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Rick Amor: 21 Portraits

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 24 November 2014

Self portrait, 2005 by Rick Amor
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Self portrait, 2005 by Rick Amor

Sitting in his regular lunch spot in Fitzroy, Rick Amor smiles at something I read out from the Guardian – a quotation from a painter who says ‘I’m like a bank worker. I come to the studio five days a week and do my job. I pay attention to detail and try not to make mistakes.’ He nods, and adds ‘I just paint what I want. If people buy it, that’s fine. If not, well ... ’ and shrugs – as he’s now, after more than 30 years’ exhibitions and sales, in a position to do. Amor seems to know everyone without ever having been part of a scene. In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Rooney managed to take portraits of 75 Melbourne arts identities without including him. He hasn’t been profiled in slick supplements of the weekend papers; indeed, as he was ‘emerging’, sexy and wild, there was no Good Weekend or Financial Review Magazine. In 1999 he made the front page of the Age, but at least until he was interviewed for Dumbo Feather in 2012, he wasn’t a household name. Perhaps journalists hesitated because his paintings are sullen; masculine in colour and mood; threatening. He has a dark countenance, a noble mien, and in the self-portraits he makes most years, he alternates between a frown and a scowl. Yet since the mid-1980s he’s made an increasingly comfortable living out of making the sombre and discomfiting art he feels happiest making. Without ever having won the Archibald, he’s gained a reputation as the most credible of Australian portraitists; the one with the best schooling and the most experience; the one who fusses least. In person, he’s affable. He’s endowed several art prizes. The subject of several monographs himself, he has hundreds of books on art that he knows inside out, and pulls down excitedly from his shelves. He reads a lot: all kinds of things.

Rick Amor, born in 1948, spent his early childhood in the Melbourne beachside area of Long Island, in Frankston. His father was a primary school teacher; the family was bohemian. When Rick was twelve, and the only child at home, his mother died. As he entered his teens he showed a strong talent for art, and he completed a Certificate of Art course before enrolling at the Melbourne’s National Gallery School, then in Swanston Street near the old Museum and State Library. Taught by John Brack from 1966 to 1968, he won the NGV Gallery Society Drawing Prize and the Travelling Scholarship, which, while providing insufficient funds for actual travel, allowed him to paint full-time for six months. In 1970 he married Tina Schifferle, with whom he played in a jug band; they had a son, Lliam, and Amor worked briefly as a surveyor’s assistant, painting by night in their rented flat above a shop in Balwyn.

Through John Brack, Amor met the influential Melbourne art dealer Joseph Brown, who took an interest in the young painter’s work. It was through his intervention that Amor and his family stayed briefly at Dunmoochin, at Cottles Bridge near the artists’ hub of Eltham. Dunmoochin was the hand-made home of the painter Clifton Pugh, who had been a judge of the National Gallery Society Drawing Prize awarded to Amor. He and Amor met in September 1972 at the opening of Joseph Brown’s Contemporary Australian Portraits, in which both artists were represented. Brown, keen for his promising new artist to live somewhere conducive to creation, facilitated their accommodation there over December 1972, and, soon after, at a cottage attached to Joan and Daryl Lindsay’s home Mulberry Hill, at Baxter on the Mornington Peninsula. Sir Daryl Lindsay had been director of the National Gallery of Victoria for fifteen years, and was a painter; his wife Joan, author of Picnic at Hanging Rock, was an artist too. Amor was to remain at Baxter until 1984, working on paintings in between carrying out odd jobs around the property.

The beginning of 1974 brought the Amors a daughter, Zoe, and Rick Amor’s first solo exhibition. Portraits in that show attracted conflicting criticism. Oddly enough – because from a historical viewpoint, some excellent portraits were being produced – it was a time when portraiture seemed a moribund genre. So it was that Patrick McCaughey admitted that all painters were at a loss when it came to the commissioned portrait; but he was still dismayed by Amor’s ‘slick and commercial’ style. Alan McCulloch, by contrast, judged him ‘the only star so far to emerge from the era of John Brack’s tutelage’. A year after the solo show Joseph Brown suggested that he seek another dealer, and finding himself without financial support, he began illustrating books and producing propaganda for the unionised Left.

