Ken Whisson

Car and Driver, 1974
oil on composition board
81.5 x 104.5 cm
signed ‘Whisson’ (upper left) and titled and dated ‘March 8TH 1974/ Painted/ K. Whisson/ 'Car And Driver' (on the reverse)

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19th & 20th Century Fine Australian and International Art, Deutscher~Menzies, Melbourne, 28 November 2001, Lot No. 73
Private collection, Melbourne
Private collection, Sydney

‘The difficulty of giving any simple verbal account of ‘how’ the forms and planes in a Whisson painting sit in relation to one another, underscores the complex mode of ‘seeing’ involved in their rendering. It is a kind of visualizing that loses everything in translation. It claims a level of compressed mental attention and simultaneity of awareness, such as poetry does over prose.’ (Bernice Murphy, ‘Ken Whisson Paintings, 1957 – 1985’, The Broken Hill Art Gallery, 1985, p. 14

'Car and Driver' is an important image painted by Whisson, whilst living in St. Kilda during the early-mid 1970s. Playing with images of cars, boats on the bay, the esplanade and the general hustle and bustle of this cosmopolitan suburb, images from this time have been drawn from memory regularly, reappearing in Whisson’s work over the decades.

Of course this is a recognisable landscape vignette – painted in Whisson’s own combination of linear and graphic abstraction – where the sense of foreground, middle and background is not clearly defined. Instead, single point and topographic perspectives coalesce and trailing yellow and black lines seem to represent a ‘stream of consciousness’ running throughout.

This is an image of ceaseless movement, in which we find motifs roving across the scene. Clouds, shapes and colours all describe the heightened experience of a sun-drenched drive. Just as one wouldn’t expect Whisson’s driver to have a static experience of motoring through a landscape, one can’t expect Whisson’s expression of the subject to be static.

  • Car and Driver

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Inherent in Whisson’s oeuvre is a highly attuned artistic intuition, a studied but by no means mechanical relationship to colour and form that favours naïveté as the most honest way an artist can reconstruct the world.

Born in Lilydate, Victoria, in 1927, Whisson studied under the tutelage of leading Melbourne expressionist painter Danilla Vassilieff from 1945-1946. Building upon the strong history of figurative expressionism in Australian art, Whisson's intuitive paintings incorporate symbols, images and abstract marks to bring life to his surreal and uncanny understanding of the physical and metaphysical world. His practice of depicting multiple perspectives of a scene concurrently and flattening a sense of perspective or horizon speak to Whisson’s engagement with sources as diverse as the Cubists to the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi.

Widely regarded as one of the most important Australian painters of his generation, Whisson lived in Perugia, Italy for over three decades from 1977, from where he continued to exhibit regularly in Australia. In 1987, Whisson was awarded the prestigious Visual Arts Board Emeritus Award for substantial contribution to Australian Art, and his work is held in collections around the world including the British Museum, London and the Chartwell Collection, New Zealand, in addition to all major Australian public museums. 

In 2012, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne jointly mounted a major retrospective of the artist's work, Ken Whisson: As If, which traced the evolution of Whisson's career over sixty years. The exhibition was accompanied by a monograph with essays by Glenn Barkley (MCA) and Lesley Harding (Heide Museum of Modern Art). 

Ken Whisson is represented by Niagara Galleries, Melbourne and exhibited with Watters Gallery, Sydney from 1980 until the gallery’s closure in 2018. Whisson currently lives and works in Sydney.