Edwin Tanner: Mathematical Expressionist

Edwin Tanner The Hollow Men 1966How do you describe an artist whose work deftly and often wittily combines a diverse range of interests and expertise, including engineering, mathematics, aeronautics and analytic philosophy, together with a great passion for literature, poetry, music and art?

In the catalogue for his 1961 solo exhibition, Australian artist Edwin Tanner (1920-1980) was described as the sole member of the class “mathematical expressionists”.

The title aptly describes Tanner’s remarkable ability to seamlessly integrate in his paintings the spare and linear draughtsmanship and carefully balanced design of his engineering profession, with a poetic sensibility for subtly modulated colour, muted tones and vivid evocations of stillness and space.

“TarraWarra Museum of Art is committed to expanding access to and awareness of artists held in our significant collection of Australian art,” says Director, Victoria Lynn. “The collection was donated to the Museum by our founding patrons Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AC. Edwin Tanner is an artist whose work was collected in depth and he is represented in our collection by six paintings, all of which will feature in this survey.”

This exhibition, the first survey since the retrospective at the Monash University Gallery in 1990, will explore a number of different facets and periods of Tanner’s oeuvre. The 1950s paintings range from representational works with autobiographical references to his various experiences as a professional engineer, a public servant, a champion cyclist, a student of philosophy, and aircraft pilot, to more schematic works in which machines are seen to take on human traits and people are transformed into mechanised entities.

The 1960s sees a greater range of experimentation with textured surfaces, construction and relief techniques, and assemblages of different media through which he explores a broad range of literary, philosophical, and autobiographical themes. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, his conceptual investigations continue in a more abstracted mode, in which finely calibrated lines and shapes are precisely composed amid large fields of colour.

Curator Anthony Fitzpatrick says the exhibition will provide an opportunity for new audiences to encounter and engage with a broad range of works by this extraordinary Australian artist. “With the recent rise of artificial intelligence, widespread automation, innovation in robotics and ever proliferating digitalisation of everyday life,” said Fitzpatrick.

“It is a timely opportunity to revisit the work of an artist who, as a professional engineer, was intimately involved in the development and construction of the machinery and infrastructure which have helped to shape our increasingly automated technological environment.”

Tanner once described himself as “preoccupied with the circuitry of the species”, and many of his works reflect his awareness of how, through the increasingly fluid interrelationships between humans and technology, we are alternately emancipated and ensnared, connected and isolated. As the art critic Margaret Plant described in 1970, Tanner’s inventions are “a prophetic satire of the age of cybernetic serendipity.”

Edwin Tanner: Mathematical Expressionist includes over 60 paintings and drawings from 1952 to 1980, which have been drawn from major public and private collections, including several works from the TarraWarra Museum of Art collection. The exhibition also features archival material, including photos, sketches, and engineering documentation, as well as a number of poems written by Tanner, to further enrich appreciation of the diverse talents of this polymath artist.

Edwin Tanner: Mathematical Expressionist
TarraWarra Museum of Art, 313 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville
Exhibition continues to 15 July 2018
Admission fees apply

For more information, visit: www.twma.com.au for details.

Image: Edwin Tanner The Hollow Men 1966, oil on canvas 124.5 x 145.5 cm. Private collection © The Estate of Edwin Tanner. Courtesy Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne – image courtesy of Bonhams

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