Gough Whitlam’s dismissal in November 1975 – just after Amor had been awarded an Arts Council grant – ignited the artist’s political engagement. He joined the Frankston branch of the ALP, and from 1975 to 1983, working for the Labor Star and Tribune, he produced a spate of cartoons attacking the Fraser government. In 1976, with support from the secretary of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, Norm Gallagher, he made a series of drawings of labourers on a Melbourne shopping mall development. Over the next few years, supported by George Seelaf, the Victorian Trades Hall Council arts officer, he made portfolios of pictures depicting the construction of the West Gate Bridge and slaughtermen at work. The Miscellaneous Workers’ Union commissioned him to make a mural for its Capel Street headquarters; in 1978 he held a large exhibition at the Trades Hall Gallery; and in 1980 he became the first artist-in-residence at the Victorian Trades Hall Council. At the same time, he was illustrating books. A series for hesitant readers required him to work in a comic format. He drew break-out boxes in science textbooks. He drew scenes for Joan Lindsay’s Syd Sixpence and made linocuts of bush characters for Alan Marshall’s These are my people. With two young children, too, he had little time to paint – his portrait of Joan, hung in the Archibald Prize of 1976 (the year of Brett Whiteley’s victory) and acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 1979, is one of few paintings in public collections from this period.

By the beginning of the 1980s, Amor was unravelling. His wife and children left Mulberry Hill in 1982. Further proof that it’s not just a romantic fancy that personal sadness can catalyse a productive turning point in an artist’s work – put it on the pile of examples worldwide, throughout history – from 1982 comes Amor’s painting Nightmare, a man, arms outflung, at night, on a collapsing jetty, waves swirling and sucking around its pillars. The sea, derelict, skeletal structures and solitary figures would henceforth recur in his paintings and prints; they’re all there in Setting moon 2002–2013, used on the back cover of the catalogue for his show at Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, in November 2014. In many of his works since then, blooming from seeds of memory or dreams, the figure is effaced, occluded, glimpsed, running away. It’s a shock, in this context, to consider the many self-portraits in which he holds his own gaze – and ours – still and grave.

Nightmare, 1984 by Rick Amor
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Nightmare, 1984 by Rick Amor

In 1981 Amor met Andrew Southall, and the pair took to painting together on the Peninsula. Southall was self-taught, and the rigorously-trained Amor admired his daring and creative interpretation of whatever he was looking at, intent on his task as he juggled colour, composition and subject at speed. Although they had met at the fashionable Realities gallery in Toorak, they were both dismissive of the pretensions of the art scene, both bearded, and both keen to break from their plein air activity at the pub. Southall was back and forth between Australia and England in the 1980s, exhibiting periodically while stumbling through the life of remarkable dissipation chronicled in his book But – A journey into addiction. It’s been decades, now, since either Amor or Southall was affected by alcohol. These days, Southall paints mostly abstracts.

Andrew Southall, 1992 by Rick Amor
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Andrew Southall, 1992 by Rick Amor

Andrew Southall introduced Amor to Phil Davey, a physical education teacher who was just about to turn his hand to art full-time, and around 1993 Amor and Davey settled into an informal routine of painting outdoors every Friday morning. By 1996 the pair had been joined by several other painters, including Michael Kelly, an art teacher a few years younger than the others, who held his first solo exhibitions in Melbourne in the early 1990s. Amor describes Kelly’s works as ‘spiritual landscapes, with great feeling’. Amor’s former Sydney gallerist, Tony Palmer, commented that Amor had invested Kelly with a Jacobean air in his print of 1998; he looks equally like an outlaw, a wanted man. Kelly’s work was central to the exhibition Dunmoochin – A Tribute: Clifton Pugh and Michael Kelly, held in the former artists’ ‘colony’ of Montsalvat, near Eltham, in 2001. In 2003 the Friday Group marked its tenth anniversary with the touring exhibition 500 Fridays, but when Kelly left to live in Sydney, the group disbanded. Now, Kelly concentrates on plein air painting and making books available to homeless people. Amor still loves to paint outdoors, relishing the unpredictability of situations and outcomes and the paraphernalia of the plein-air painter: the French box, the tiny Seurat-sized cedar panels or substantial Van Gogh-sized canvases, the faint and fugitive smell of the oil paint on the breeze.

