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I AM HIDING IN A ROSE: SWEENEY REED & CONCRETE POETRY by LINDA SHORT

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2011 at 9:43 am

Born to Concrete Installation Heide II Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne

Born to Concrete: The Heide Collection showcases the museum’s significant holdings of Concrete Poetry acquired over a period of thirty years, through the generosity of individual gifts and two important donations from the estates of editor and author Barrett Reid and concrete poet Sweeney Reed.

Sweeney Reed (1945–1979) is well-known as the son of celebrated modernist artists Joy Hester and Albert Tucker who was adopted as a child by art patrons and Heide founders, John and Sunday Reed. Born to Concrete explores the important contribution Reed himself made to the development of Australian art, as a practitioner, supporter and promoter of Concrete Poetry in the 1960s and 70s. The exhibition presents his work alongside that of his Australian contemporaries, while also considering the influence of international peers.

Alex Selenitsch monoton eeeeeee 1969 acrylic letters on enamel on composition board 71 x 69 x 4 cm Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne Gift of Alex Selenitsch 2011 © the artist

Aleks Danko Poetic Suicide engraving on gravoply 59 x 42 cm Courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne © the artist

Reed’s interest in art and poetry, preoccupations from  an early age, came together  in his practice as a concrete poet. A year spent in London from 1964–65 exposed him to the Concrete Poetry movement flourishing in Britain. He worked briefly at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where he saw the influential ‘Between Poetry and Painting’ exhibition,[1] and established contact with a number of poets, notably Bob Cobbing, Bill Butler and Ian Hamilton Finlay. These experiences were significant for Reed’s future practice once back in Australia, and were imparted to other concrete poets whose engagement with international developments had been limited to imported books and journals. [2]

On his return to Melbourne, Reed fulfilled his aspiration to establish a gallery to promote the work of younger artists and poets. From 1966–69 he was the director of Strines Gallery in Carlton and from 1972–75 he operated the Sweeney Reed Gallery in Fitzroy. As well as holding exhibitions, Reed organised poetry readings and published prints, catalogues and books under his own publishing imprints. [3] In 1969, Reed invited Alex Selenitsch to present the first individual exhibition of Concrete Poetry in Australia at Strines, and a number of the works originally shown feature in Born to Concrete.

Following the closure of his galleries, in 1977 Reed enrolled at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts to study printmaking, enabling him to realise many of his own poems in a concrete, material form. It was a prolific period for Reed during which he mastered complex experimental techniques and processes which he applied to prints and three-dimensional constructions. Many of these feature in Born to Concrete, a highlight being the artist’s most ambitious work, Impounded Illusion (Horizon) (1977), where large steel letters are set directly upon the wall. Represented by only the top half of each letter, the word ‘horizon’ appears to emerge from the cut of an horizon line.

In a 1977 press interview Reed revealed that the poem was inspired by the view from his Aspendale studio. His aim was to ‘capture the horizon … I wanted to remind people it’s here … We take this sort of thing too much for granted, you know.’ [4]

Sweeney Reed Rose I 1977 embossed etching 16.5 x 16.3 cm Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne Gift of Pamela, Mishka and Danila McIntosh 1990 © Pamela McIntosh

The lyrical and expressive tendencies in Reed’s poetry  are also apparent in Rose I (1977), which is widely regarded as the artist’s signature work. Like many of Reed’s poems, it had been in gestation since early childhood, the subject of continued notation and distillation  in personal journals and sketchbooks. The arrangement of the words ‘I am hiding in a Rose’ visually reinforces the idea of concealment and enclosure expressed in the poem; the letters cascade down the page as if they  are folding in on themselves.

This poem also features at the centre of Reed’s Rosepoema (1975), embedded in a portrait of the modernist writer, Gertrude Stein. Stein’s often- quoted line, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose …’ [5] would have resonated with Reed, who placed great significance on the symbolism of the rose in his own work: ‘The Rose is as much a homageto E.E. Cummings as a personal statement. For me (and perhaps Gertrude Stein) the Rose is the centre of the universe—that is, taking the view that life is part of an on- going process of which birth and death are only part of the cycle, not the beginning and the end.’ [6]

For Reed, the rose represented many personal and philosophical associations: from the rose garden at Heide to his interest in the Buddhist belief of reincarnation. The motif is also explored inthe work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who is regarded as Britain’s foremost concrete poet. Born to Concrete presents a key selection of Finlay’s early concrete poems, including a new acquisition for the Heide Collection: A Rock Rose (1971). In this and many of his works, Finlay makes links between flowers and the sea and in particular the rose as a common name for boats. Reed had a profound admiration for Finlay and sought to publish his work in Australia, a collaboration that is explored for the first time in the exhibition.

Alan Riddell Eclipse I 1969 screenprint 15/20 73.7 x 99 cm Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne Gift of Ann Lewis 1989 © The Estate of Alan Riddell

NOTES

[1] The exhibition, curated by concrete poet (and Benedictine monk) Dom Sylvester Houédard, had a seminal influence on contemporary art in Australia and internationally.

[2] As a result of his travels, Sunday Reed’s Eastend Booksellers in Melbourne stocked recent publications of  international Concrete Poetry which were available to local artists and poets.

[3] Reed’s four publishing imprints were: Strines Publications; Still Earth Publications; Sweeney Reed Publications; and Overland Press  (the later by arrangement with Overland magazine).

[4] Sweeney Reed quoted in Barry MacFadyen, ‘A Place in the Sun’,  The Sun, 24 May 1977.

[5] The meaning most often attributed to Stein’s line is the notion that when   all is said and done, a thing is what it is.

[6] Sweeney Reed in ‘A-RANGE of Moments: notes on the years 1960–66’, in Missing Forms: Concrete, Visual and Experimental Poems, Collective Effort,  Melbourne, 1981, not paginated.

Curated by Katarina Paseta and Linda Short,  BORN TO CONCRETE: THE HEIDE COLLECTION is at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melborne 16 April-25 September 2011.  A commentary on the show by Michael Farrell appears in Jacket2 here.

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