Tall poppies: a sleight of hand
Impresario: Paul Taylor The Melbourne Years 1981–1984 eds Helen Hughes & Nicholas Croggon Surpllus/MUMA 2013

In 1983, the Melbourne University Art Gallery held an exhibition guest curated by Paul Taylor entitled Tall poppies – ‘an exhibition of five pictures’. The all male group of artists consisted of John Dunkley-Smith, Dale Frank, John Nixon, Mike Parr and Imants Tillers. As Taylor wrote in the catalogue essay, ‘these five artists have all been selected by non-Australian curators to exhibit abroad. This is their similarity, it is my curatorial acquiescence and also our parochialism.’1

The year before, at the age of twenty-four, Taylor had curated Popism for the National Gallery of Victoria. The first guest curator, and the youngest, in the National Gallery’s history, Taylor organised the first large scale contemporary exhibition in that institution since The field in 1968. Popism, by virtue of taking artists of mainly Taylor’s own generation to the museum, was a meteorite in the still pond of the art establishment. Those represented in Popism could easily be found in the alternative spaces of Sydney and Melbourne. The majority were recent art school graduates, highly literate, curious, and making what American academic Douglas Crimp had called, six years before, ‘pictures’.2 Pictures refers to artworks which called attention to the ambiguities within an image regardless of the medium used as a platform. Crimp, and his various essays published in October, was an important influence on Taylor and this was acknowledged in the Popism bibliography. Tall poppies had no bibliography but it did have five pictures, which were mostly not the kind of art objects generally referred to as such at that time.

Excerpt from Tall poppies: a sleight of hand, Impresario: Paul Taylor, the Melbourne years 1981-1984 pp 180-85
© author, editors & publishers

book design Brad Haylock

1. Paul Taylor, Tall poppies, University Art Gallery, University of Melbourne, Melbourne 1983, unpaginated. For example, Dale Frank had been selected by Achille Bonita Oliva to show in Italy, Mike Parr had substantial international contacts particularly in Europe and had exhibited there since the 1970s, John Nixon and Imants Tillers had been selected for documenta 7 by Germano Celant. In 1982 John Dunkley-Smith had been selected by PSI New York for a residency there in 1982.

2. ‘Pictures was the title of an exhibition … which I organized for Artists Space in the fall of 1977. In choosing the word pictures for this show, I hoped to convey not only the work’s most salient characteristic — recognizable images — but also and importantly the ambiguities it sustains. As is typical of what has come to be called postmodernism, this new work is not confined to any particular medium; instead, it makes use of photography, film, performance, as well as traditional modes of painting, drawing, and sculpture. Picture, used colloquially, is also nonspecific… Equally important for my purposes, picture, in its verb form, can refer to a mental process as well as the production of an aesthetic object… I think it is safe to say that what I am outlining is a predominant sensibility among the current generation of younger artists, or at least of that group of artists who remain committed to radical innovation.’ Douglas Crimp, Pictures, October, vol 8 no 102 Spring 1979, p 75