Andrew Southall, 1995 by Rick Amor
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Andrew Southall, 1995 by Rick Amor

Nightmare was one of the works in Amor’s first show at Niagara Galleries in Punt Road, Richmond, in August 1983. Fittingly, it was purchased by Andrew Southall. The exhibition’s ‘firm portraits and fervent smaller works’ drew brief, positive notices and brought Amor some income. He kept working. In early 1985 he went to London with Clifton Pugh, whose partner Adriane Strampp curated an exhibition of the work of Pugh, Amor, Southall and David Rankin at the Crane Kalman Gallery on Brompton Road. Halfway through that year Amor returned to live at Pugh’s property at Cottles Bridge. Over some eight years there, settling into his relationship with Meg Williams – his partner, henceforth, for life – he became increasingly absorbed in the links between art, poetry and literature. Since then, he’s made personal and emotionally charged works, often including a ‘running man’, and later a haunting ‘solitary watcher’, the latter term coined by his friend, the art critic and poet Gary Catalano.

Michael Kelly, 1998 by Rick Amor
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Michael Kelly, 1998 by Rick Amor

In 1978 Amor had met Stephen Murray-Smith and become involved in the long-running Australian quarterly magazine Overland, a forum for challenging essays and dialogue on contemporary Australian politics and culture as well as poems, short stories and art. He was to serve on the board of Overland for some twenty years, and become a regular contributor of illustrations. Their common interest in the magazine and its concerns strengthened ties between Amor and Catalano, a man his own age, described by Amor as ‘a skinny angry Irish Sicilian’. Catalano had written on art for Art and Australia and the Melbourne Age before his first book of poetry appeared in 1978. Gradually abandoning criticism during the 1980s, he published four volumes of verse between 1991 and 1998. Catalano’s imagination was stirred by paintings Amor made of the Long Island of his childhood, such as Town by the sea ; his prose poem ‘Evening’, first published in a 1992 issue of Overland, was dedicated to Amor and Meg Williams. As the sun pulls a dark blue blanket over its head, a man on a verandah sees a dog on the footpath, looking at a doorway:

Gary Catalano, 1994 by Rick Amor
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Gary Catalano, 1994 by Rick Amor

The scene across the bay was equally pedestrian. As night had fallen by now, the headlands had nudged their pillows closer to the sea and were preparing to drift off to sleep. Should I mention the rhythmic music of the waves? Or should I turn once more to that lonely dog, which was still sitting beside the ‘No Parking’ sign and had not yet begun to howl?

Amor’s woodcut of Catalano was used on the cover of Gary Catalano: Selected Poems 1973–1992, published by the University of Queensland Press in 1993. In the last decade of his life, during which he lived at Cottles Bridge, Catalano worked on an absorbing biography of Amor, The Solitary Watcher: Rick Amor and his Art, published in 2001. Catalano wrote

In their oblique yet suggestive way, Amor’s voids and closed doors evoke the steady contraction and diminution of the public world that has accompanied the triumph of economic rationalism. If Amor’s solitary watchers are witnesses to this process, they are also likely to be its victims. When the eclipse of the public realm is complete, these figures will find themselves in a world offering them no escape from their own isolation and subjectivity. No matter where or how searchingly they may look, they will never encounter a gaze that meets or balances their own.

In Amor’s austere portrait of him from 1994, Catalano looks warily at something to the right of the viewer. A picture of a poet with small hands, drawing into himself, it’s rendered gently, the paint meagre, the colours minimal. Around his throat Catalano wears something that invites referral to the ‘snowy folds of his cravat’; his slight body pokes angles in his big black clothes; the gleam on the heel of his shoe is an elegant detail. Catalano died at the end of 2001, aged fifty-five. Robin Wallace-Crabbe wrote his obituary, which indicates why Amor was attracted to him: ‘The art world will come to miss one of the few critics psychologically capable of putting the appearance of works of art first. Generally weary of theory, particularly when and if the theory attaching to a particular work of art obscured the work itself, Gary trained himself to read the surface of paintings, drawings, prints, whatever . . . Gary Catalano was not formally trained to understand works of art, but had made himself a master by looking, reading, thinking, being.’

