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  • Nov 23, 2021

Obituary: Robert MacPherson (1937–2021)

Portrait of ROBERT MACPHERSON. Photo by Mark Sherwood. Courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Brisbane-based painter and conceptual artist Robert MacPherson, whose career spanned nearly five decades, passed away on November 12 at the age of 84 in his hometown after a brief, unspecified illness.

As a self-taught artist, MacPherson began exhibiting paintings in the early 1970s, drawing on his youthful employment as a ship’s painter in his late modernist deconstructions of the painting practice and his explorations of “medium-specificity.” Scale from the Tool (1976), for instance, consists of 19 thin vertical canvases. Each spans the width of the brush he used to streak with black paint in various explorations of saturation and mark. In the early 1980s, he began experimenting with conceptual works such as didactic text and readymade display I SEE A CAN OF PAINT AS A PAINTING UNPAINTED (1982), which features a can of white house paint on a plinth, a photocopied page of a short typed text on the wall, and more photocopies on a chair. The work questions the nature of painting and highlights the labor behind artistic creation.

He became best known for his later works that combined painting and self-reflexive text with graphic elements borrowed from commercial signage. He was also drawn to handmade roadside signs, reflected in works such as MAYFAIR: 2 SIGNS, 2 PAINTINGS (HONK! IF YOU’VE SEEN ELVIS) (1993–99), in which the phrases “Honk! If you’ve seen Elvis.” and “Honk!! If you’ve found ‘Jesus’” were crudely written in white paint on black-painted masonite. By mixing high-modernist concepts of self-reflexivity with readymade elements taken from daily life, MacPherson’s works merged two core concepts of modern art with an acerbic wit. A retrospective of his work, “The Painter’s Reach” was organized by Ingrid Periz at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in 2015. Among the many sides of the artist revealed, the exhibition showcased 2,400 portraits of the BOSS DROVERS (1996–2014) series depicting cattle movers purportedly created by his alter-ego, Robert Pene, whom he imagined as a ten-year-old child.

In a tribute, QAGOMA director Chris Saines called him “one of the most important artists of his generation,” and an “artist’s artist.” Along with the QAGOMA survey, MacPherson held major solo presentations at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 2001, and the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane in 2007. His work was exhibited in the Biennale of Sydney in 1979, 2002, and 2010, as well as the Sharjah Biennial in 2009. His work is collected by Australia’s major art museums, including: the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2020.

HG Masters is ArtAsiaPacific’s deputy editor and deputy publisher.

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