A fiercely contested debate over abstract and figurative art erupted in Australia in the 1950s and ’60s. It arose largely in response to the Direction I exhibition held in Sydney in 1956, which featured non-figurative work by Robert Klippel, John Olsen, John Passmore, William Rose and Eric Smith.
Although formal abstraction had made its mark in Sydney as early as 1919, it was not until the 1953 show French painting today that the gestural forms of art informel painting were absorbed into the stylistic repertoire of Australian artists. Precursors to this lyrical form of abstraction included the celebrated painter Ian Fairweather, whose distillation of Aboriginal and Eastern art practices was particularly influential on younger artists. Among them was the painter and former Gallery deputy director Tony Tuckson, whose interest in Australian and Melanesian indigenous art had a profound impact on his work.
In 1960 the Sydney 9 group was founded in direct opposition to the Melbourne figurative artists known as the Antipodeans. The group held exhibitions in both cities in 1961 – provocatively arriving in Melbourne by helicopter – and recruited young-gun art critic Robert Hughes to write the catalogue. Eastern calligraphy, Zen Buddhism and action painting informed the eclectic works produced by the artists, among them the sculptor Clement Meadmore.