Paul Boston, 1995 by Rick Amor
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Paul Boston, 1995 by Rick Amor

Through Catalano, in the 1980s, Amor met Paul Boston, who was to become a close friend. Although he lives nearby, and he’s shown with Niagara for many years, Boston was never part of Amor’s Friday painting group, because he paints contemplative semi-abstract works. Amor has several of his works and remarks that they ‘never die on the wall’. He describes Boston as an artist who’s always trying things; as an artist who thinks very deeply and expects other artists to do so. A committed Zen Buddhist, he’s used to keeping still, and emanates calm. Paul Boston 1995, tranquil, ruminative and restrained, attests to the common sense of Amor’s approach to portraiture. ‘You don’t say to a person ‘hold still while I capture your very soul’, he says. Getting a good likeness is paramount; if you manage that, he believes, something of a person’s distinctive personality will probably come through. Amor was considered unlucky not to have won the Archibald with this picture in 1996; probably, some said, its quiet seriousness militated against it.

Paul Boston, 2012 by Rick Amor
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Paul Boston, 2012 by Rick Amor

In the small full-length portrait of Boston, painted seventeen years later, Amor alludes to a portrait of similar size that William Nicholson painted of Max Beerbohm in 1905. The tape mark on the studio floor is simply a practical device to remind Boston of where to stand over several sessions. However, its inclusion in the finished portrait distinguishes the work from comparable examples by Nicholson, or Whistler or Tom Roberts. The approach those artists took resulted in their seeming to have captured their sitters casually, gesturally, in their natural milieu: the theatre, the drawing room, the street. The tape in Amor’s portrait of Boston tells the viewer that this is a painting of a man having his portrait painted in a studio. While it’s as painterly as Nicholson’s original, Amor’s portrait – which is a gesture of friendship that betokens shared involvement in the creation of art – is postmodern in its declaration of process. Jan Senbergs 2010, a work without any quirk, is another example of a series of portraits he’s made of artist friends whose process he respects. In 2007 both men were in Venice, undertaking printmaking residencies. Senbergs, master of fantastically intricate, messy drawings, gave one to Amor; in return, Amor painted a portrait of him, the size of the small portrait of Boston. As in the case of the portrait of Gary Catalano, the finished picture was smaller than the preparatory drawing, shown here.

It was through his long friendship with Clifton Pugh, more than twenty years his senior, that Amor came to make the drawing of the painter and ceramic artist John Perceval. Perceval was associated early on with the Angry Penguins, a group of rebellious, largely self-taught Australian artists including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. The group took its name from the Adelaide-based journal of the same name, edited by Max Harris. By the time the journal drowned in the wash of the Ern Malley hoax in 1946, Perceval had moved on to Victoria, where he lived and worked as a potter and sculptor with the Boyd family. With Boyd, Pugh, Brack and others, Perceval signed the ‘Antipodean Manifesto’ of 1959, decrying the ‘bland and pretentious mysteries’ of abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction and related genres. In 1965 he took up the first Creative Arts Fellowship at the Australian National University, later awarded to both Nolan and Boyd. During this period Perceval was hospitalized for alcoholism; he spent the years from 1977 to 1986 in a psychiatric institution, floored by schizophrenia, but emerged to paint again in the last years of his life. Throughout his sad and difficult years Pugh would take Perceval out on day leave to draw and paint. Amor sometimes went with them, and drew Perceval a few times while he was sitting to Pugh for the Archibald Prize of 1985. He worked up a number of his drawings of Perceval in different media and showed an oil portrait in his Niagara show in 1985; Ronald Millar, whose own portrait had been painted by Brack, wrote that the Perceval picture showed Amor’s concern with ‘different kinds of solitudes, degrees of isolation’.

