NEVER, 1989 – 90

Important Australian and International Fine Art
20 September 2017


(1920 – 1999)
NEVER, 1989 – 90

oil on canvas

106.0 x 182.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: John Brack 89/90

$800,000 – 1,200,000
Sold for $1,232,200 (inc. BP) in Auction 51 - 20 September 2017, Sydney

Private collection, Melbourne


A Question of Balance: John Brack 1974 – 1994, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1 April – 28 May 2000
Blue Chip XIII, Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, 8 March – 2 April 2011, cat. 1 (label attached verso)


Millar, R., 'Brack deals stunning cards', Herald, Melbourne, 24 October 1989 (illus.)
Grishin, S., The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol. II, cat. o311, p. 40, p. 187 (illus.)
Gott, T., A Question of Balance: John Brack 1974 – 1994, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2000, p. 33 (illus.)

Catalogue text

John Brack’s work of the 1950s and 60s retains an unrivalled and ongoing popularity. One of the reasons for this is the familiarity of his subject matter; even if we didn’t live through these years, his depictions of Collins Street, the six o’clock swill, new suburban developments and Edna Everage are a recognisable part of our recent heritage. Paintings including The bar, 1954, Collins St, 5p.m., 1955 (both National Gallery of Victoria), and the ballroom dancing series of the late 1960s, have developed an iconic status and Brack is renowned as the artist who most succinctly captured the character of twentieth century Australian life.

Brack’s imagery was often interpreted as ironic satire and social commentary, however his primary motivation was quite different:

‘What I paint most is what interests me most, that is, people; the Human Condition … A large part of the motive … is the desire to understand, and if possible, to illuminate … My material is what lies nearest to hand, the people and the things I know best. It has never been my object to record Australian city life as distinct from life in general’.1

While Brack’s work evolved both stylistically and technically throughout a career that spanned more than five decades, as well as witnessing distinct changes of subject matter, this focus on the human condition remained a consistent and primary theme. One of the most dramatic shifts in his practice occurred in the mid-1970s following the artist’s first experience of overseas travel when the human figure almost completely disappeared and was replaced by depictions of inanimate objects merged with images of postcards of the artefacts of ancient cultures he had seen in international museums.2 This so-called Unstill Life series marked the beginning of the second part of Brack’s oeuvre in which he constructed subtle visual metaphors using various everyday props – walking sticks, umbrellas, pens and pencils, playing cards and later, wooden artists’ manikins and Pinocchio dolls. As Sasha Grishin has explained, this approach ‘[permitted] him to express the whole complexity of social interconnections’3 and his perspective on the perennial forces of human nature was transformed from something that was decidedly local and individual, to a broader view of universal relevance.

Never, 1989 is part of the series of paintings begun in the late 1970s that features anthropomorphised pens and pencils behaving just like people, forming into groups, declaring allegiances, breaking rank, going into battle and marching in triumph. Recalling after-dinner conversations at the home of his new wife’s parents many years earlier, where ‘those old gentlemen would start refighting the battles of World War I … [picking] up their knives and forks and saltcellars … to represent the lines of troops’, Brack said, ‘My pens and pencils are the same thing.’ 4 In this painting, two opposing groups are assembled in symmetrical arrangements that curve sinuously from a point of apparent confrontation at the centre of the circular table on which they stand. Each group displays a banner of playing cards that spells out a word, although ‘Never’, reminiscent of the rhetoric of political rallies and military speeches, is the only one visible. The irony of this depiction (and of course, of all conflict) is that both groups are composed of pencils of a uniform size and similar mix of colours, and mirror each other’s shape identically – although they have different beliefs, Brack shows us that at their core, they are fundamentally the same.

Brack once said, ‘For me I think that there must always be some sort of comment, but it must never be the sort of comment that could be put into words’5 and in his late paintings he utilised all of his technical and conceptual skills to communicate meaning. The unique patterning of the marble table, a studio prop that featured in many paintings from this time, makes symbolic reference to experience and the passing of time. In conjunction with the distinctive pictorial device of an irregular frame painted within the border of the picture, this serves to point the viewer towards the examples of history, as well as highlighting the illusionistic nature of painting. As Helen Brack has explained, ‘The margins here are very important, because they are about a dark past, other ages. [John] was extremely interested in how you can use structure to say what you want to say’.6 The extraordinary level of detail and meticulous finish of paintings such as Never were the result of a labour-intensive and complex working method. Beginning with a series of preliminary sketches, Brack would construct a ‘stage-set’ in his studio and after settling on the final composition, made a carefully detailed watercolour of the tableaux as a guide. Embarking on the oil painting, he employed various aids including set squares, compasses, stencils and tracings, as well as ‘a particular commercial medium that made possible the finest lines of an 00 sable brush, or a flick, using paint as if it were on the fine point of a pen’.7

1. Brack, J., quoted in Reed, J., New Painting 1952-62, Longman, Melbourne, 1963, p. 19
2. Gott, T., A Question of Balance: John Brack 1974-1994, exhibition catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 6 – 7
3. Grishin, S., The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, p. 140
4. Brack, J., interview with Clarke, A.,’The Lone Course of John Brack’, Age, Melbourne, 4 June 1983 quoted in Lindsay, R., John Brack. A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, p. 20
5. Brack, J., speaking in Morphett, T., The Lively Arts: John Brack, ABC-TV documentary, Melbourne, 1965, quoted in Grant, K., John Brack, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p. 89
6. Brack, H., quoted in Gott, T., op. cit., p. 11
7. ibid, p. 18. See also for more detail regarding Brack’s process.


