This self-taught painter was uninterested in art-world acclaim, preferring to paint for himself and let his techniques evolve on his own whims
Gunter Christmann died last November, so he won’t see the first retrospective of his 50-year career. But he wasn’t the type of artist who cared to comment on his paintings. He preferred to let them speak for themselves.
Born in Berlin and based in Sydney, Gunter is best known for his abstract and figurative works. He produced hard-edged colourfield paintings in the ’60s, playful “sprinkle” paintings in the ’70s, and vivid “rubbish” paintings, inspired by wind-blown heaps of city litter, in the ’80s. He was also a graffitist who incorporated his own tag, OZKAR, into a memorable mid-’90s series of graffiti paintings.
What’s distinctive about Gunter’s work is the evolution of style and the way that the weight of the painting is nearly always concentrated at the top of the canvas. It draws your eye up; it inverts your usual way of looking at an artwork. Gunter liked to give a birds-eye view of whatever he was painting and his geometric abstractions show an enduring interest in “terra subpede” – the earth underfoot.
Always an inner-city dweller, Gunter lived with his artist wife Jenny in Darlinghurst and wandered around the gritty streets for inspiration. His wife’s figure appears in various guises throughout the exhibition at Heide. In hazy urban streetscapes, she is a coated figure seen from behind. Curator Lesley Harding believes that she was Gunter’s sounding board, critic and muse rolled into one. "Jenny was his wife, his critic, his constant collaborator. They met in 1962, so she was the one who encouraged him to go to art school and was there right from the start," she says. "There is a whole series of his work that relates to her. She was both muse and mentor."
Gunter responded to life, specifically inner-city life, as he saw and as he lived it. He also respected nature and the random, beautiful chaos it creates around us. He occasionally imposed mathematical limitations upon his work as a challenge, restricting himself to numbers of items or collections of lines.
He had a few unshakeable principles by which he always abided. First and foremost, not to follow fashionable trends. He painted to please himself. Secondly, to preserve the autonomy of each painting, to make sure each vital element had its unique place in the picture. And last but not least, to celebrate chance.
When Gunter was diagnosed with cancer, he refused treatment. He continued to make splatter and shaker box paintings right up until his death. Ultimately, as an artist, he wasn’t interested in style. He was interested in integrity.