission to design the great tapestry curtains for the Sydney Opera House, Curtain of the Sun and Curtain of the Moon.
Coburn is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, all state galleries, many regional galleries, and other public collections in Australia and overseas, including Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna; the John F Kennedy Centre, Washington; and the Vatican Museum, Rome.
ALEX MITCHELL SURVEYS THE ARTISTIC AND SPIRITUAL JOURNEY AND THE MARKET PROFILE OF ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST PROMINENT ABSTRACT ARTISTS.
First published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 14 October-December 2000
John Coburn has painted for the past half a century according to a simple philosophy: “I want to express my feeling about nature and the world.” Adopting religious and spiritual themes in his pursuit of abstract art as his mode of expression has obliged Coburn to pursue a lonely course, apart from the mainstream of postwar Australian painters. It is only in recent years, when the consistency of his approach has been appreciated and his paintings have achieved greater depth and colour, that his reputation has spread and wider recognition has been accorded. At the time of writing Coburn is widely held to be Australia’s foremost living abstract artist.
Coburn was born in 1926 in the sugar town of Ingham in North Queensland. He went to boarding school at All Souls in Charters Towers and left school at 15 to work in a local bank. In 1942, at the age of 17, he joined the navy where he became a radio operator.
At the war’s end he returned to a bank job in far western Queensland but after only a few months he fled to Sydney intending to enrol as a fulltime art student under the Ex-Serviceman’s Rehabilitation Scheme at the East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst (later to become the National Art School).
After missing the deadline to enter the art school, he presented art teacher Frank Norton with a parcel of drawings of warships. Norton took one look at the sketches and announced: “You’re in!” He graduated in 1952 and became a teacher at the art school before joining the ABC as a graphic designer between 1956 and 1959. He held his first one-man show in 1957 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Melbourne. A year later he held his first exhibition with legendary Melbourne dealers Anne and Thomas ‘Tam’ Purves at Australian Galleries, and has been represented by Australian in Melbourne ever since, although in the past three years he has struck up a successful exhibiting relationship with Vic Stafford’s Armadale gallery, Axia Modern Art.
In 1966 his career took a momentous detour when he was invited to design tapestries for the world-renowned Aubusson Workshops, 250 kilometres south of Paris. He moved to France three years later to live in the Paris suburb of Croissy-sur-Seine and achieved almost immediate fame with his designs for the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon for the new Sydney Opera House;
While another series of seven tapestries, The Creation, were presented to the USA as a gift from the Australian Governmen. These were hung in the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington. Years later he recalled: “The move to France could have been a humble failure, but in fact it was a great success. My paintings were beginning to sell and I kept hoping that cheques would turn up in the mail so that we would have enough money to stay in Paris, and they did.”
During the 1970s, emboldened by his European experience and successful solo exhibitions in both Paris and New York, Coburn had gained sufficient confidence to embark on his own artistic mission: to develop a distinctly Australian abstract visual language. He sought a confluence of Western European culture, the Roman Catholic religion, Aboriginal spirituality and nature. His international influences were Matisse, Miro, Mondrian and Picasso and Rothko.
His agnostic contemporaries watched in fascination as Coburn religiously pursued his holy abstractions. To those who wondered about the singlemindedness of his enterprise, Coburn replied: “There’s nothing worse than an artist who continually changes style. My work is still evolving and developing along the same path.” This attitude didn’t stop Coburn from changing galleries, in Sydney especially.
His first and longest association was with the influential Macquarie Galleries, which he joined in 1958, left and then returned in the 1980s. From the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, Coburn showed with Hungry Horse Gallery first under Betty O’Neill and later Kym Bonython. After short stints with Barry Stern and Rex Irwin, Coburn returned to Eileen Chanin at Macquarie. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, Coburn had been with Australian Galleries from the beginning. When Stuart Purves set up the Sydney branch of Australian Galleries, Coburn decided to make it his Sydney home as well.