Hurstville, New South Wales, Australia born 1924 – 2015
K.O'd by Griffo [Straight left by Griffo] 1953 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil and synthetic polymer paint on composition board
Robert Dickerson’s gritty social realist paintings of the 1950s reflect the artist’s working-class life experience growing up in south-west Sydney. Son of a tinsmith, Dickerson was born in 1924 in Hurstville, New South Wales, and spent his childhood in the midst of the Depression. At the age of 13 he left school to take a job in a factory, training as a professional boxer in his free time and eventually touring on the boxing circuit. He had shown an early interest in art and in 1947 began painting while waiting to be demobilised after serving with the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War.
The subject of two men fighting alone in the ring was close to Dickerson and he used this experience to great effect in K.O’d by Griffo. The power of the work resides in its restricted vocabulary. Dickerson captures the boxers at the very instant Griffo’s opponent is struck down by a clean jab to his right jaw. The men are captured in the moment with only their shadows as spectators.
The self-taught artist found the Sydney art world to be at odds with his tough, pared-back figurative imagery and reduced palette. Fortuitously, Dickerson met the poet Barrett Reid in 1952 who, on seeing the artist’s work, recommended sending several paintings to renowned art patrons John and Sunday Reed at Heide in Victoria. The couple recognised the great force in Dickerson’s work and he was encouraged, in 1953, to send all his paintings in a friend’s truck to John Reed in Melbourne. In fact, K.O’d by Griffo was painted the year he first visited Heide and was illustrated in Reed’s essay on the painter, which was later published in Ern Malley’s Journal of 1955.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014
Robert Dickerson grew up during the Depression in the inner west working-class suburbs of Sydney. He left school at an early age, taking factory jobs and fighting as a professional boxer. A self-taught painter, Dickerson remained outside the Sydney ‘art scene’ of the late 1940s and 1950s. Melbourne provided a more receptive environment for his work and in 1953 he made his first visit to Heide, the home of the important patron of modern art, John Reed.
K.O.’d by Griffo was illustrated in the first article on the painter written by Reed and published in an issue of Ern Malley’s Journal in 1955. Supporters claimed that Dickerson’s working-class background and ‘30 or so professional bouts’ on the boxing circuit gave the artist his ‘immensely powerful creative vision’. These were Dickerson’s ‘life-classes’, with K.O.’d by Griffo a particularly poignant reference to his tough teenage years.1
All superfluous details have been stripped away, so the viewer is confronted by the two central figures. There is no referee, no lights and no cheering crowd. The figures are isolated, merely two wide-eyed young boys trapped in a bout, with one hapless participant K.O.’d, or knocked out, by a straight left punch from the other – cause and effect captured in single frame.
The closed setting of a boxing match may also present a metaphor for the theatrically staged ‘fight’ between Sydney abstraction and figurative painting in Melbourne. This reached a crescendo in 1959 when a number of Melbourne artists banded together and exhibited as the Antipodeans. The group included Arthur and David Boyd, Charles Blackman, John Brack, Robert Dickerson, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh, while the eminent art historian Bernard Smith orchestrated a written declaration of principles called The Antipodean Manifesto. The only Sydney artist of the group, Dickerson’s membership of the Antipodeans affirmed the personal friendships forged during the 1950s.
1See discussions in John Reed, ‘A Statement on Bob Dickerson: Painter’, Ern Malley’s Journal, vol.2, November 1955, pp.15-17; John Hetherington, ‘Robert Dickerson: Life-class (with a difference)’ in Australian Painters
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002