Important Fine Art + Indigenous Art
29 November 2017


(1925 – 2006)

oil on composition board

91.5 x 122.0 cm

signed lower right: Coburn.
signed, dated and inscribed with title verso: JOHN COBURN “TABLELAND” … / 11/688 OLD STH HD RD ROSE BAY 9/60

$20,000 – 30,000
Sold for $61,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 52 - 29 November 2017, Melbourne

Peter Laverty, Sydney, acquired directly from the artist in 1960 (label attached verso)
Thence by descent
Private collection, Sydney


Klepac, L., John Coburn: The Spirit of Colour, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2003, pl. 33, pp. 57 (illus.), 213

Catalogue text

1960 was an important year for John Coburn; he won the prestigious Blake Prize for religious art, enabling the artist to buy his first house, which importantly came with a garage that of course was quickly converted into his studio. It was also the year he held his third solo exhibition in Sydney at the Macquarie Galleries, which attracted enthusiastic responses including that of the budding art critic Robert Hughes:

‘Coburn is unlike any other significant Australian non-figurative painter in that his work is deadpan, unmarked by the evidence of struggle which gives other abstracts their peculiar intensity. He pushes his greens and pinks and rusty browns around the canvas until they fall, almost with audible click, into place. It may all look effortless and inevitable, as though the problems of painting had given way to those of assembling a jigsaw puzzle. His intuition does not, it seems, unfold itself during the final creative act; everything is thought out beforehand …

… Mr Coburn is an ideographic painter, and like others of his kind he works in a rigid range of symbols, in conformity with the traditions of ideographic art, with as little personal flourish as possible … the essence of Mr Coburn’s vision is its dedicated, sustained search for a visual equivalent to the underlying order of nature – whatever it is that binds rocks, earth, fruit, sun, sky, flowers and people into an immense whole. He has a great deal to say; he proceeds slowly, and his work records the blind alleys as well as the steps forward, but this near-religious ambition gives it an impressive inner coherence’.1

Hughes begins with an interesting observation because, at the time, abstract painting in Sydney was very much a lyrical affair. Many painters presented their abstract works as ‘landscapes’ and therefore organic colour and curves were staple features. Coburn’s broad primordial forms, with their slabs of secondary colour, must have come as a cool antidote to the wristy arabesques of the likes of Passmore and Olsen. As though compensating for the lack of lyricism in the work, the artist adds foreign matter such as sand to the paint in order to add complexity to the surface. The resulting richly textured surface serves to enhance the otherwise austere forms which make up much of the work.

In Tableland, 1960, the moon or sun hangs high in the sky and anchors the work as ‘a landscape’. This circular form also acts as a counterpoint to the angular planes, as well as giving a domestic scale to the shapes which make up the painting. These forms rise on two sturdy vertical trunks which support the notion of a tableland within the landscape, the floating forms nudging the images gently in the direction of the later works for which the artist is best known.

John Coburn’s popularity has endured and continued to grow steadily over many years, and through his many solo exhibitions, important commissions and prestigious awards he has well and truly cemented his place in the canon of Australian painting.

1. Hughes, R., ‘Coburn Jigsaws’, Nation, Sydney, 19 November 1960