Peter Upward’s gestural calligraphic works are possibly the closest Australia came to mid-twentieth century American Abstract Expressionism. However he was more inspired by the metaphysics of Japanese calligraphy.
Peter Upward was born in Melbourne in 1932 where he studied art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1951. Later that year he moved to Sydney in the hope of escaping the figurative expressionists and social realism dominating the Melbourne art scene. From 1951 to 1955, he studied at the Julian Ashton Art School under John Passmore where he began exploring abstraction as a viable alternative to realism. Upward’s first significant series reflected Passmore’s interest with the semi-figurative abstraction and the earthy tones of the Australian landscape seen in Untitled (1958).
In 1955 Upward moved back to Melbourne where he married Joan Russel and had two children. Returning to Sydney in 1960, Upward worked closely with fellow artists John Olsen and Clement Meadmore, rapidly developing an iconic abstract style with confidence and originality.
Upward had no direct contact with the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement in America and Europe although its influence can be seen in many of his works. Curator of the 2007 retrospective Frozen Gestures: The Art of Peter Upward, Christopher Dean, writes that ‘Upward invented a highly individual visual language that reacted against, rather than conformed to, American abstract expressionism’ (Dean 2007). Dean argues there is a sense of restraint in Upward’s works that would not easily classify him as an Abstract Expressionist, despite being exhibited in Abstract Expressionism in Australia at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney in 1980. Upward’s ‘frozen gestures’ embody the energy, movement and action of the artist. The all-encompassing oversized canvases depict form, colour and stroke over emotionally charged representations of self or feeling setting him apart from traditional abstract expressionists. Rather, Upward’s limited colour palette and considered movements bridge the gap between expressive abstraction and minimal art with an immediate emphasis on process over representation. It was this unique approach that predicted the emergence of colour field and hard-edge painting that would infiltrate Sydney and Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s.
Upward was strongly influenced by jazz music and the principles of Zen including the book by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki titled Studies in Zen. Here Upward encountered the ‘Zen Paradox’ whereby actions are connected to reactions like the transformation of water to ice. June Celebration (1960) explores the unique transformative qualities of the paint medium while capturing the energetic gesture that goes into its production. Inspired by this study of Zen, Upward’s paintings echo the smooth lines, symbols and expressive characters of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. This saw his paintings chosen to be included in the 1976 exhibition The Calligraphic Image with Brett Whiteley and Royston Harpur at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Abandoning what was a successful painting formula, Upward moved to London in 1962. Gestural painting became a therapeutic exercise where he could explore different ideas, mediums and boundaries – a process he attempted to enhance with the assistance of large quantities of drugs which had a long term affect on his physical and psychological health. In 1971, Upward returned to Australia in a compromised financial and physical state. Despite entering an art scene where he was largely forgotten, Upward continued his art making producing a series brightly coloured resin works on circular canvases. Although his works were reviewed with support and admiration, they were commercially unsuccessful.
Towards the end of the 1970s Upward began teaching at East Sydney Technical College where he was greatly admired by his students. With improved health, he began building a home north of Sydney in the bushland of Wollombi. He married Julie Harris in 1979, and in 1982 they had daughter, Asia. Upward was in the process of moving to the new property when he suffered a fatal heart attack while walking near Sydney’s Balmoral Beach.
Peter Upward explored his career as an artist, student and teacher with bold dynamism as evidenced in the legacy of his paintings, friendships and students. At times life proved difficult but he continued to face his trials with optimism and perseverance as artist, John Olsen fondly recalls: ‘he refused to be bored and everything about him was based on spontaneity and improvisation’ (Olsen, 1984).
In recent years a new generation of curators and critics, including Christopher Dean and Christine France, have written on the complex and valuable contribution of this innovative and remarkable pure abstractionist to the development of minimalism and contemporary Australian art. His standing as a key figure in Australian lyrical abstraction is best indicated by the decision of the National Gallery of Australia to make June Celebration one of the key Australian works included in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition of 2013.
He is represented in all major Australian Galleries and many large private collections.
Reference: Writers Joanna Mendelssohn, Greta Stevens & Eric Riddler compiled this biography