The portrait of Perceval was not the only painting of Pugh’s hung in the Archibald of 1985–6; there was a second, of historian Manning Clark. In 1960 Clark became first Professor of Australian History at the Australian National University. In the early 1970s, when his friend Arthur Boyd held the ANU Creative Fellowship, Boyd painted the historian with his black dog Tuppence. Amor knew Clark slightly through his wife’s father, the historian Mick Williams, who worked in the history department at ANU for twenty years. In 1983, as Clark was coming to the close of his controversial six-volume History of Australia, Amor took the opportunity to draw him as Pugh worked on his portrait for the Archibald.

John Perceval, 1985 by Rick Amor
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Manning Clark, 1985 by Rick Amor
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Amor won the National Australia Bank Art Prize in 1988, finally attaining some real financial security. The following year he began making sculptures, an example of which is the menacing, yet sick – and lonely-looking bronze dog that stands in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Australia. Over the course of the next few years he was awarded several art residencies and worked in Barcelona, New York and London. In 1993 he and Williams bought their house in Alphington; but before they moved in, they altered and extended it. Their architect was Peter Corrigan, who knew Amor’s work from exhibitions at Niagara and offered to undertake the project in exchange for a painting – which was The anteroom, one of several silent, portentous works in which Amor referred to architectural elements of the distinctive building at 333 Collins Street. At the same time, between 1990 and 1995, Peter Corrigan was making radical changes to the Melbourne streetscape with his joyous and dazzling extension to Building 8 of RMIT on Swanston Street. He made an exuberant striped extension to Niagara Galleries in 2001. Corrigan’s is an expansive personality; assured of his own intelligence, he’s used to dominating a room. His intense and combative personality is evoked in the glint of the eye and the firm set of the mouth in Amor’s portrait of him from 2004, which was painted out of friendship. Years later, in 2013, came a tremendous retrospective of Corrigan’s life and work, Peter Corrigan: Cities of Hope. The exhibition comprised a plethora of Corrigan’s own plans and drawings, photographs, film, stage sets, costumes and books and artworks from his personal collection. The idea behind the inclusion of his artworks was that they weren’t simply objects he lived with, decorating his built environment, but interpretations of the world that had informed and enriched Corrigan’s vision and practice. Amor was gratified to see a whole wall of his own paintings, watercolours, prints and drawings hanging.

In 1999, with more than twenty solo commercial exhibitions and several regional survey shows on his resumé, Amor was offered the opportunity to travel to East Timor as Australia’s first official war artist since Vietnam. When he met General Cosgrove, Commander of INTERFET, Amor was standing with his minder on a raised storm drain; in their initial conversation, looking down, he unthinkingly called him Peter. Cosgrove’s officers were surprised; but on quick reflection, Amor decided that as he wasn’t in the army, he’d call the man what he liked. His paintings of the horrible desolation of Dili – not precise records, but the distilled essence of how it felt to be there – were exhibited at the Australian War Memorial in 2000, and some years later he was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to compose a portrait of Cosgrove that combined images he’d made and recalled, in the manner of his customary way of working on landscapes, seascapes and streetscapes. Art historian Sam Bowker evokes the thinking, and the result:

General Cosgrove, Dili, East Timor 1999, 2006 by Rick Amor
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General Cosgrove, Dili, East Timor 1999, 2006 by Rick Amor

Various source images from the period have been reconstructed into an alien and oppressive landscape which converges upon Cosgrove. He stands at the front of a ‘stage’, striding towards the audience, while his soldiers – including his bodyguard, Corporal Kirsty Heam – occupy aloof, yet alert, secondary stances. The ruins surrounding Cosgrove collectively form a theatrical ‘set’, reiterating destruction and abandonment, which contrasts with Cosgrove’s expression of contemplative decision-making and concern. The two figures far in the background are, in fact, Amor and his East Timor guide, Private Cameron Simpson of the Army History Unit.

