Margaret Worth by Mary Eagle
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
Waves of energy galvanise the work. Depending on where we stand and the path our eyes take, the movement flows vertically or across the canvas from right to left. When we walk from one side of the work to the other, the diamond‑shaped canvas seems to buckle and the pulsation in the waves to change.
Margaret Worth’s mental image for Sukhāvati no 5 1967 was of ‘the ribbons of light that, flowing from the male/ female Kuan Yin, connect the pied world of human affairs with the Sukhāvati or “pure land of ultimate bliss”’.(1)
The longer we look the more complex are the optical effects. Within each pair of complementary colours—purple/yellow and red/green—the waves differ in vibrancy, form and tone. Colour modelling has the optical effect of projecting forward the centre line in each pair. The neutral colours have their own action. The brown centre, widest and slowest of waves, is linked by colour and tone to its adjacent primary colours. The outermost yellow‑brown and pink‑mauve colours (which do not link with their adjacent colours) relate with other hues across the canvas by a series of sideways leaps.
The Fragments and Sukhāvati series were begun in 1966, Worth’s final year at the South Australian School of Art, and completed the next year. Following a coming‑out exhibition in mid‑1967, she exchanged Sukhāvati no 5 for a sculpture by her co‑exhibitor, Nigel Lendon. The hard‑edge style Lendon and Worth had adopted was then a leading mode internationally. Worth’s introduction was through Sydney Ball, her teacher, lover and soon‑to‑be husband. Eleven years older than her 21 years, and well educated in contemporary art, Ball had returned from New York in 1965 to make an instant reputation with his Canto series of tondos.
Style is external to how an artist employs it. Of this couple who had ‘bonded magnetically because we spoke the same language’.(2) it is beside the point to ask who initiated the undulant forms that marked Worth’s 1966–67 series and made an almost simultaneous appearance in Ball’s work. From the outset, personal qualities of sensibility, temperament and life‑experience separated Worth and her pure‑form paintings from Ball and his relatively more complex designs. Worth undertook university studies in mathematics and philosophy before embarking on an abstract form of art. Likewise, Ball’s background in architectural drafting led him, in his hard‑edge phase, to hint at historical archetypes and lock a number of components into a frontal, flat and stable design. Worth was typical of her (minimal and conceptual) generation of artists in cutting to the essence. Her art is typified (still) by taut energy and kinetic effects that are as pure and mathematically tuned as music. The instantaneous, jubilant mobility of Sukhāvati no 5 is characteristic.
(1) Margaret Worth, in conversation with Mary Eagle, September 2019.
(2) As above.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Eagle, Mary. "Margaret Worth" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 372-373.
MARY EAGLE is is an art historian, curator, critic and author and former Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia.