Ildiko Kovacs, Serpentine, 1999
Collection: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back. He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell — he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty.
— Alan Hollinghurst1

William Hogarth’s simplistic treatise on aesthetics, The Analysis of Beauty (1753), has persisted in the art historical imagination due to his discussion of the serpentine ‘line of beauty’.2 Hogarth’s ‘S’ shaped line is everywhere evident in art and life, signifying an affirming celebration of life and movement. In contrast, the inanimate stasis of a straight line is little more than a stiff reminder of death. Hogarth’s line inspired the title of Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty (2004) and took on contemporary resonance in the corrupt and materialistic universe of Thatcher’s London. The ogee line ‘swings both ways’ in the sexually permissive backdrop of Hollinghurst’s bourgeois universe and is found as much in art and literature, as in the curve of a naked lover’s body or a ‘beautiful’ line of cocaine.

The line is the fundamental building block of representation. To strip back the components of form is to reveal an intersecting network of lines, be they serpentine or straight. Take away the line and bear witness to a mark or point – the moment of inception for a drawn or painted line. Paul Klee described the point as ‘an infinitely small planar element, an agent carrying out zero motion, i.e. resting’.3 With mobility comes change and the point becomes a line through movement: ‘a point that sets itself in motion (genesis of form)’.4 The line emerges from a kind of nothingness, and in doing so navigates space, contemplating time. Before being coopted by figuration, the line navigates space, pushing through a landscape sprung forth from a simple mark. For Klee, the line ‘goes out for a walk so to speak, aimlessly for the sake of the walk’.5 It comes as no surprise that the line, as a peripatetic agent of change, should become a bottomless ground for metaphor. By ‘walking’ to assert itself, line becomes land, becoming time, labyrinthine.

Over three decades leading Australian artist, Ildiko Kovacs, has amassed a striking body of abstract paintings and drawings that reveal a unique and singular sensibility. Situated somewhere between the line and the land, Kovacs has developed a gestural visual language drawn from abstraction’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous ties. Ildiko Kovacs: Down the Line 1980-2010 reveals how line motivates her practice and endures as the key element to generate form and meaning. Kovacs has described the line as metaphor for landscape6 as well as a personification of her own nature.7 Where Klee was interested in the process of point becoming line, line becoming plane and plane becoming body, Kovacs insists that her own body, memory and identity is impregnated on the surface of the work through the sinewy, ropey and looping contour of line. Sioux Garside has noted that line stands in for time and temporality in Kovacs’s work: ‘The metaphor of time unfolding like a line in space perfectly elucidates the calligraphic approach of Ildiko Kovacs as she paints the luscious curves and entwined arabesques seen in these monumental yet minimal abstractions’.

The line as a singular, repeated and obsessive trope took its time materialising in her work. Kovacs attended the National Art School (NAS) in 1979–80, where she was taught and influenced by artists John Peart, Roy Jackson, Bill Brown and Michael Johnson. Despite the generally male–dominated character of the time, Kovacs names the enthusiasm and support of NAS head teacher, Olga Kardos, as instrumental. Kovacs’s output at this time is characterised by a frenzied gestural fervor in keeping with the exuberance of youthful ambition and the discovery of paint’s materiality. The earliest paintings selected for Down the Line are Crowded Square (1980–81), Autonomy II (1983) and Red, Black and White (1986). They are assured examples of an artist committed to developing a unique and intuitive visual grammar, while also responding to the influence of Australian painters including Tony Tuckson, Ian Fairweather, Aida Tomescu, Yvonne Audette, and Indigenous practitioners John Mawurndjul, Turkey Tolson, Paddy Bedford, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. American painters Philip Guston, Cy Twombly and Brice Marden are also lasting influences. Kovacs describes Twombly and Tuckson in particular as having given her ‘a kind of permission to paint, to trust my intuition’.9

Nicolas Rothwell has pointed out that Kovacs’s traditional Hungarian upbringing also reveals a strong European influence, which ‘points to the mystical strains in modernism that were first set in motion by Malevich, Kliun and even Mondrian’.10 The line as a form-generating mark responsible for animating transformations in how the world is experienced and perceived was particularly important for Malevich. The way Malevich theorised line is instructive when thinking about the shifts occurring in Kovacs’s work from the late 1980s. Malevich wrote in 1927:

It was through the conscious line—through being conscious of the line before focusing consciousness on the object—that the artist could cognize not the object itself but what lay within that object: the non-objective forces that give structure and movement to it, to the world of space and time as such… Art would express a perception, whether it was an intuitive thought or sensation, and transform this non-objective sensation into knowing.11

Following from the expressionistic early work, Kovacs refined her approach to the picture plane by experimenting with a ‘less is more’ approach. Line is pushed into forms that teeter nervously on figuration, only to remain lyrically abstract and calculatingly sparse. A cluster of Untitled paintings from 1987 to 1990 clearly demonstrate an artist attempting to strip back and empty out—conscious of the elements that lay beneath recognisable objects, the ‘non-objective forces’ structuring form. Aside from attributing titles to the early works, her output in the eighties is mostly ‘untitled’, implying a reluctance to impose language or direct narrative meaning. The bravura diptypch Song for a Winter Day (1989) is a rare titular exception, its assured gestural brushstrokes dominating a ground of nothingness that beckons beneath the gestural brushstrokes.

