Rewind: Off the Wall; In the Air: A Seventies Selection

By Jennifer Phipps

In 1991 Jenepher Duncan asked me to curate an exhibition on Australian art of the 1970s, for ACCA and for Monash University Art Gallery.  I selected the exhibition outside my work hours as exhibitions curator at the State Library of Victoria where I ran four exhibition spaces.

Off the Wall/In the Air: A Seventies Selection – 143 works of art by less than 100 artists were installed over the two Galleries, both of which had large and small display rooms. ACCA showed more of the earlier art, Monash focussed on the later, including representation of the Women’s Art Movement.  I felt it was important to show how the Women’s Art Movement was radical, free and cheeky in ways that were somewhat overlooked by the early 1990s. 

Cutting out a 10 year space from the making of art is a convenient, but arbitrary way to select an exhibition, but doesn’t reflect the way artists work. I selected a John Brack Self Portrait, painted as a series of reflections, to indicate a wider world, but included no late abstract expressionist artists of the Australian 1970s.

Jenepher Duncan and her staff worked between Monash and ACCA.  They made life easy for a guest curator – nothing was a problem – and we installed late into the night, with the Shrine of Remembrance across the road looking like a Hollywood set in fog and floodlights. ACCA’s front right room was the office and here I listened to Jenepher’s rapid phone conversations, discussing detailed budgets and timetables from memory; then switching seamlessly to the selection of art works, considerations of which artists were relevant even if half forgotten, and so on.

With permission, we remade an Ian Milliss foam rubber floor piece, originally from Sydney’s pioneering Inhibodress Gallery, so that visitors trod on a sculpture. 

Off the Wall was also about political art of the 1970s, so there were several works by, for example, the great conceptual and minimal artist Ian Burn. That did not prevent Mike Parr, who was in the exhibition, from criticising me for leaving out John Nixon and other conceptual and minimal artists. Such is the life of curators – and why should it not be so, for no exhibition is perfect, even one on Vermeer.


The exhibition Off the Wall/In the Air: A Seventies Selection was held at ACCA from 3 July–10 August 1991.

Jennifer Phipps is now writing, curating and researching in the recent art of former colonies.