Just as the portrait of Shane Maloney combines Amor’s portraiture with his body of views of the stained, weedy backs of buildings and undersides of bridges, the portrait of Cosgrove fuses his portraiture with his grim, lowering landscapes. We seem to encounter Cosgrove in a dream in which we’re stranded in a blasted, decimated place; Maloney in one in which we’re lost down near Spencer Street with no access to a path leading back to somewhere that makes sense. Neither man seems to be going to speak. Amor recounts that he envisaged a much larger canvas for this picture of Cosgrove – the size of the portrait of Maloney – but negotiations with the Gallery resulted, for various reasons, in a project of lesser scale. So it was that he laboured over what he describes as a ‘miniature’, finding it very hard work, taking the liberty of removing Cosgrove’s hat so that his small face could be discerned. He still thinks of the painting as a study for a portrait of Cosgrove.

The crime writer Shane Maloney, 2004 by Rick Amor
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The crime writer Shane Maloney, 2004 by Rick Amor

The diminutive Study for The painter 1999 is the smaller of two studies that were never resolved in a large finished work, either. Showing Amor in a composed studio set, with palette, easels and materials trolley, it’s informed by the work of the popular French painter Bernard Buffet, ignored by French art historians since the 1950s and derided by the arty set as a churner-out of kitsch and a ‘faiseur’. The ‘stylistic complicity’ between the art of Buffet and Brack has been comprehensively examined (by Sasha Grishin, and by Natalie Adamson in May 2014); Brack overtook him, quite quickly, but the many superficial similarities are startling. The Frenchman made way too many pictures of doleful clowns and owls, but it’s characteristic of Amor, as contemptuous as he is of fashionable opinion, to declare his influence in this small work. Looking back and forth between Study for The painter and a web reproduction of Buffet’s La passion du Christ 1951, Amor’s three easels seem more and more cruciform; the curves of the palette are a little reminiscent of the those of the horns and violin that hang on the wall in Paravent: Les instruments de musique 1961. The viewer is set a different task with the Self portrait on the New York subway 2004, in which she might feel, at first, as if she’s looking into the grimy train and seeing the artist looking out. In fact, the viewer of the painting is sitting next to the artist, as it were; invisible; looking, as he is, at his reflection in the window. Although it’s tempting to ask the artist if the scratched letters on the glass mean anything, equally attractive is the idea of letting the question pass. There’s nothing to ask, either, about Self portrait with a grey jumper (a month out of hospital after a bone marrow transplant) 2005. The title suffices. That said, while Amor was in hospital, the McClelland Gallery+Sculpture Park held a major exhibition of his painting and sculpture.

Study for The painter, 1999 by Rick Amor
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Study for The painter, 1999 by Rick Amor

While Rick Amor: Official War Artist in East Timor was on display at the Australian War Memorial in the autumn of 2000, Amor and Williams were abroad; he’d been awarded the VACB London studio for three months. In Melbourne, when he returned, he saw the writer Dorothy Porter speaking on television. Intrigued that she didn’t smile, he made a drawing of her as he sat and watched her talk; his interest in her increased when he read her verse novel The Monkey’s Mask. She and her partner, the writer Andrea Goldsmith, lived with art, and Rick Amor’s work was not unfamiliar to Goldsmith, at least, as her mother had a print of the woodcut of Manning Clark that Amor made for Overland in 1990. In 2001, when Porter was signing volumes of her poetry at Readings, she and Amor were introduced and he asked if she’d like to sit to him. As Goldsmith puts it, ‘he got hold of her work and then he got hold of her face’. Although Goldsmith, in particular, felt that Amor had made Porter look older and less vivacious than she was, the women were delighted by the way the tininess of the painting worked against the hardness of it; the fact that to see it, people had to come in close to the forbidding face. Some years after Porter’s death, from complications arising from breast cancer in 2008, Goldsmith felt that it was time to let the portrait go. Austere, formal and direct, it’s a work that pleases the artist.

Dorothy Porter, 2001-02 by Rick Amor
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Dorothy Porter, 2001-02 by Rick Amor

In 2002, in which year the Benalla Art Gallery mounted an exhibition of Amor’s sculptures and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery a show of his seascapes, Amor was commissioned to paint the Nobel prize-winning microbiologist Peter Doherty for the National Portrait Gallery. The result, oddly enough, was a thrilling portrait of a man in blue shirt and chinos. Although both men live in Melbourne, the colours, as it happens, are those of the Canberra landscape. Against a backdrop of dry bone, utterly unadorned, Doherty sits on a stool, confrontingly close to the picture plane; were he real, we’d be prevented, by his knees, from standing so near to his body. A strong attraction of portraiture is that it enables us to stare, unabashed, into the face of another person – which, as primates, we’re conditioned against as we emerge from childhood. We tell our children that it’s rude, shrinking from explaining that it’s an invitation to fight or copulate. In real life, our own insecurities further discourage us from looking into the real eyes of a person as brilliant as Doherty. As we scrutinise this portrait, meeting the subject’s shrewd gaze on the level, taking in the silky colourlessness of the hair, the slightly coarse texture of the shirt, we feel the curiosity and resolve of the scientist; but we also sense the determination of both artist and sitter to get the job done well, without prevarication. They’re both vitally present, and determinedly engaged; it seems they both have other work in progress.

Professor Peter Doherty, 2001 by Rick Amor
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Professor Peter Doherty, 2001 by Rick Amor

Amor’s portrait of Peter Doherty led very directly to the portrait of David Malouf he painted for the National Portrait Gallery ten years later. By that time, there was another big book about the artist and his work, Rick Amor by the art historian and administrator Gavin Fry, and a substantial catalogue, its contributors including Peter Corrigan, to mark the exhibition Rick Amor: A Single Mind at Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2008. David Malouf had long been a proposed subject for a portrait commission, and was invited to come and look at the contemporary works in the Gallery. As he walked around, he was struck by the picture of Doherty. Accordingly, Amor was chosen to paint Malouf – who had been painted by Jeffrey Smart when they both lived in Tuscany in the 1980s. Malouf is now based in Sydney, and the sittings for the portrait took place over five days in a hot, bare studio provided by the National Art School, which was closed for the summer break. It was a pleasurable process; daily, they broke for coffee nearby. Amor aimed first, as usual, to produce a good likeness, and secondly, in a ‘world full of enormous heads’ at an understated, quiet picture of the gentle man of intellect.

David Malouf, 2012 by Rick Amor
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David Malouf, 2012 by Rick Amor

Amor and Williams were in Italy in 2003, living at Jeffrey Smart’s house in Tuscany and visiting Orvieto, Urbino and Rome. That year, Amor and Niagara Galleries celebrated twenty years’ association. In 2013, the festivities were reprised to mark the pearl anniversary of the relationship. Some of the 2013 works depicted New York, where he and Meg Williams have often spent time (the following year, his Niagara show comprised 22 ravishing gouaches and watercolours of the city). There was, as always, an unsparing self portrait, for which he donned a black scarf. There was a picture of an armchair, African sculpture and Brack-like anglepoise lamp through a doorway, with the artist reflected in a smoky sliver of mirror. There was a picture called The window, apparently painted from inside, of a man looking into an empty house; the man peering in, shiny-pated, white-bearded, shielding his eyes to see, is Rick Amor. It’s the same room as the room in The Room (Memory), painted just after he and Meg moved into Alphington in 1994; as if Amor, always ruminating on the passage of time, isn’t only painting dreams he’s had about the rooms he’s inhabited and the streets he’s haunted, but painting dreams he’s had about his own paintings, now. Yet while Amor looks back – for subject matter or motif, or for techniques, palettes and compositional devices of past artists he admires – his paintings move forward, and he’s not averse to a discreet new element. In 2014 his work was inserted amongst that of conceptual artists, new media artists, body artists, soundscape artists and choreographers in Melbourne Now. His was a large painting of a suited figure with a briefcase, in a space between two grey buildings. On a blank wall, above a steel exit door, is a surveillance camera. A spurt of unreadable graffiti flames in the lower left quarter. Opposite, further back, the lone man has a mobile phone against his ear.

Mobile call, 2012 by Rick Amor
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Mobile call, 2012 by Rick Amor