The supporting underwash evident in paintings like Song for a Winter Day hint at the ‘void’—an ominous vacuum that was to eclipse her work entirely, activating the new decade and calling for change. Kovacs immersed herself in the swirling oblivion of the monochromatic void to reject past baggage, take stock of her visual grammar, and investigate the idea that something exists in nothing. Washes of paint collapse into bold colour fields of melancholy intensity. These paintings were produced during a ‘difficult time’, as she explains in a letter to the late Hugh Jamieson—an early supporter who collected her work for Allens Arthur Robinson:

The struggle within myself became the work, literally painting through the confusion, discovering space, searching for images, searching for colour, constantly rejecting everything I did. The works began to take on a dialogue through this process of reworking, where the layers of paint, when rubbed out, still remained slightly transparent. The thought in action of removing becomes as important as the reapplication.12

Kovacs was exhibiting with Garry Anderson Gallery during this period, first in a 1987 group show, followed by solo exhibitions in 1988, 1989 and 1991. After Anderson died in 1991, Kovacs produced one of her last void paintings, In Memory of Garry. Layered washes of red paint form a solid stain of colour that pulsates with life and energy like a menacing wall of blood threatening to congeal. Considering Anderson died from an AIDS-related illness, the allusion to blood is inexorable.

From blood comes shape. The self-prompted crisis initiated by the void paintings led Kovacs to rouse shape from the negated surface. Shapes were placed on the canvas, suspended against a minimal backdrop, reluctantly committing to form as much as they summon substance against a cavernous emptiness. For Love and Cockatoo (both 1993) are striking examples of this shift, the sunny palette of yellows and whites optimistically bursting through the darkly analytical mood of the void period. Shape materialised as a precursor to line, setting the scene for an explosion of bold muscular line work that would become her signature style. In response to her transition from shape to line, John Peart writes: ‘Shapes become lines which spring and flex, or they can be taut and pliable. They can writhe and accelerate and slow in hypnotic sequence’.13

Line emerged for Kovacs as a mapping device, enticing movement and temporality while sparking an ongoing tension between positive and negative space. Alfred’s Journey (1993) is a case in point. Against a sparse expanse are several irregular shapes connected across the canvas by a meandering line. The sunburnt palette evokes the land, the brown line and shapes referring to the residual trace of a journey where the trail has been etched into the earth.

Slow Roam (1995) dispenses with shape in pursuit of a languorous weaving line. Like an aerial view of the landscape glimpsed from an airplane window, Kovacs’s paintings reveal the unpredictable residue of movement across space. The earthy ‘slowness’ of Slow Roam contrasts the ‘in the moment’ vigour and lurid colour combinations of a work from the same year, Travelling Pink Line. Prolific collectors of Kovacs’s work, Colin and Liz Laverty, generously loaned these works and more to this exhibition. Ann Lewis AO is also another faithful patron of Kovacs’s work. In 2009, Lewis bequested several of her works to the Museum of Contemporary Art, including Serpentine (1999). A concertina like choreography spreads across Serpentine’s three panels, gesturing hesitantly towards an approximation of symmetry. Quite literally is Hogarth’s serpentine ‘line of beauty’ realised in this masterful work.

Following Anderson’s death, Kovacs mounted several solo shows at the space she occupied at Sylvester Studios/Selenium Gallery in Sydney. During the nineties Kovacs also held shows at Mary Place Gallery in Sydney and Christine Abrahams Gallery, who represented her in Melbourne from 1998 until closing in 2008. Kovacs secured commercial representation in Sydney with Martin Browne Fine Art in 2001, the opening of her first solo show coinciding with the horrific events of September 11.

It was during the last decade that the artist’s style matured, where her command of the line had become resolved. Her enormous output speaks volumes about her newfound confidence in this visual language. ‘It takes strength of intellect to trust one’s innate sense of structure and to abandon yourself to the process’, she observes.14 Kovacs proves her bold intuitive approach by painting directly onto canvas or board with no need for a preliminary drawing plan. Automatism is evoked without submitting to the unconsciousness-raising mind games of surrealism. Fig (2001), Seaweed (2002) and Gathering (2002) show a grasp of paint’s materiality, effervescent application of colour, and a dazzling ability to sculpt line as if it is a three-dimensional form rendered flat. Thus, her paintings shimmer with sculptural presence and vibrate with rich energy and passion. Kovacs always couches the work in emotional terms, pointing to the work’s interior life as akin to her own. The shifts from her youthful expressionistic work to the void to the line coincide with transitions in her life.

Change animates emotion, rendering it a palpable force in paint. Over the last decade the enduring impact of Indigenous art has been particularly felt. Kovacs’s work initiates a productive dialogue between Western traditions of abstraction and Indigenous art. Due to the support of Colin and Liz Laverty, who purchased Slow Roam and Travelling Pink Line from her studio exhibition in 1995, Kovacs was able to live and work in Broome for 10 months the following year. It was here she experienced first-hand the power of Indigenous art. Since then Kovacs has made several outback trips to deepen her practice by engaging directly with Indigenous art and artists.

