Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Redrawn by Darian Zam from photo of John Olsen by Dave Swift.

My family moved to East Sydney in about 1935, to Bondi. I probably started being involved in the Kings Cross area in around 1955, 1956, and there were no galleries to speak of at the time. And let it be clear that there were very few galleries for us to exhibit in. The few galleries were concentrated in the CBD area. Macquarie Galleries (1925-present - showing Gleeson, Smart, Bunny, Coburn, Drysdale, Fairweather, Friend amongst others was the principal gallery, but was small at the time compared to today. David Jones Gallery was bigger, and another that was centred around what I'll call "The Gumtree School" (a disdainful nickname, 'The Gumtree School,' was used to describe most domestic landscapists).

It's for hard people these days to realise how small a society the Art world was back then. We didn't really go to any of the nightclubs because we didn't have money! (laughs) Nor were we really that interested, art was what we were passionate about!

We would go to gallery openings in the evening though, all the ladies with big hats on, you know - it was a (high) society situation. Everyone drank appallingly bad sherry and we'd be there and..,get half smashed and go down to Dixon Street and have Chinese! (laughs). Very cheap, everything was very cheap in those days. That's the way it was.

The Kings Cross area for many years from the 30s, the 40s, was like the bohemian centre of Sydney. If things happened there - there was a broader impact throughout culture. It was the only area that people had access to cosmopolitan coffee shops and cheaper restaurants. It was a case of a much more open society in those days. And also the rooms were cheap!

As far as the more notorious people... Rosaleen Norton was a distant figure, but very notorious with her witchcraft (laughs). Dulcie Deamer I did not know but of course she was a well known figure in The Cross. Frank "Bumper" Farrell, well I was aware of him. I was never arrested! (laughs).

I got a scholarship to go overseas in 1956, and then I came back, spending time living in the Kings Cross area from 1960. So I can only contribute so much when it comes to memories specifically of Kings Cross. Then after that we (I presume by "we" that John indicates the whole family) went to at Watson's Bay, East Sydney.

Spanish Encounter, 1960. (Collection of AGNSW).

I lived in 109 Victoria Street from 1960-1965. I had the attic and I painted an enormous picture named "Spanish Encounter" inspired by the travelling I'd just done, the memory where I'd lived. It is now in the AGNSW collection, you'll find it there. I painted it in three pieces on masonite, I did it like that because I had to get it up there somehow because it wouldn't fit up the tiny staircase! No way! (laughs)

Willliam Rose lived in the same building, and Clement Meadmore lived towards William Street, and Peter Upwood whose work is also in the AGNSW collection, was also in William Street ...also Stanislaus Rapotec. John Passmore and Drysdale were down on the corner of Macleay and Challis Avenue (Bernard Smith described them as 'the Victoria Street Group' of Sydney abstract expressionists). I painted a picture from the attic window named "The People Who Live in Victoria Street".

The People Who Live in Victoria Street, 1960. (Collection of AGNSW).

It was a real community, we were very close, hung out, ate together, went to pubs and restaurants in Victoria St. Chewed the fat. The Piccadilly was one place, and there was a German Restaurant diagonally, which I can't remember the name. "Sydney 9" was an exhibition we were all in that was held in Melbourne. It was a lively time.

So Victoria Street, which ran all the way through was the heart of the Cross at that time, as far as Visual Arts, and stretched from one end to the other with Plane Trees - it was very beautiful. Macleay St, you sort of have to give it it's own part (of significance) as well, as far as (the) writing (community), as you got further down to that area.

From 1960 to 1965 it was suddenly burgeoning, oh yes - very much. There was a lot of activity everywhere, with Rudy Komon in Paddington (showing Gleeson, Nolan, Klippel, Fred Williams and others) and Kym Bonython (Dr Hugh Reskymer (Kym) Bonython 1920-) opening big galleries. As well as many other smaller galleries which I can't remember the names of. I guess it really happened for the rest of the nation as well and everything opened up for us.

But before that things were really limited for artists in those days as I said, it didn't seem like there was a great future except for Dobell, Drysdale and Nolan...and then suddenly things were really happening from thereon.

The Hungry Horse was a restaurant on the corner of William Street and Elizabeth Street in Paddington, opposite The Windsor Castle Hotel. Now Lucio's. Yes, they were very Jolly times! (laughs) Kym Bonython was involved, he leased the upper level and Betty O'Neil was manager of the gallery. There's that well known image - Robert Hughes, Klippel, John Coburn, myself and a number of the others standing out there. If that balcony had collapsed that would have been the end of the Sydney renaissance! (laughs) That's why that photo of us is so iconic! (laughs). Madeleine Thurston ran the restaurant. People tend to think that it was one entity but it is important to get it right, make sure the referential point is correct, because it just gets compounded. There was no real connection between that and the gallery.

The Hungry Horse was a brief period really, it was a couple of the years. Kym Bonython had big ambitions and ideas! He built a magnificent space for the next gallery (1966 -1976, 52 Victoria Street, Paddington. A sister Bonython gallery operated in Adelaide from 1961 to 1983).

McElhone Steps, 1964. (Collection of AGNSW).

By 1963 Brett Whitely was back in Australia and had an enormous show there. I knew Brett very well.

Terry Clune Gallery was opened about 1960 (it actually opened 1957). That was a good gallery. There were important shows there for the time. And worth looking into as far as the variety of artists. As far as I recall the Clunes were renting space to artists, but perhaps only Drysdale and Passmore were lodging. I could be wrong on that. Frank Clune was a writer. Really the principal figures of the gallery was his wife Thelma, and Terry who was their son, after which the gallery was named. I came back from Spain and the gallery looked nice, it was a nice space and so I just went in, which is how I met them, I didn't know them before that. And I liked them. The exhibition I had was big and absolutely crowded, and people were spilling out on to the street. Sydney had decided that it was OK, it's not very profound, but Sydney has excitement. Quite different from Melbourne people and when Sydney is enthusiastic - my word, they remain so (laughs). Oh yeah, it's a mark approval alright. What Sydney likes it loves. And when they don't like... It's a great people place for young people - its fabulous. They all talk at the top of their heads, there's spontaneous juice about it! Yes, spontaneous juice! That's poetry just for you! (laughs).

I went back to Spain in 1965 and when I returned we had a house near Victoria Barracks in Paddington, very small. I had one more show at Terry Clune and then that's when we moved out to live in Watsons Bay.

I had no involvement in The Yellow House because I was away at the time. But that was quite an important thing, I'm uncertain about the group of people (involved). Martin Sharp was there of course, yes a brilliant cartoonist and a very clever young man. Well, not so young now, but then...(laughs) and then I knew all of all those other people involved. Greg Weight, a brilliant photographer, hugely talented - and a nice man too. They had a show there called "Muffled Drums" as I remember. It didn't last long but that's how it seems to go.

I'm 83 in February. well, I'm astonished, it a gift that's been given to me. It can be called "genes" but at the end it's a gift. Art is my obsession - I'm still working and doing the things I love to do!

Transcribed from a phone interview on 11 January 2011. Thanks to John Olsen, Louise Olsen, Art Gallery of NSW Collection, Dave Swift and Tim Olsen Gallery.

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