Tribute to John Nixon (1949–2020)

Castlemaine has many links with the artist John Nixon, who died in August. In 2017 CAM presented John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop, curated by Emma Busowsky Cox; CAM has three Nixon works in its collection; and many of Nixon’s colleagues and friends live locally. In this tribute, fellow artists Melinda Harper, Clayton Tremlett and Justin Andrews, and curator Busowsky Cox share their memories of John Nixon, each writing with affection, respect and a profound sense of loss. Here you will learn something of the artist, celebrated not only for his work but also for his generous contribution to the sector through publishing, curating and supporting other artists at all stages of their development. We extend heartfelt condolences to Nixon’s wife, Sue Cramer, and daughter, Emma Nixon, and to John’s wider art family.

John Nixon and curator Emma Busowsky Cox during installation of Experimental Painting Workshop 2017, Castlemaine Art Museum. Image supplied.

Emma Busowsky Cox
John Nixon was a gentle soul and an elegant mind, a great collaborator and teacher, intellectually curious, respectful, worldly and very funny. I was privileged to work with him on a number of occasions, including on a series of performances of The Donkey’s Tail at the National Gallery of Victoria not long after he had established the art/music ensemble. However, the exhibition John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop at Castlemaine Art Museum in 2017 remains one of my most rewarding curatorial projects. Hans Ulrich Obrist has said that the role of the curator is that of catalyst, generator and motivator—a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show. However, in working with John, all of those things flowed both ways. Through my association with him and his mentorship, my capacity as a curator and writer has been greatly extended. I am grateful to him, and will continue to draw upon his influence and the messages of his work.

My thoughts are with Sue Cramer, Emma Nixon and John’s many friends and colleagues around the world.

John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop 2017, Castlemaine Art Museum. Installation view. Copyright Estate of John Nixon, Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Melinda Harper 
I met John Nixon over thirty years ago when I was an art student at Prahran Collage. We shared a love for Constructivism and in particular the works of the women artists Lyubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova. As a young artist he encouraged me to have a strong studio practice, to keep making, and to keep exploring the endless possibilities of abstraction. John curated many exhibitions in which he included my work, he brought artists together and introduced me to many of my peers. We shared many conversations, meals, ideas, and I will miss him terribly. When my son was born John painted him a J, the initial letter of his name. And when my daughter was born he was away and time passed. My daughter reminded him when he had his exhibition at CAM and of course the next week when he arrived to hang his exhibition he delivered a C, for her. Art enriches our lives; John believed that and lived that. His work, life and friendship enriched and contributed greatly to mine. 

John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop 2017, Castlemaine Art Museum. Installation view. Copyright Estate of John Nixon, Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Clayton Tremlett
I first met John Nixon (as an art student, still in my teens) following a journey up many stairs to arrive at his Art Projects space in the 1980s. John was welcoming and generous with his time, while we discussed Art, Music and Abstraction. Etched in my memory of that day, was the contrast of his work and a torrent of water flowing down the wall next to it because of the heavy rain outside. It became clear to my young mind that John was all about experimentation and juxtaposition. This has since proved to be true, when we see the immense body of work he has produced under the Umbrella of the “Experimental Painting Workshop”.

So … it seems, life has come full circle when John has a major exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Museum in 2017 and I bring my VCE art class to engage with his work. Before seeing the exhibition, I had presented images to the class and explained the artist’s standing in contemporary Australian art and his commitment to Abstraction and Constructivism. I recall a couple of students reacting strongly, because they held the view that art should ideally represent something. Suffice to say, after Emma Busowsky Cox (curator) explained the artist’s working rationale, I could see the light bulb moment for those students. The ultimate compliment occurred back in class with one of the previously vocal students painting nothing but circles for the next month.

John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop 2017, Castlemaine Art Museum. Installation view. Copyright Estate of John Nixon, Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Justin Andrews

In 2002 I took a trip to Sydney to see EPW Orange, a solo show of John’s work at Sarah Cottier Gallery. I was struck by the clarity of the colour and complexity of the works on show, double-hung emphatically wall-to-wall throughout the entire space. It’s as if I had been presented with an index of elements to decode a whole practice by—some of them pristinely abstract, others familiarly attached to the wider world with their utilitarian, domestic inference. In that experience, John taught me his first of many lessons—art always references life and vice versa.

I had to tell John how much the show resonated with me, so fellow artist Stephen Bram lined up a meeting. John had us both over for lunch shortly afterwards. From the moment of shaking his hand and then offering my perspective over his carefully curated modest meal, I think John knew me completely. It was perfect timing for me as an emerging artist, as he provided me with a real life example of how a busy, vibrant, simultaneously local and international independent practitioner can exist. John showed me how critical and artistic rigour can be maintained in between all other areas of daily life—not in theory or by instruction, but just by being who he was and doing what he did. (read full Tribute here).

John Nixon
John Nixon is represented in Melbourne by Anna Schwartz Gallery and in Sydney by Sarah Cottier Gallery, where you can view further work and catch up with John Nixon’s biography.

Further reading
In celebration of Nixon’s work, please download a free copy of the John Nixon: Experimental Painting Workshop exhibition catalogue:

You can also purchase copies from CAM:
Castlemaine Gallery FOH-

Womindjika Woorineen willam bit
Willam Dja Dja Wurrung Balug
Wokuk mung gole-bo-turoi
talkoop mooroopook

Welcome to our homeland,
home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people
we offer you people good spirit.
Uncle Rick Nelson

The Jaara people of the Dja Dja Wurrung are the Custodians of the land and waters on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. We extend these same sentiments to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations peoples.

Enter here