Felicity Fenner curated Kovacs into Talking About Abstraction at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in 2004. This exhibition explored the influence of Aboriginal painting on contemporary non-Indigenous artists in Australia. Fenner sets up a useful conceptual distinction between how authority versus authenticity has been understood in relation to Indigenous art: ‘Though it’s a perceived “authenticity” that attracts some investmentcollectors, it is the sense of authority that attracts non-Indigenous artists to Aboriginal painting’.15 Kovacs is one such artist working today who gracefully proposes the authority of Indigenous art without claiming a manufactured sense of cultural authenticity. In 2008 Kovacs experienced a shared creative exchange with an Indigenous painter by travelling to Fitzroy Crossing to collaborate with Wakartu Cory Surprise.16 Around this time, Kovacs began showing with Raft Artspace in Alice Springs, a gallery that innovatively showcases Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.

Kovacs’s presence in an exhibition like Almanac: The Gift of Ann Lewis at the Museum of Contemporary Art is an example of how this interaction can play out between Indigenous and non-Indigenous art and artists. Curator Glenn Barkley indicates how an exhibition like Almanac elicits ‘a dialogue begins between a Western, and very Australian form based on observation of the natural world, as opposed to imagery deeply imbued with a sense of the spiritual and anchored from being within the landscape’.17

Within that very landscape is constant movement and mapping for Kovacs. Her most recent work (some of which has shown at Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide) continues to respond intuitively to the land, while also looking within to promulgate emotion and sensation. ‘As people move from place to place across the landscape, paths become lines traced on the land’, writes Roy Jackson of her work.18 Certainly the path remains evident and more ‘road like’ through the shape of the paint roller now used to trace a line through the plane. The consistent width of the paint roller suggests highways that run parallel, intersect and loop in irregular formations. The dynamic use of green, yellow and brown tones sprout forth like plant life adorning the road. Acacia (2010) beautifully evokes waving leaves. The glowing lines of Flicker (2009) coalesce into blocks of pulsing colour as the thick parallel stripes of Heatwave (2009) enliven a scorched terrain.

Line and colour have long been divided art historically, especially where drawing is concerned. The seemingly feminine nature of colour was kept in line so to speak. A suppression of colour was long maintained to ensure the integrity of the line. Kovacs’s paintings and drawings push line and colour to achieve what one critic called ‘optical fizz’.19 Emotional intensity is conjured by Kovacs along with the vibratory power that haunts the land. The ‘line of beauty’ for Ildiko Kovacs is as much ‘the snakelike flicker of an instinct’ as it is the fully blown range of life’s rich colours exploding before our very eyes.

Ildiko Kovacs, Down the Line, 2010
Private Collection
  1. Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty, London: Picador, 2004.
  2. William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty [1753], London: Paul Mellon Centre, 1997.
  3. Paul Klee, ‘Contributions to a Theory of Pictorial Form: lecture notes from the Bauhaus at Weimer and at Dessau’ [1921], reprinted in Paul Klee Notebooks, vol.1, The Thinking Eye, ed. Jurg Spiller. London: Lund Humphries, 1961.
  4. Klee, ibid.
  5. Klee, ibid.
  6. Ildiko Kovacs, artist statement in Autumn Catalogue 2007: Australian, New Zealand and International Works of Art, Martin Browne Fine Art, 2007.
  7. Jane O’Sullivan, ‘Ildiko Kovacs’, Art Collector 53, July-September, 2010.
  8. Sioux Garside, Crossing Paths, Martin Browne Fine Art, 2003.
  9. Ildiko Kovacs, email to the author, 17 February 2010.
  10. Nicolas Rothwell, PAINT, Raft Artspace, 2008.
  11. Kazimir Malevich, quoted in Patricia Railing, ‘The Cognitive Line in Russian Avant-Garde Art’, Leonardo 31, no 1, 1998.
  12. Ildiko Kovacs, letter sent to Hugh Jamieson, 28 August 1991.
  13. John Peart, ‘Ildiko Kovacs: Thoughts on Her Work’, Ildiko Kovacs, Martin Brown Fine Art, 2001.
  14. Ildiko Kovacs, email to the author, ibid.
  15. Felicity Fenner, Talking About Abstraction, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, University of New South Wales-College of Fine Arts, 2004.
  16. See Louise Martin-Chew, ‘Collaborations: Wakartu Cory Surprise & Ildiko Kovacs’, Australian Aboriginal Art 1, March-May, 2009.
  17. Glenn Barkley, Almanac: The Gift of Ann Lewis AO, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2009.
  18. Roy Jackson, Ildiko Kovacs, Christine Abrahams Gallery, 2002.
  19. Sebastian Smee, ‘Candy Daring’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 1998.

Curatorial text for book monograph published on the occasion of Ildiko Kovacs: Down the Line 19802010 at Hazelhurst Art Gallery, 13 May 2011 – 3 July 2011.

Published by Hazelhurst Art Gallery in 2011.

Buy now