MILESAGO - Profiles

Artist (1942-2002)

"A bold explorer of inner space "
by John McDonald

Paul Partos has joined a select group of Australian artists who were snatched away in mid-career while still working at the height of their powers. He leaves us with the tantalising thought of what he might have achieved had he been granted another decade in the studio. Partos, who died in December a week short of his 60th birthday, was diagnosed with a brain tumour late in 2001 and had a year to ponder his life and art. In this, he followed peers such as Fred Williams, who died of cancer at 55, or Mike Brown, who succumbed to the disease aged 58.

In a milieu of brash self-promoters, Partos was an introvert. He may have been born in Bratislava, Slovakia, but he was no Bohemian. On the contrary: he was the quiet man in a generation of abstract painters who took their aesthetic and social cues from the New York School. Although he could be stubborn and temperamental, Partos had the air of a scholar. With his spectacles and placid demeanour he could just as well have passed for a scientist or a classical musician rather than a painter. He was a family man who reserved his emotional energies for that lonely battle with the blank canvas.

As a consequence, when one looks back over Partos's life it seems uneventful. Always an exacting craftsman, he had the habits of the dedicated painter who sets himself problems and works towards their resolution. This could result in a thicker or thinner application of paint, a cooler or more turbulent surface.
Although his mature work was strictly abstract, it also mirrored his personality. The device of a rectangle within a rectangle - or a painting within a painting - acted as a persistent metaphor for the inner life. That inner rectangle might be bold and confident, or small, grey and vulnerable.

The central plane of a typical painting might be a violent collision of colours, forms and lines set in place by vigorous strokes of the palette knife. Around the edges, surfaces would take on a pale, scrubbed translucency. Fragments of words or numerals might be collaged into the mix, but there was always a grid of some kind, a solid scaffolding containing even the most extravagant improvisations.

There is a sense of mystery about these paintings, as though they are filled with burning secrets but that powerful emotions are held in check. In many works one can see how Partos has built up creative momentum, with one mark summoning up the next in a kind of dancing rhythm. At first glance Partos's work might seem extraordinarily beautiful; over time, that beauty gained in depth and complexity.

Paul Partos arrived in Australia in 1949, a child of the postwar diaspora from Eastern Europe. From 1959-62 he studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, alongside artists such as Robert Jacks, Les Kossatz and Gareth Sansom. His early work, which brought him to prominence in his first solo exhibition at Gallery A, Melbourne, was in a figurative style indebted to Picasso and Dubuffet.

These paintings seem raw and crude considering the subtleties of Partos's later work, but they had an instant impact on the Melbourne art scene. In this rough, eclectic style, he painted a mural in six panels for a beach house owned by James Mollison, who would later become inaugural director of the National Gallery of Australia. The panels are now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

The success of his first exhibition enabled Partos to travel to Europe, where he came in contact with new influences and abandoned the figurative style. When he returned to Melbourne after 18 months abroad, he was making sprayed, bolted and shaped canvases, as well as floor pieces. He was represented by such works in The Field, the landmark show of Australian abstract and minimal art that opened the National Gallery of Victoria's new building in 1968.

From that point, Partos's work grew ever more austere and conceptual, becoming preoccupied with questions of context, form and perception. These tendencies were encouraged by a two-year stay in New York, from 1970. For five or six years it would have been appropriate to call him a conceptual artist rather than a painter. It was a time when artists were obsessed with the framing of a work, although real frames were rarely employed. Partos's canvases were sparsely painted, with pieces of string and stencilled letters used to draw attention to sightlines and edges. Yet he continued to make "objects" while more ruthless conceptualists abandoned themselves to ephemera and documentation.

Partos remained a painter at heart, and the "conceptual" devices seemed to disappear into the body of his work in the late '70s as he returned to the canvas with renewed enthusiasm. Although the grids and lines lingered, in each new exhibition Partos's work seemed more sensuous and painterly. In the 1986 group show A Resistant Spirit, held at Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney and Realities in Melbourne, his paintings had an imposing presence. He was suddenly revealed as one of Australian art's most accomplished colourists.

Over the following decade Partos's work seemed to wax and wane in intensity, suggesting a troubled spirit beneath the calm exterior. His paintings occasionally seemed repetitive or ponderous, as though he struggled to recapture the spark that animated the surfaces of his best works. The art world, in its zombie fashion, was gorging itself on new fads while Partos and his peers kept ploughing ever more deeply into the same fields. A huge gulf was opening between those artists who chased career goals and fashions, and those whose aims were more personal or spiritual. While Partos had works in every major public collection, he was in danger of being typecast as a practitioner of a dated style of painting.

His answer to this wavering interest - his ultimate, triumphant answer - was to reinvent himself in a show at Melbourne's Christine Abrahams Gallery in August 2001.

Visitors who expected to see an exhibition of trademark grids and rectangles were jolted by the invention and audacity of these last pieces. The underlying structure was still present, but the colour had a new vigour and the tight Partos rectangles had been exploded in all directions. It was the work of an artist who had broken through a barrier and found fertile territory on the other side. According to his friend Robert Jacks, this was also reflected in Partos's personality - he became warmer, more open and affable as his time ebbed away.

Paul Partos is survived by his wife, Merrilyn, and by a son and daughter, Zero and Viva. There are plans for a retrospective exhibition and publication.


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John McDonald
Sydney Morning Herald obituary
22 January 2003

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