Opener of Door to Perception
Anna Johnson. Australian. December 3rd 2014
William Wright was respected in the Sydney and broader international art world as a curator gallerist and former assistant director the Art Gallery of NSW. Less known was the fact he made art for more than 60 of his 77 years. As the man responsible for one of the most influential biennales, Wright was an aesthete who stood by his curatorial choices (police raids or not) and shared a rare and empathetic insight with artists; possibly because he maintained a continual practice himself.
Tucked behinda rather anonymous grey door on Stanley Street in Sydney's Darlinghurst is his gallery and home, a series of unfolding cubes known as William Wright Artists Projects. It was on these whitewashed walls that he introduced and championed young art, showed lots of difficult minimal art and, i the final weeks of his life, shared a small retrospective of his own work; a legacy of monochromatic paintings of subtle texture and brooding elemental materials.
At Wrights childhood home in Botany, Sydney, both his parents drew for recreation. His fondest memories involve watching his shoemaker father draw "mad machines like Ernst' and convincing his mother to give the day off school to eat canned crab sandwiches in the Botanical Gardens and spend the rest of the afternoon in the AGNSW. "My life" he sometimes said "began at 16 1/2. This was the year he entered the National Art School. Despite early success he found the curriculum bland and, like so many artists of his generation, left for Europe in 1959, arriving in Florence at age 22. Wright spent his time in Italy studying painting by day and hunting bohemia after hours. His favourite haunts in Florence, Amsterdam and later Basil were train stations at night.
An ability to appreciate eccentrics and manage in the heart of chaos made him well suited to presiding over art schools and eventually staging ambitious international shows. The word most often used by contemporary artists to describe Wright is "inclusive". He loved raw talent and knew how to foster it. Wright arrived in London in 1960 to the explosion of hard edge geometric painting, pop art and eventually conceptual art spear headed by the annual New Generation shows at the Whitechapel gallery. Minimalism proved a life-long influence. A committed anti-fascist and humanist, he often drew parallels between the radical politics of the 60's and the anti-materialism of new art forms. The youngest teacher to become the head of painting at Winchester School of Art in 1970, he met Hilarie Mais, a sculptor with whom he shared the next 43 years and two daughters; Hester and Jessica. His next post as a program director and associate dean at the New York Studio School brought him into contact with divergent art styles, from Phillip Guston's raw expressionist angst to Carl Andre's cerebral installations. Many of the friendships forged here deepened his reach, exploded his knowledge and made it possible to curate an adventurous Sydney Biennale in 1982.
To assemble an international show in less than 18 months, Wright's main materials were an alarm clock, a telephone and a rich vein of contacts. Vision in Disbelief was the first major museum show to put indigenous art in a contemporary context and the first biennale have a sound component (including the work of Brian Eno, and Laurie Anderson), and included the Juan Davila painting Stupid as a Painter, confiscated by the NSW police on the grounds of obscenity. This show illustrated Wright's talent for cross-reference and adventurous contrast. There was feminist art, erotic art, video art, gay art, sand paintings, new work by a young Bill Henson and even a Bhutto master Min Tanaka performing live.
If anyone could make an anti-parochial art statement it was Wright. His next show of young British art (staged with Anthony Bond) predicted the new wave of London stars. Exhibitions that followed such as Mayakovsky; 20 Years of Work in 1987 revealed the usual theatrical flair. Visitors to the gallery were greeted by the original recording of the Russian constructivist reciting poems on a crackly copper phonogram, setting that waft of revolution through the air.
Wright was serious about ideas but light and generous with his knowledge. His favourite anecdote of youth involved a midnight ramble though a graveyard in Ireland where he found himself urinating on a gravestone - that of William Butler Years. He usually concluded the tale by reciting the poem Under Ben Bulben with a cut-glass diction that tore away any hint of disrespect.
In 2003, Wright was appointed a member of the order of Australia. As curatorial director at the Sherman Contemporary Gallery and, later, his own space he continued to unearth fledgling artists. Retirement never occurred to him. His antidote to banality was always the next new show.
During his speech opening the Pop to Popism show, AGNSW director Michael Brand stopped to honour Wright. The mention of his name inspired applause, and later that night Wright passed away. It was a fitting tribute to a man who wagged school to wander through the gallery and then brought the world to its doors. •