‘The Hunt’, was in 1988, as were ‘The Queen’, and ‘One Two Three Up’. ‘The Club’ was 1989 as was ‘NEVER’. ‘Sailing’ was in 1990.

John used the device of configuration in the construction of his pictures, constantly, e.g. in the dinosaur shape across 'The Battle', the primitive head in both 'Yes No' and in 'Now and Then', and the very obvious human figure in 'Tower'.

The title 'NEVER' is clear but the 3 cards, their backs facing the viewer, are not. The obvious word is ‘NOW’, and this may be so but there could simultaneously be other references. With the 3 cards not facing us, facing NEVER; NOW would spell WON from our position, making the pair of words be NEVER WON. From John’s oeuvre we know that he loved to use ambiguity so NEVER WON is possible. When we look further into the picture, the 3 letters could be END, NEVER END. All of these 4 words have congruity within the Picture, with the word NEVER.

The configuration made by the pencils within the picture is a back-to-front S shape, the S lying down, (or a 2 made into an S) but looking at the whole, the S shape and the table make a figure of 8, an image for never ending, as is the horizontal 0 of the table. ‘We came from; and we are going to,’ – so the S configuration suggests. The S is divided in the center, where the cards are, thus making 2 distinct sections, with a chasm between. The NEVER banner and the crowd of pencils behind form a crown, a V shaped head, and when the 3 front cards are included, the configuration is of an eye, as well as of a head, that frontally makes its statement; NEVER. Upon staring at the whole, the 2 sections become very different. NEVER, by the colors of its pencils, seems merciless, violent, cold and hard, there are no warm colors. The pencils configure to a wild creature that has swished around to face us – assault us – whereas the front curve of the S shape, with its 3 cards that are flesh-colored, has warm colored pencils, including yellow and warm pink, that loosely configure into the shape of a 3 dimensional arrow – with a side wall and a flat level top surface – pointing away from the center where the cards are. The arrow head is completed and there is a new set of pencils that start around the table back edge, one red pencil leader, followed by one green pencil, and almost by its side there is a very warm yellow pencil – surely the colors for the continuation of life. It is a confusion, whether the two groups clash in the center – whether the center is the culmination of force, or whether it is the end of a Time, the arrow configuration continuing the direction, but starting a new shape from the center of the S. I think the S shape answers this, this shape that is also the shape of a question mark, AND of a scythe or sickle, or even a shepherd’s crook – Yin and Yang have a similar structure. John is redefining an archetype.

It is a little interesting that the NEVER side of the table appears light – because against the dark ground of the pencil wall, but the NOW side of the table is darker, because of the lighter ground of the wall behind. Those 2 leading pencils from the arrow tip are going into an unknown, along the edge of the table, and the optimism is in the vertical stripes of the wallpaper, that flow upwards – a device John frequently used.

Is it NEVER give up, is it Continuation, that Humanity will continue – in whatever manner? On the back edge of the table, where those 3 leading pencils are leaving the NOW, there is a space, a sort of gateway against which the wallpaper stripes stream upwards, and the section that starts with the 3 cards and ends with the single pencil is a perfect half-circle. Below the table floor – underneath – there is a hot dark orange glimmer of light, as if from a furnace, from amidst a dark hot expanse – John has not used the boards of the floor, as had become his usual language. There is no flow beneath the table of lived. Is this our ancient prehistoric past from which we all come?

It is interesting that the space behind the whole tableau, that narrow irregular area that completes the picture’s rectangle, is not a black hole of nothing, of a space outside the living, as is so often the case in John’s pictures. It has the warmth of the living – but not the heat of below the Table – and there is a faintly warm stripe, as if of life, in the wallpaper.

One of the assets of a picture is, as in opera, that incompatible meanings can coexist; multiple meanings, as the cubists practiced. One intriguing illusion in this picture is that all the pencils are the same size, both back ones and front ones, but it looks as if the back ones are bigger. We look up at the back pencils, but down upon the front ones. The floor of the table, another creature-like shape as it oozes flatly around, identifies the animal shape of NEVER, and is in contrast with the semicircular cove of the other side of the table. Human savagery and civilization, both present.

The whole picture, by the mauve wallpaper with its overlay of flicked cross-hatching, suggests the light going, perhaps the ending of an era before the beginning of the next, but there are the warm stripes – are they the glimmer of light returning, not going? They may well indicate both.

The whole scene is within a corner of a room, the line of the right angles meeting to halve the picture. The darker wall is on the right side, the lighter on the left and the skirting board on the right side is faintly lighter than that on the left side. Maybe this signifies a future, not yet lived therefore unknown, but the next chance.