We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

Art Gallery of NSW unveils new 20th-century galleries

22 August 2022

Ken Unsworth Suspended stone circle II 1974—77 1988, 103 river stones, wire, 4000 cm diam, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1988 © Ken Unsworth

Ken Unsworth Suspended stone circle II 1974—77 1988, 103 river stones, wire, 4000 cm diam, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1988 © Ken Unsworth

The Art Gallery of New South Wales today opens its newly refurbished and completely re-installed 20th-century galleries which reveal the original architecture of the space and where, for the first time, audience favourites from the Australian and international collections are displayed together over two floors. The driving concept behind this new installation is that Australian artists are international artists and that their art is best appreciated in context with their international peers.

The revitalised displays also reveal the Art Gallery’s commitment to recognising the work of women artists, the importance of the arts of Asia and the Pacific to our understanding of global art and our place within it, and the centrality of Aboriginal art to our identity. These key tenets are amplified by works which speak to urgent social issues such as gender, race, migration, the value of labour, and the environment.

Highlights include: the Pukumani grave posts created by Tiwi artists in 1958 framed by a 1970-73 work by Tony Tuckson and a radical 2018 bark by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili; a 1977 painting by seminal Papunya artist Kaapa Tjampitjinpa in a critical conversation about abstraction with Michael Johnson, Gretchen Albrecht and others, while historical moving image works such as The story of the Kelly Gang help tell our national stories alongside modern interpretations. Brett Whiteley is shown with his British friend Francis Bacon, while French modern Pierre Bonnard makes a fascinating pairing with Sydney’s own Grace Cossington-Smith. Throughout is a global mix of works by Rosalie Gascoigne, Mona Hatoum, Tracey Moffatt, Frank Stella and Kamrooz Aram. A spectacular interactive work by Martin Creed encompassing scores of yellow balloons is staged at the Art Gallery for the first time while Nike Savvas’ dazzling installation Rally, a favourite when it was first displayed at the Art Gallery in 2014, fills the ceiling adjacent to the café.

The centrepiece of the collection rehang is the installation of Ken Unsworth’s Suspended stone circle II, once voted Sydney’s most popular artwork. This work – with 103 river stones each weighing around 15kg suspended by 309 wires – now hangs over two levels for the first time in the newly unveiled atrium.

The revitalisation of the Art Gallery’s much-loved existing building is part of the Sydney Modern Project transformation into an art museum campus, which includes the new building designed by SANAA that will open to the public on 3 December.

Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand said the reopening of the 20th-century galleries is a significant aspect of the Art Gallery’s expanded campus, offering visitors a seamless experience of art, architecture and landscape.

‘As the first step of the refurbishment of our existing building, we have restored beautiful, key architectural features from the 1972 extension designed by Andrew Andersons,’ he said. ‘These include the reinstatement of internal balconies overlooking the 8.5-metre-high atrium.

‘In a shift from traditional museum practice, we are showing Australian artists alongside international artists. Such a display allows us to not only explore the connections between local artists and global art movements, it asserts that Australian artists have always been international artists, and that many international artists continue to work in Australia in many different ways.’

Installation view of the 20th-century galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring (foreground) Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Bob Apuatimi, Jack Yarunga, Don Burakmadjua, Charlie Kwangdini and unknown artist Pukumani grave posts 1958; (walls, far left and far right) Tony Tuckson Five white lines (vertical), black ground 1970–73 and White lines (vertical) on ultramarine 1970–73; (wall, centre left) Noŋgirrŋa Marawili Baratjala – lightning and the rock 2018, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee

Installation view of the 20th-century galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring (foreground) Laurie Nelson Mungatopi, Bob Apuatimi, Jack Yarunga, Don Burakmadjua, Charlie Kwangdini and unknown artist Pukumani grave posts 1958; (walls, far left and far right) Tony Tuckson Five white lines (vertical), black ground 1970–73 and White lines (vertical) on ultramarine 1970–73; (wall, centre left) Noŋgirrŋa Marawili Baratjala – lightning and the rock 2018, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee

The 20th-century galleries highlight the connections between Australian artists and broader global developments over some of the most tumultuous, exciting and innovative decades in art and human history: the ground-level galleries give special emphasis to the development of modernism in Australia, while the galleries on lower level 1 tell a broader, more international story, but through a local lens, proposing 'the world seen from Sydney'. Together, they demonstrate how the art of the past continues to resonate in our present. Some of the thought-provoking groupings include Colour utopias, Cubism, Women make Modernism, Anxious bodies and Unreal cities, Pop politics, Art and activism.

The 20th-century galleries are part of the broader transformation of the historic building which includes beautifully refurbished Grand Courts and the Art Gallery’s collection of Asian art in the Asian Lantern galleries.

Installation view of the 20th-century galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee

Installation view of the 20th-century galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, photo © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Christopher Snee