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John Coburn, Various Works

John Coburn, Summer and other works

John Coburn profile

The Artist

John Coburn must be one of the most iconic Australian abstraction artists of the Twentieth Century. His images are recognisable for their shapes, styles and imagery.  Born on the 23rd September 1925 in Ingham, Queensland, John Coburn  went to boarding school at All Souls in Charters Towers and left school at 15 to work in a local bank. In 1942, at the age of 17, he joined the navy where he became a radio operator. At the war’s end he returned to a bank job in far western Queensland but after only a few months he fled to Sydney intending to enrol as a full-time art student under the Ex-Serviceman’s Rehabilitation Scheme at the East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst (later to become the National Art School). After missing the deadline to enter the art school, he presented art teacher Frank Norton with a parcel of drawings of warships. Norton took one look at the sketches and announced: “You’re in!” (Art Collector Web-site).

He graduated in 1952 and became a teacher at the art school before joining the ABC as a graphic designer between 1956 and 1959. He held his first one-man show in 1957 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Melbourne. A year later he held his first exhibition with legendary Melbourne dealers Anne and Thomas ‘Tam’ Purves at Australian Galleries, and has been represented by Australian in Melbourne ever since, although in the past three years he has struck up a successful exhibiting relationship with Vic Stafford’s Armadale gallery, Axia Modern Art.

In 1966 his career took a momentous detour when he was invited to design tapestries for the world-renowned Aubusson Workshops, 250 kilometres south of Paris. He moved to France three years later to live in the Paris suburb of Croissy-sur-Seine and achieved almost immediate fame with his designs for the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon for the new Sydney Opera House; while a series of seven tapestries, The Creation, presented to the USA as a gift from the Australian Government, were hung in the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Years later he recalled: “The move to France could have been a humble failure, but in fact it was a great success. My paintings were beginning to sell and I kept hoping that cheques would turn up in the mail so that we would have enough money to stay in Paris, and they did.”

During the 1970s, emboldened by his European experience and successful solo exhibitions in both Paris and New York, Coburn had gained sufficient confidence to embark on his own artistic mission: to develop a distinctly Australian abstract visual language. He sought a confluence of Western European culture, the Roman Catholic religion, Aboriginal spirituality and nature. His international influences were Matisse, Miro, Mondrian and Picasso and Rothko. His agnostic con-temporaries watched in fascination as Coburn religiously pursued his holy abstractions. To those who wondered about the single-mindedness of his enterprise, Coburn replied: “There’s nothing worse than an artist who continually changes style. My work is still evolving and developing along the same path.”

Coburn had been brought up an Anglican but converted to Catholicism in 1953 when he married Barbara Woodward, who would become one of the country’s foremost silk-screen printers. Her death in 1985 following a long illness was one of the most traumatic episodes in his life. It cast him into a period of personal suffering reflected in the dark colours and deathly images of that period. His search for an Australian iconography in spirituality seemed to have come to a dead end in the form of repetition. He then married Doreen Gadsby, an impressionist landscape artist, in what became an artistically productive partnership. ‘’We were students at the same art school, the East Sydney tech, although we didn’t know each other well then,’’ he said in an interview at the time of their marraige. ‘’Doreen is very vital, full of life.’’

While he never strayed from his Catholic convictions, his approach became more liberal and less dogmatic. In 1991 he told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Deidre Macpherson: “Basically, I believe in the teaching of the Church. But I do feel quite strongly that the Church is way behind contemporary culture. People are leaving the Church today in droves because what they’re teaching doesn’t relate to them. People need spiritual guidance and I’m a Christian because I learnt Western European culture. If I was born in India I’d be a Hindu or a Buddhist – which are equally as valid as Christianity.”

A large collection of Coburn's work is held by the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. he is also represented in many other state galleries. The British Museum owns three lithographs all from 1990 which were given by the Australian Print Workshop.

John Coburn passed away after a long illness aged 81 on the 9th November 2006

Summer by John Coburn

The Works of Art

The University of Canberra holds three works of art by John Coburn. The first was acquired in 1973 and is an oil on thin canvas work, titled 'Sentinel'. The work is a fantastic composition of shapes on a sky blue background. There is movement in these forms which belies Coburn's focus on abstractionism closely linked with spirituality.

Colours have particular meaning with Coburn. Reds and oranges which are shown in Yangan, acquired by the University of Canberra in 2014 (but was created in 1980) is associated with fire and the vibrancy of life. The colour blue which is shown in Sentinel is associated with the night and sadness. The bright yellow and gold leaf which can be seen in 'Summer', is an allusion to the rich Byzantine traditions. Yet according to Nevill Drury, some of Coburn's works transcend colour altogether. In the Cloud of Unknowing- a homage to Rothko, the Godhead speaks to us from the Void, a level of being beyond manifested form.

Sentinel by John Coburn Yangan by John Coburn

Created in 1988 and acquired by the University of Canberra in 2004, 'The Summer' is a limited edition silkscreen print which was a design for a tapestry and part of a series titled, the four seasons of nature. It is an incredibly bright work that is full of movement, life, colour and spirituality. There is a sense of God, surrounded by his creation in a garden. This is clearly depicted by the bright sun touching many of the forms in the picture. The work is a celebration of life.

The third work in the University of Canberra's Art Collection, Yangan, was created in 1980 and acquired by the University in 2014. As noted above, it reflects the bright reds and oranges giving the work vibrancy. Although abstract, one can almost visualize figures with arms upraised in joy.

A strong sense of spirituality can be seen many of John Coburn's works of art. Religious imagery may take the form of the menorah, the chalice and even a stone-henge. John Coburn's works are the Twentieth Century's answer to some of the great religious works of the past but in a new way of thinking and in seeing.

John Coburn, He Took the Cup


Art Collector, John Coburn,

The Art of the Clear, Precise and Joyful, Sydney Morning Herald, 9th November 2006,

John Coburn, Curator's art file, University of Canberra

John Coburn,