Portrait of the artist John Nixon
Portrait of the artist John Nixon

Robert Rooney

1950 - Portrait of the artist John Nixon 1979
  • digital print from an original 35mm slide
30.5 cm x 20 cm

‘These portraits,’ says Rooney, ‘were to be as perfect as I could make them. There were certain rules – to use available light, no matter how dim (long exposures and a hand-held camera), and no cropping.’

Over the years we’ve seen glimpses of Robert Rooney’s photographs of famous art people. Some, like the photograph of Howard Arkley taken in 1980, have been much reproduced and a small group were exhibited in Robert Rooney’s exhibition: From the Home Front at Monash University in 1990.

Not widely known, is that throughout the eighties Rooney quietly photographed a ‘who’s who’ of the Melbourne art world culminating in an absorbing series of seventy-five portaits of artists, curators, gallery owners, gallery directors ‘and other art world people’. Included are painters Peter Booth and Fred Williams, museum directors James Mollison and Ron Radford and star curator Paul Taylor of Popism fame.

Right from the start I didn’t pick my subjects because I thought they had interesting faces – the way some photographer might choose Lloyd Rees because his craggy face had “character”. Some portraits were done on the spur of the moment (Robert Hunter and Bruce Pollard, for example), while others were done during visits to galleries or the artist’s home or studio. They were people I came across rather than people I sought out in order to take their picture. I sometimes told them where to sit or stand, but usually they suggested a place or how they wanted to be seen.

For instance, it was Howard Arkley’s idea to sit in his reproduction Rietveld chair and Peter Booth’s to wear a dark overcoat and a devil mask and pose on his knees like a demon Toulouse-Lautrec.

Born in 1937, Robert Rooney has been Melbourne based during his long career as a painter, photographer, key proponent of Conceptual Art in Australia and critic for both The Age and The Australian newspapers.

He was one of the most important abstract painters in the landmark exhibition The Field at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968 and has exhibited widely across Australia.

Notable exhibitions include: Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art, National Gallery of Victoria, 2010; Play, National Gallery of Australia, 2012; Cubism and Australian Art, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2009; 1968, National Gallery of Australia, 1995; and The Readymade Boomerang: Certain Relations in 20th Century Art, The 8th Biennale of Sydney, 1990.

His work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Queensland Art Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

Courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

More by this artist

Robert Rooney 1950 - self portrait
  • didgital photographic print from an original 35mm slide
30.5 cm x 20 cm

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The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Custodians of Country and recognises their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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